Ping pong. Chalk art. Swing sets. Free ice cream. But PULSE@MassChallenge’s application launch wasn’t all fun and games. The hundreds of entrepreneurs packed into Hatch Fenway for the Aug. 8 application launch had come on a mission: meet key players in the Boston digital health space and improve their chances of landing a spot in the highly-competitive program.
PULSE launched last year as part of the governor’s digital health initiative. It recently received $170,000 in renewed state funding. The digital health program accepted 31 companies into its first cohort and partnered with a range of healthcare organizations, including providers, insurers, medical device companies and patient advocacy groups.
“We wanted to design a program that collaborated with organizations that touched the lives of patients, because we believe these digital health solutions are going to make patients’ lives better,” said Nick Dougherty, PULSE director.
Now, the digital health program is looking for its second cohort. The networking at the application launch was aggressive, particularly on the part of the startups, and it was clear why—the guest list of partner organizations, called “Champions” in MassChallenge vernacular, consisted of major players in the Boston digital health arena. New arrivals included Partners Healthcare, Aetna and a joint partnership with Campbell Soup and AARP. Returning “Champions” included Massachusetts General Hospital and Microsoft.
Startup founders were enthused. “This is my first time in a startup, so any tips I can get from people who know what they’re doing is going to be helpful,” said Cloud Gray, whose fledgling company Patient Price plans to apply to the program. “Also, it’s just getting plugged into the healthcare ecosystem. Hopefully, MassChallenge can help me get access to those people that have problems I don’t know exist yet.”
In just a few minutes, Gray had struck up a conversation with Jack Rowe from MGH. “We’re just excited to come here, do the reverse pitch and get our pain points out there so we can find interesting and exciting partners to work with,” said Rowe.
Julia Jackson, also from MGH, added that partnering with MassChallenge allowed the hospital to vet a higher number of startups. “It’s awesome for us,” she said. “Rather than having to do one-off demos, to come and be part of the whole judging process and then to say ‘great, I can really pick from the best in the world.’”
The official portion of the event began like a pep rally, with Dougherty grabbing a mic and peppering the audience with a series of call-and-response exchanges.
Dougherty’s enthusiasm was not lost on the crowd or Jay Ash, the state’s secretary of housing and economic development, who praised PULSE. “The good news is because of all of you, because of all of us, we are succeeding,” said Ash. “It’s not just rhetoric. We’re being recognized around the country and around the world for everything that we’re doing special here.”
He pointed out that Massachusetts is #1 in the data driven economy, according to a poll released last week by a leading think tank. “On behalf of Governor Baker, I can tell you that
we will continue to support the efforts here,” he said, “and look forward to continuing to work with MassChallenge and all of you to continue to produce special things here.”
Ash’s remarks were followed by a panel of past Champions and a lineup of reverse pitches, mainly focused on improving eldercare, clinical workflow and administrative burden.
In addition to new partners, a key change coming to PULSE is a $100 application fee. Taking after its parent organization MassChallenge, which also charges a $100 fee, PULSE wants to make sure applicants are “dedicated” and “really taking it seriously,” according to Dougherty. Another reason given was to avoid wasting judges’ time, whom he described as executives with busy schedules.
Companies that may not have $100 to shell out for a program with a 7% acceptance rate are not completely out of luck. There’s a discounted early bird price. There are also ways to waive the fee altogether, such as attending PULSE events. Additionally, the program will offer feedback from expert judges to all companies that apply.
The mood at the event was generally optimistic. Some of the partner organizations appeared just as energized as the startups clamoring for their attention. “We do a lot of work helping others develop their ideas. But what does it take to actually be at the startup level?” said Sunita Patolia, program manager at Partners Healthcare. “I’m excited for my team and I’m excited for the startups that we’ll partner with, to see where they’ll go.”
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Amy Pollard is a candidate for the MA in Communication and International Relations at Boston University. Her interest in health care began with her first trip to Tanzania, where she volunteered at a medical dispensary in a rural village and saw firsthand how access to health care impacts patients. She’s excited to learn about health care technology in Boston. She’s originally from Seattle and holds a B.A. in English from Saint Martin’s University. When she’s not writing, she’s probably drinking coffee, making tacos or watching Parks and Rec. Follow her @amyannexu.
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