Innovation Blog

Lessons Learned from Harvard Pilgrim: Building Startup Relationships and Driving Innovation


How can partners effectively develop relationships and work with digital health startups? What is like to partner with a digital health accelerator, and how can organizations drive innovation and impact health?

I spoke with Patricia Forts, Steven Fink, and Richard Weisblatt of Harvard Pilgrim, one of MassChallenge HealthTech’s founding partners, to get the ins and outs of working with startups, tips on driving innovation in a corporate setting, and their experience as partners in the MassChallenge HealthTech program.

Tell me about your roles at Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare.

Patricia: I’m the Deputy Chief of Innovation & Strategy at Harvard Pilgrim. I joined the organization about 3 years ago and worked with Rick and Steven to build the Center for Innovation at Harvard Pilgrim. My responsibilities include building a culture of innovation as well as growing partnership within the Boston community and beyond. I also lead pilots and programs to help the organization grow their products and services with the goal of improving quality of care and reducing healthcare costs.

Rick: I’m the Chief Innovation and Strategy Officer. I lead the strategic development and planning for the Center of Innovation at Harvard Pilgrim. I joined the organization in 2001.

Steven: I’m the Director of Business Planning. I’ve been at Harvard Pilgrim for about 5 years, and I’ve been part of the organization’s strategy and innovation team. I work directly with the startups within the MassChallenge HealthTech program.

How did you learn about MassChallenge HealthTech, and why did you decide to become a partner?

Rick: I was a judge for the MassChallenge Boston program around 2014. I learned about MassChallenge HealthTech, when it was called PULSE@MassChallenge, through the MassChallenge network. We were excited that PULSE would have a focus on digital health, which is why we decided to become a partner.

Patricia: We learned about MassChallenge HealthTech, formerly PULSE@MassChallenge back in 2016 through the Governor’s digital health initiative. The Governor wanted to “double-down” on healthtech, especially in Boston.

Tell me about your experience driving innovation within your organization. What have been the biggest benefits and challenges of leading this initiative?

Rick: We had to meet with and speak with a lot of people who had strong innovation agendas. For example, we met with Atrius Health, Boston Children’s Hospital, Blue Cross, Cambia, and more to learn about their experiences. We have a smaller innovation hub within our organization but we work on getting our staff involved in our innovation agendas. We also collaborate with other Harvard Pilgrim teams to drive innovation. For example, we have worked with the Clinical Innovation Team when running pilots during the MassChallenge HealthTech program when vetting potential solutions.

Patricia: It takes a lot of work to drive innovation, but when thinking about our experience, we work to connect innovation with challenges that can impact our staff and community. That has been effective for us. For example, we think about potential solutions to tackle health insurance literacy, reduce healthcare costs, and more.

Steven: The Innovation Showcase that we host at Harvard Pilgrim has helped us drive and develop an internal culture of innovation. Our showcase is an opportunity for startups, such as the MassChallenge HealthTech cohorts, to meet with our key executives and employees, who are always excited to learn about new technologies.

What has your experience been working with digital health startups?

Steven: It has been a wonderful experience. Startups are eager to learn and bring high energy and passion. They want to bring a solution to support our needs, and they incorporate any suggestions we make quickly. Although there are hurdles to get through, such as legal and privacy issues, it’s exciting to learn about the ideas that have the potential to improve health, increase patient engagement, and reduce costs. When working with digital health startups, make sure your organization has an internal champion and/or a project manager.

Rick: We’ve worked with so many great startups through MassChallenge HealthTech program such as DynamiCare Health, Buoy Health, Cake, 3Derm, GainLife, and we’ve also been able to maintain relationships with them. We’ve worked on pilots with them and other healthcare organizations, such as UMass and Atrius Health.

What tools have you used to operationalize your efforts to help accelerate startups?

Patricia: It’s important to have a checklist that includes a process for signing an NDA, undergoing a BAA security assessment, settling legal agreements, vetting startups for privacy reasons, etc. You’ll need all these tools before building a pilot with a startup.

Steven: You need to form a strong core team that has the right expertise and ability to work with startups. It’s important to identify a pain-point or a business problem that a startup can apply their solution to; this will help them build and further develop their product or service. Also, identifying key players outside of Harvard Pilgrim have been great to support startups.

What are some “checkbox” items that are important to your organization when deciding to work with startups?

Steven: I think of 5 ‘checkbox’ items. First, learn how far startups are in their development. Are they past the ideation stage, or are they looking to take their product to the next level? Second, do they have the appropriate approvals, such as HIPAA and FDA compliance? Third, make sure they are able to pass through your organization’s IT security and privacy screenings. Ask them if they’ve passed screenings from other organizations and about the size and capabilities of their IT team  Fourth, make sure you have mutually beneficial goals. Finally, make sure your organization has an internal champion.

Rick: Make sure you have support from your organization’s leadership team. Build out an advisory group that you can touch base with when working with startups, especially from a clinical perspective. Learn about startups through their pitches. Also, ask them about the experts they are working with.

What advice would you give to startups who are looking to pitch to payor organizations like yours?

Patricia: Know your audience. Healthcare is such a broad term but there is a difference when pitching to a payor, a provider organization, a hospital system or an integrated provider-payor system.

Steven: The more you can understand the role of your partner, the better. Understand your partner’s needs and what makes them “tick”. Think about how your solution can impact their business needs.

Rick: Be organized. Have materials prepared that speak to what you’re trying to do. Pitch your solution quickly – who is it for and why is it important. There is no need to do introductory slides about the healthcare industry because we have this background knowledge. Finally, don’t oversell your solution.

What advice would you give to other organizations who are interested in partnering with digital health startups?

Steven: Things can change quickly, and that’s ok. Don’t overpromise to startups. Also, plan on everything taking longer than expected. When working with startups, there will be hurdles and things can get complicated. But, most importantly, set realistic expectations and be flexible when working with startups. And don’t forget to have some fun along the way.

Patricia: Be ready for a lot of energy, and get ready to move fast. Be willing to pivot an idea – you may start with one idea but it can change.

Rick: Make sure your organization has a corporate champion, and have someone who can move things forward for you and the startups. You don’t want startups to come work with you and have opportunities die because of internal issues. Also, make sure you have a team that can engage with startups – ideally a staff of 4 to 12 people.

Lastly, how has MassChallenge HealthTech had an impact on your organization?

Rick: Participating in MassChallenge HealthTech has exposed us to the community of digital health entrepreneurs from around the world. It helps us think about bringing new technologies into our organization.

Steven: It’s been wonderful to work with MassChallenge HealthTech and the startups. I appreciate the energy and enthusiasm that the startups bring, and it’s been great to test solutions that can reduce costs, meet our business needs, enhance member engagement, and impact health.

Patricia: We’ve been able to gain great insights into the future of healthcare from the startups that come through MassChallenge HealthTech.




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