UNC Digital Health Innovation Sprint

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With his unique combination of startup and hospital administration experience, UNC Health Care Entrepreneur-in-Residence Michael Levy is attempting a feat once seemingly insurmountable. 
 
Thursday night, he launches a three-part Digital Health Innovation Sprint meant to bring UNC surgeons and hospital administrators together with local entrepreneurs and innovators to fill gaps in the healthcare system with technologies, services and products. 
 
It’s the latest in a series of efforts to capitalize on the Triangle’s strengths in technology, life science and healthcare. A medical device incubator called MEDIC is in the process of launching at The Frontier in Research Triangle Park. NC RIoT has many health-oriented members and is all about convergence of industry with tech. 
 
But Levy hopes to offer something special—the chance for entrepreneurs interested in healthcare to learn about the biggest challenges at UNC, to collaborate with the health system to build solutions and to test the resulting products at the hospital in 2017 (a $50,000 opportunity). 
 
“In a nine-month span, you go from ideation all the way to validation prior to having any seed investment and that strengths the position for funding,” Levy says. “And from an investor’s perspective, you have a solution that is de-risked with outcome data from an anchor institution.” 

Digital Health Innovation Sprint chart
This chart shows the phases of the DHIS, including the goals and target audiences for each event. Credit: UNC
Levy dreamt up the idea after several years at the University of Miami, where he led a $170 million department with 370 employees across 14 divisions of medicine. After the system lost $65 million in 2012 and laid off 10 percent of its workforce, an 18-month innovation process led to 75 new projects that created $10 million in new value for the university. 
 
Combined with prior experience at UNC Health Care, six years in hospital administration at UCLA, and time spent building and running telehealth startup Digital Therapy (its first product is ShrinkYourself), Levy saw too many challenges bringing innovative solutions into the healthcare system and in a timely way. 
 
“Healthcare systems do not have the infrastructure, the risk tolerance, the software market expertise and alignment of incentives currently to drive a fluid shift,” he says. "The idea of the innovation sprint is our way of reaching out to the broader community to suggest a different way of solving these problems."

Michael Levy, co-founder of ShrinkYourself and a new entrepreneur-in-residence for digital health at UNC Chapel Hill, shared with American Underground teams about his online psychotherapy platform called ShrinkYourself. Credit: Patrick Durham/ExitEvent
After relocating back to North Carolina to be close to family last year, he spent some time shopping the idea with the local community. All agreed it made perfect sense for the Triangle region—Duke and UNC brought in almost $770 million in National Institutes of Health research funding last year. The two universities’ medical centers are ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively, in the state. 
 
And NC State University has a top ranked program for engineering. 
 
There have been some major digital health startup wins too—there's telehealth momentum with TouchCare, RelyMD and Medfusion. In the Internet of Things/wearable devices space, Validic has raised nearly $20 million, Valencell $25 million and Phononic, which has compelling healthcare applications, just surpassed $118 million with a new funding round. 
 
Combined with the state’s strength in pharmaceuticals and biotech—more than 1,000 health-oriented companies are located in North Carolina—“it makes sense to build a collaboration hub to connect the RTP biotech infrastructure, the corpus of healthcare-focused minds and the entrepreneurial ecosystem to put a stake in the ground in digital health,” Levy explains. 
 
UNC Health Care’s Center for Innovation liked the idea so much, it hired Levy to make it happen. 
 

The Nine-Month Innovation Sprint

So how does the sprint work? 
 
It all began back in April when Levy held a half-day “problem sourcing workshop” with 45 executives and surgeons in the UNC School of Medicine and healthcare system (he's pictured there above with Carol Lewis, the center's associate director). The goal was to talk about everything from cost to quality of care to patient experience and identify key pain points for the health care system that could be solved with software. 
 
Five detailed problem statements came out of that event. They cover aging in place, readmission reduction, medication adherence, improving patient outcomes per dollar spent and provider-driven care coordination.

UNC held a Discovery Day in April 2016 to understand the biggest problems facing its hospital, surgeons, staff and patients. Those are all on the table during a three-part Digital Health Innovation Sprint this fall. Credit: UNC
The problems will be pitched to entrepreneurs and health care innovators in typical Startup Weekend format Thursday night at American Underground in Durham. Groups will form around them. 
 
But unlike Startup Weekend, the teams have three weeks to begin work on a solution before a full-day design and mentoring workshop back at the AU on October 29. That will resemble a hackathon, Levy says, with APIs and various software solutions available for use. 
 
Over the next three weeks, there’s more work on the idea and office hours with mentors. Then, on November 17, the teams will pitch to a group of judges for the chance to spend time at Groundwork Labs, pilot their product at UNC and win up to $1500 in cash. That day is most like a typical Demo Day. 
 
A second phase of the sprint begins after that. Up to two teams will take part in Groundwork Labs early 2017 program, focused on accelerating and testing a minimum viable product at UNC. They’ll be introduced to angel networks and venture capital firms as well as non profit foundations with the hope of sharing the results of a successful pilot. 
 
Levy’s goal is to create a road to market for at least one of the companies—to develop a solution that not only solves a problem at UNC but for the broader healthcare system. And, for local investors to put money into it. 

He also hopes to create a model for turning problems into solutions that are marketable and fundable and that eventually create companies and new jobs. 
 
“All the ingredients are here in the Triangle to do something special in digital health,” he says. “But there’s a huge gap for early stage companies to take ideas, validate those ideas and build rapid prototypes. We think this is the strategic space to fill.”