After working 11 years at Boston Children’s Hospital, John Brownstein, Ph.D., now has a new role at the institution: Chief Innovation Officer. As the successor to Naomi Fried who held the position for nearly five years, Brownstein is excited to build-off her successful innovation model. Brownstein’s experiences of creating a population health company, Epidemico, co-founding HealthMap and teaching as an associate professor at Harvard Medical School have provided him with a diverse set of skills to lead BCH’s Innovation Acceleration Program (IAP).
We sat down with Brownstein to get his thoughts on his new role and where he sees opportunity for collaboration with the greater Boston community.
How do you feel about your new role as the CIO at Boston Children’s Hospital, and how will you build off Naomi Fried’s success?
I am thrilled to be in this position. I have been at Boston Children’s for 11 years, and have built-up an incubator of software developers, computer scientists and statisticians who think about how new technology can fuel healthcare and population health. We have done a lot of innovation in our own bubble, but now we have the opportunity to extend that broadly to improving healthcare beyond the hospital.
I spun Epidemico out of BCH, and Booz Allen Hamilton acquired Epidemico last year. This is a nice example of how if you can harness the entrepreneurial spirit at the hospital, bring that idea through a pathway to commercialize on that technology, then it has opportunities to not only improve research and our understanding of population health but also to expand outside of BCH.
There are a number of amazing scientists and researchers, many of who have an entrepreneurial side and want to see their ideas grow. Right now, we are focusing on how to foster the growth of these ideas inside the hospital and outside – connecting researchers and clinicians with networks of developers, companies and funders to bring the Boston start-up and innovation community together. That is a big part of what we are trying to do.
What are the long-term goals of the Innovation Acceleration Program (IAP), and are there opportunities to collaborate outside of BCH?
Absolutely. We recognize that we have some amazing strengths at the hospital, but we are not in a position to think that we can do everything. We have to think about the collaborations that are out there, whether it’s the start-up community or the existing expertise in Boston that is available on data and software development.
A big part of what we’re doing is both top-down and bottom-up approaches. How do you energize the entrepreneurs at the hospital? And how do we work to build a hospital of the future, working with some of the larger companies to strategize on how to scale the know-how that already exists at BCH beyond the walls of the hospital?
Part of the mission of the IAP is the concept of grassroots innovation. How do you plan to encourage and continue the spirit of innovation, and what is it that most inspires some of the projects that emerge from the IAP?
We are working to build a better documentation of the idea pathway, such as, what are the tools that are available to the investigator that is looking to do something in the space? … There are a number of different funding resources as well, but thinking about what stage is right for what funding source and at what point we begin to think about accelerating certain ideas is important. We focus on taking leading edge ideas, developing a business and commercialization strategy and how external parties can fund these projects. Right now, there is a big focus on digital health.
What is the most challenging part of this idea lifecycle?
There are a lot of really great ideas. There is sort of a mission-based versus commercial-based difference between them though. Some ideas are more oriented toward BCH’s mission, but that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily the right fit for a commercial strategy. It’s about being honest as to where the ideas are best suited. Working with outside collaborators is critical to finding the best fit for these ideas.
Would you say that there are certain skills from your previous experiences that will help you most in your new position?
I have a diverse set of skills. I have managed a software team and thought about the design approach and quick iterations in the development of technology rather than spending a huge amount of time just planning. My research and development team is nimble, so it’s about getting some of the best ideas and trying them out before putting in a huge amount of resources.
I think a lot about the idea of bringing novel data sources and technology to clinical care. For example, data sources from social media or from wearables and other sources can begin to re-imagine how care is delivered. We have a long-standing relationship with several companies and funders, for example, Silicon Valley companies such as Google and Twitter. I recently ran a project last year with UberHealth so we have done a good job of bringing out some of the concepts in healthcare and leveraging those with larger companies out there.
Have there been any surprises in your role thus far, and what are you most excited for going forward?
I have been impressed by everyone! It’s been amazing to work with people who are open to changing the ways in which we deal with the outside world and the ways in which we spin-off efforts. There are many parts of the hospital that are involved, and I think there is a real openness to working together.
The team has been great at coming up with innovations, such as making tweaks to clinical care or new devices. What I am really excited about is leaping over into how we actually get these concepts imbedded into clinical care, and that is going to be challenging, but we are doing a lot to think about that.
Also, unearthing some of the entrepreneurs at the hospital that are generally in their own little bubble – like myself, sometimes – and giving them the resources they need to be successful. We are working together to help accelerate some of the great ideas that are coming out of the hospital.
Olivia Japlon is currently the eHealth Programs Coordinator at the Massachusetts eHealth Institute (MeHI), the state agency charged with promoting the adoption and use of health IT. She graduated from Tufts University in 2013, double majoring in Spanish and Community Health. Olivia remains connected to Tufts by volunteering at local events, and is an active traveler, frequently visiting her hometown of Chicago.
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