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Innovation

A Bright Future for Digital Health Startups in 2014

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Other sectors of health care innovation may be falling behind digital health.

Underwhelming numbers showing health care’s share of venture capital funds have many people painting a grim picture of the future of health care innovation.

But while there are clear indications that the money situation is changing, that doesn’t mean health entrepreneurs are going out of business – the environment of health innovation is simply changing. Many of its newly successful occupants can credit alternative thinking and the digital boom for their triumphs.

“I’ve lived through the Internet generation – I helped take a company public in the ‘90s – and what I’m seeing with what is happening now is much more exciting,” says president and co-founder of StartUp Health, Unity Stoakes. Others may be predicting a lull in health startups but Stoakes says we are entering an “epic decade of transformation in health care.”

Stoakes’ company helps entrepreneurs navigate the world of health care innovation. They run the StartUp Health Academy, where specially-selected startups receive three years of instruction in best practices and get connected with possible funding sources, customers and other startups. It also has the StartUp Health Network, where over 10,000 entrepreneurs, investors, and health professionals can connect. Blueprint Health and Rock Health have models similar to StartUp Health, and all three tout impressive portfolios of satisfied users.

One of StartUp Health’s success stories is Direct Dermatology, an online dermatology clinic launched in 2010. It was inspired by inaccessible dermatologists worldwide.

“Wait times to see a dermatologist, even in urban areas, are over a month. In rural areas it’s over six months and, in many cases, patients have no access whatsoever,” says Dr. David Wong, Direct Dermatology’s co-founder and CEO. In the case of skin cancer, this wait can mean the difference between life and death.

The concept of Direct Dermatology seems very straightforward. A person or their doctor can send a photo of their skin to a board-certified dermatologist, and receive a diagnosis and treatment recommendation.

Wong says there were many challenges in bringing this startup to fruition. Payments schemes are complicated, technologies differ between medical sites, and laws vary by state. Many of these are common challenges for health care entrepreneurs and are specific to the health care field, which is why Wong says working with a company like StartUp Health is invaluable. The ability to discuss and solve these issues alongside other innovators is something both he and Stoakes say is a distinct advantage of this type of collaboration.

Digital health startups may also benefit from a substantial influx of talent from other technology sectors, and the reason might be as basic as the desire to create meaningful products.

“It’s one thing to build a successful company that sells widgets,” says Stoakes. “It’s another to completely transform an industry that’s broken, that’s saving people’s lives, and improving people’s happiness.”

The increased diversity of funding sources helps digital health companies, too. While venture capital is still a major part of the investor makeup, digital health startups also receive money from angel investors, challenges, and even crowdfunding sites. All are eager to invest in medical products with quicker turnarounds than their less-technological counterparts.

Wong’s own Direct Dermatology is backed by nonprofits, such as the California Healthcare Foundation and the Kresge Foundation.

More traditional forms of health care innovation may be seeing a reduction in funds, but that doesn’t mean health care startups are losing momentum. The landscape is changing, and those that change with it have been able to find incredible success.

“The opportunity in health care is so wide, it’s a market segment that is in desperate need of innovation,” says Wong.