Digital health

Digital health

Fuelling healthcare transformation – an interview with StartUp Health’s Unity Stoakes


As President and co-founder of StartUp Health, a global health innovation company with the largest portfolio of digital health companies in the world, Unity Stoakes is on a mission to transform health by leveraging the power of innovation and community. Claudia Orrell sits down with him to find out more…

Startup Health

MedTech Engine: People describe StartUp Health as a movement. Can you tell me why that is and what powers it?

Unity Stoakes: StartUp Health launched six years ago with a really simple idea – if we could organise the world’s best entrepreneurs and innovators (what we call Health Transformers) and create a community to support them, then together – marching towards common goals – we could be a lot more effective, a lot more powerful and we could speed up innovation cycles.

StartUp Health was born from our need as entrepreneurs to be surrounded by other innovators and leaders for support – and the whole thing just took off very quickly in early-2011. Essentially what started out as a strategic initiative for our own start-up grew exponentially. We gathered over a thousand innovators in just 24 hours – there was immediate momentum.

We had amazing support – including the chance to meet President Obama and Vice President Biden in the Oval Office and tell them our idea the day before we launched. So there was a lot of backing here in the US from the Federal government. We also had a lot of industry backing and interest from very large brands but what was critical in it becoming a movement was this enormous wave of entrepreneurs asking to get involved and offering support.

MTE: You said the initial idea was a strategic initiative – were you already involved in a digital health start-up when you came up with the idea of StartUp Health?

US:  My business partner of 20 years, Steven Krein, and I came out of the internet tech industry over 20 years ago and about 12 years ago we decided that we wanted to focus on more meaningful innovation which is how we discovered the need in healthcare. We launched a company called OrganizedWisdom – it was one of the very few early digital health companies that were starting to launch around that time. We naively thought that as successful entrepreneurs with a track record in raising money, taking companies public, building great technology etc, that it would be easy to start innovating in healthcare – an industry that had seen very little technological innovation over the past several decades. But the reality was that we were completely caught off guard by the stagnating industry, the bureaucracy, the very long sales cycles, the lack of capital (at the time), and the lack of infrastructure to support entrepreneurs.

We found it very difficult to do things differently. So, in a sense StartUp Health was born out of our experience as entrepreneurs trying to make change happen in healthcare. What we wanted to create was the resource and the platform that we wish we had had access to as entrepreneurs coming into healthcare for the first time. What happened, of course, was that StartUp Health took off so quickly that we pivoted our original business plan and shifted 100 per cent of our focus to StartUp Health (almost overnight).

MTE: You said the big corporates came on board really quickly, was that an easy conversation?

US: Interestingly at the time there were five converging trends that launched a new wave of innovation in healthcare – these facilitated conversations with leading corporates focused on understanding this paradigm shift:

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  1. Health reform in the US and reforms happening globally were affecting business models and creating a very chaotic, confusing new market. This impacted on the legacy healthcare players because their leaderships, their boards, their CEOs realised that there were going to be new business models, new entrants and a lot of change that would challenge their core businesses – so they started to pay attention.
  2. The chronic disease epidemic, cost problems, an aging population globally – all these factors have created a demand for innovation and new solutions that would both serve to resolve these epidemics and bring the costs of care down.
  3. The digital revolution that has changed most other industries over the last twenty years was finally starting to make its way into healthcare. New analytics platforms, new data solutions, new affordable sensors that were starting to become clinically viable, new service concepts that leverage the internet: just a wave of new innovation percolating. Doctors were starting to carry smartphones, patients were becoming used to a new way of functioning in their everyday lives, work and at home. All this started to create the need for these technologies to exist within the world and workflow of healthcare.
  4. A golden age of entrepreneurship had arrived, where thousands of entrepreneurs and innovators were starting to ask themselves: do I want to build another internet tech company or do I want to try and focus on something more meaningful for my next company? Doctorpreneurs and innovators and entrepreneurs were starting to innovate in healthcare. At the same time, it was becoming easier and cheaper than ever to experiment, to test things, to get started within healthcare and that’s when the digital health revolution started to get traction.
  5. Then the last trend we saw was that all of this wasn’t just happening in San Francisco or Boston, it was happening in innovation hubs all over the world – from New York City to Chicago to Austin as well as places like Helsinki or Bangalore.

MTE: How have those trends shifted now – six years on? How does the landscape look to you now?

Startup Health

Unity Stoakes

US: It is a very exciting time. It is the equivalent of where the internet was in 1994 when the first websites were coming online, people were getting adjusted to email for the first time – it’s that moment! If you look back over the last six years a tremendous amount of work has been done to set the stage for a second wave of innovation. I think this will be a very meaningful moment for healthcare. A lot of capital has flown in, a lot of great talent has joined and a lot of experimentation has happened. Next – we’ll see the pieces of the puzzle starting to be connected. Solutions that come to the market now will benefit from the learnings and infrastructure that has been laid over the past six years.  Over the next few years we’ll see exponential leaps forward that will start to significantly impact outcomes and really bring the cost of care down and change day-to-day access to healthcare around the world.

MTE: Do you think the laying down of this infrastructure is applicable in Europe as much as it is in the US?

US: Absolutely! I think a lot of the health innovation we’re seeing is on a global scale. Where healthcare is regional, a lot of solutions are being designed in a way where they could work in any healthcare market. For many decades (at least here in the US), people talked about the three trillion-dollar healthcare industry and what they were referring to was the US market alone. Those who will be the real healthcare leaders of the future will be the ones looking beyond the US and Europe to Asia, Africa, South America – a global focus. The constraints and challenges in these emerging markets will bring radically more efficient and cost-effective solutions to the market in Europe and the US.

MTE: How can we improve the uptake of new technology against the backdrop of varied and complex healthcare systems and regulatory processes?

US: Healthcare, as we know, is very different because of not only the regulatory environment but because we are talking about people’s lives and their wellbeing. There’s also the established workflows, infrastructure and processes that are very hard to evolve and change.

One of our solutions is to focus on collaborations from the beginning. While traditionally the mantra has been to disrupt and destroy and to completely go around the legacy leaders and bring them down, our view is that there is a bigger opportunity to collaborate very early and to connect innovators with regulators, government leaders as well as the legacy providers in a way that bridges that gap. So they’ll actually be working together towards common solutions.

That said, what I think what will be carved out over the coming years are two parallel paths. One is an approach where innovators and entrepreneurs are focusing on solutions for the near-term, meaning they have technologies or solutions that serve the market today. They will be very effective by collaborating and by following the existing processes and workflows of healthcare. At the same time, there is a parallel path of radical innovation happening, with systems and solutions that will completely leap frog the established or current ways of doing things. Take the telecoms and banking industries – both regulated, but both impacted enormously by new technology and new entrants (think PayPal, Bitcoin, WhatsApp and Skype). This will happen and is happening in healthcare too.

About the author

MedTech Engine's Director of Product & Engagement, Claudia is the digital brains behind the site. Her experience in business, marketing, brand development and the online experience has been honed over 18 years.

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