By Charles Platkin, PhD, JD, MPH
You have a PhD in nanoscale engineering. How would you describe that to the layperson?
It’s a combination of physics, chemistry and math with the objective of finding ways of engineering new materials that can improve our daily lives. It involves manipulating atoms and molecules to find new ways of making things. For example, by doing nanoscale engineering we can make materials that are stronger, make computation faster, improve solar energy and batteries and other renewable energies.
What are some of the key metrics you look for to include a fledgling health-tech company in Runway and Spinouts?
We focus primarily on the individual. The entrepreneur needs to have amazing motivation and drive, be persistent, be coachable but non-conformist and have great communication skills. Once we have those qualities, then we look for applications of “deep” digital tech into health, meaning that we like companies that solve real world problems using new algorithms, real machine learning, advances in signal processing, and new uses of language processing and AI. We don’t focus on the tech, we focus on the problem, so we like it when companies tackle difficult problems.
Health tech is a featured concentration at Cornell Tech, can you discuss and explain why?
Health Tech is a “Hub” i.e. an area of strong focus, and a dual degree under the Jacobs Technion Cornell Institute, our formal collaboration with Technion. The reason why we made it so is because there is an amazing opportunity to improve healthcare using digital technologies, and we believe our entrepreneurs have the right knowledge but also the right combination of partners, specially Weill Cornell, that can allow them to succeed. It’s also a field where a locally developed solution can address a global issue, and we like that.
What is the most important step in trying to successfully bring a new health technology from the academic world to the market?
In health technologies we have all of the opportunities to make a global impact, but also all of the complexities of a field that is still traditional in many ways. We are challenged to change the inertia of how doctors/patients/insurance companies work. We are challenged with ethical problems of new technologies. We are challenged with patient safety and privacy. So, the first step is to realize that any health technology will not be pushed from a group of coders into a hospital. Great health technologies come from collaboration, from day one, from all relevant actors.
Can you talk about some of your past and present health tech companies? (e.g. Tatch)?
We have two companies working on sleep: Nanit which has developed a baby monitor with computer vision tech to help parents sleep train their babies. But they also are working with hospitals to use the same technology to improve the sleep of patients. And Tatch that has developed a wearable patch (similar to a large band-aid) that can diagnose and help manage sleep apnea. This one is still in testing but a very promising way of improving the horrendous patient experience with CPAP machines and sleep clinics.
We have two companies working on algorithms for DNA sequencing: Biotia that helps hospitals identify and reduce their hospital acquired infections, and F!ND Genomics that helps security services and pharma companies use portable DNA sequencing do get DNA intelligence.
We have One Three Biotech that is doing drug discovery powered by real AI, Quantified Biology that helps pharma companies do microscopy image analysis in the discovery phase, and Shade that developed the smallest UV sensor to help patients with Lupus track their sun exposure.
We also have Revercare that helps caregivers find the right services for their loved ones, and SpeechUp that uses an app and language processing engines to do better speech therapy.
What advice would you give to a recent PhD graduate who is interested in developing a health technology idea? How do they get started? Do you think it’s important that the entrepreneur – is a strong health background critical?
The main advice is to start with a problem, not with a technology. Go to a hospital or to a clinic, talk to doctors and patients, and find a pain, a problem that affects many and is worth solving. Once you have, then you can figure out what technology (or if a technology) can help. A strong health background could be good but it could also make you biased to the norm. Health entrepreneurs need to surround themselves with non-health entrepreneurs too so that they can look at problems from all angles.
What do you believe to be the greatest challenges for healthcare? And the greatest opportunities? How do you think technology can help?
Technology is both the greatest equalizer and the greatest unequalizer. This is the greatest challenge, because we can come up with an amazing technology to solve a problem, but it will often remain used only for a small group of individuals. Our challenge is to see the development from beginning to deployment globally so that it can serve all needed population. We need to ideate technologies that break boundaries.
I think greatest opportunity today comes from DNA sequencing data. Today we can get sequenced for a relatively low cost, but the action that we can take with that information is still very limited. I think healthcare will change in crazy ways once we sequence regularly and track the changes in our DNA.
How do you see technology significantly impacting and improving the health of underserved individuals and communities? Do you see that happening now? Are entrepreneurs mostly focused on more privileged populations? If so, will this change (and how)?
I think health technologies can and will significantly help medical access and literacy in underserved communities, improve mental health problems and aid in addiction recovery, and find solutions for forgotten diseases. The easiest way to do that is to always look for ways of applying technologies across different disciplines (economists call it “Generality”) so that the initial investment in creating the technology is reduced. But we do see today a disproportionate set of solutions that don’t address underserved communities and we need to foster as a society more social-minded applications and uses of the technologies we are seeing.
What is the best advice you have been given?
“just finish it”. This was a professor’s recommendation when I was struggling to finish a PhD, and I have found it to be a good life lesson in general.
Something you learned from failure: that good behavior and passion is not erased with failure. If you failed but you behaved with passion, ethics, morals, and truly worked towards solving a problem that meant much to someone, then the people that took that road with you will always be grateful and will stand by you. They will even fail (hopefully not) with you again!
Which sources will offer the greatest funding for health tech in the coming year?
What will influence health tech investments over the next few years?
I think the Theranos story made investments in many parts of health tech be increasingly difficult and under a stronger due diligence radar. So, for me more investment will happen as we see more companies deploying real technologies and becoming profitable. For health tech proof of success will drive more investment.
Which technical innovations will have the largest influence on health tech in the years to come?
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