A new effort to help startups with clinical testing

The Digital Health Marketplace hopes to arrange speedy field testing for startups like Nat Turner's Flatiron Health.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

A New York City Economic Development Corp. initiative to connect digital-health startups with large healthcare organizations for field-testing is getting a boost from Northwell Health.

Three professionals from the healthcare giant have taken seats on the board of advisors of the Digital Health Marketplace, which is designed to speed new health technologies to market by arranging pilot studies within established clinical settings.

The marketplace is a rebirth of the development organization’s former Pilot Health Tech NYC program, which critics said failed to connect startups with the right decision makers or included companies that couldn’t scale to big-customer demands. However, it did create more than 100 jobs and helped companies raise more than $170 million in financing, one official pointed out, “and these latest refinements are only making it better.”

Relaunched in January, the program has now partnered with Hitlab – a small company based at Columbia University that is dedicated to evaluating and improving innovative healthcare technologies – and refocused exclusively on early-stage companies.

Determined to ensure the reimagined effort would hit its marks, the city’s economic development arm tapped some key advisors on staff at Northwell Health. Lauren McCullagh, the administrative director of clinical research in the health system’s Department of Medicine, and several Northwell colleagues have been swapping ideas with the city agency for about a year, after connecting at a Junto Health event.

Junto Health – a national open-invitation digital platform designed to help providers navigate healthcare’s digital revolution – hosts various networking summits annually, giving stakeholders in the pharmaceutical, medical and academic industries a chance to share innovations and explore potential synergies.

After meeting the Northwell team at a 2015 networker, city officials invited the health system to participate, and even reserved three advisory board seats for Northwell when the marketplace went live in January.

“We kind of consulted about the development of the new network,” McCullagh noted. “What it should look like, how it should work.”

Joining McCullagh on the 16-member advisory board are Frederick Meunch, director of digital health interventions in Northwell’s psychiatry and addictions services, and Sean Dowling, managing director of Northwell Ventures, the health system’s commercialization arm. All three attended an introductory meeting in February, where they learned more about the effort’s collaboration with Hitlab.

The reworked network will benefit not only the innovators and startup companies who field-test their digital-health devices, McCullagh noted, but the facilities that host the tests, which may find themselves ahead of the curve on the next great healthcare innovation.

“This is a great opportunity to see what potential companies are doing, right down the pipeline,” McCullagh told Innovate LI. “This is a great connection to new innovators for everyone involved.”

There’s no official word yet on which companies or technologies will be selected for the first batch of pilot studies – the revamped program just put out the call for applications last week – but McCullagh predicted several Northwell spinoffs and other technologies born at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, the health system’s R&D wing, would be among the applicants.

“Fred, Sean and I oversee many different projects and innovative strategies, from the clinical side to the behavioral-health side to my side,” noted McCullagh, who also directs Northwell’s Medical Innovation Group. “There are several new strategies and innovations coming out of all three groups, and I’m sure many projects from within the groups will be applying.”

Many of those technologies are already beta-tested within the vast Northwell Health system, McCullagh added, but the opportunity here is to test Northwell-based solutions in clinical settings outside the friendly confines of the home system.

“It’s a great opportunity to see how Northwell’s solutions function in other clinical settings,” she said. “These solutions have to be customized to real-world operational settings, so you want to do this rapid-cycle beta-testing in different environments.”

Whether Northwell Health will host field tests of technologies developed outside the Northwell system remains to be seen. The new city effort is sure to attract innovators from around the region, but Northwell won’t volunteer to host anything, according to McCullagh, until learning more about individual applicants and their innovative technologies.

“We’re waiting to see what companies are selected before we offer up any of our sites,” she said. “If it’s a platform more suited to emergency medicine, for instance, we’ll look to see if it can fit in one of our hospitals. But we’re not picking any sites until we see what digital strategies come out of the selection process.”

That should all become a little clearer later this month, at the next meeting of the advisory board. The applications are already piling up, McCullagh noted, and the next meeting will start in earnest the process of selecting those most qualified for a live field test.

“We’ll do application reviews and criteria evaluations and advise on the best to choose,” she said, noting “several” companies would be selected for the first round.

With at least some of those companies and technologies likely to emerge from Northwell, and a “good chance” that some beta-testing will occur at Northwell facilities, the marketplace represents “a great opportunity for Northwell to shine,” according to McCullagh.

“We definitely want to be part of this process,” she said. “We are extremely supportive of the idea of rapid beta-testing of new technologies, and this is a great opportunity to see what potential collaborations we can create with these new companies.”