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Start-Up Spotlight Boston: A Tradition of Disruption

Jul 19, 2012

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

Boston is a city known for its traditions. From baked beans, to Blue Laws, the city is literally steeped in tradition. But in Boston, the basis of our traditions is non-tradition.

Let me explain. 

Boston is a city shaped by disruptors. Starting with the Pilgrims, New England’s cities were designed by people desperate to create a new world order. Later, unhappy with England’s tight hold on the city, the now-called Patriots revolted against the status quo, laying the foundation for the United States as we know it. More than 200 years later, Boston remains a city rich with tradition, yet primed for disruption.  

Most recently, Boston has become a hub for next-gen healthcare, attracting high-tech imaging and medical-device companies, as well as high-profile doctors to the area’s two dozen world-class hospitals. For this very reason, the city is also attracting a new group of medical start-ups: companies like MIT’s EyeNetra, which builds a $1 vision diagnostic tool; and Appguppy, which helps doctors connect with their patients via mobile devices. 

The Boston area is also home to one of the nation's first start-ups, Harvard University—once considered cutting edge when it emerged as America’s first corporation and higher-learning institution. In the halls of Harvard's Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, the start-up spirit remains very much alive. Walk up its marble staircase and past the endless rows of leather books and portraits of Harvard notables, and you're met by a hidden door deep within the library. 

Inside is the home of Rock Health, an accelerator designed to foster a new breed of tech-based Boston entrepreneurs. All of the Rock Health start-ups share a common thread: Their goal is to innovate on the already cutting-edge practices happening in the city. They hope to make the medical practice and its technology cheaper and more efficient, more accessible, and more effective. 

Technology plays two very different, yet equally important roles in Boston’s healthcare system.

1. It allows for innovation so doctors can care for patients in ways that were once impossible.

2. It allows innovators to continually improve upon those technologies to make them more efficient, cheaper, faster, and stronger.

“Boston is a mecca for clinical invention,” says Sarah Pollet, COO of Rock Health Boston. “We're nestled among the hospitals, and a differentiating factor about this program is that we're pairing entrepreneurs with clinicians—we’re really going into the belly of the beast.” 

Although some might consider such an established healthcare system a barrier to entry, Pollet sees it as a benefit, describing a collaborative environment from which efficiencies and disruptive thought can merge. “Hospitals have systematic processes in place and aren't always forced to question the underlying functions,” she said. This dynamic sets Boston’s entrepreneurs up for an extraordinary win if they can disrupt and innovate upon the established healthcare system. 

Many of the entrepreneurs behind these start-ups have grown up with technology and expect to see it used in an easy and efficient way. When they enter the often convoluted, exclusive, and expensive healthcare field, these young entrepreneurs see technology abandoned in favor of more manual tasks, like taking someone’s pulse by hand or writing prescriptions with pen and paper. What all of these start-ups hope to do is rewrite the healthcare system using technology. 

The feeling is mutual among many of those working to solve healthcare’s problems from within.

“There’s an army of clinicians and researchers who are incredibly motivated to infuse their knowledge into technology and make it do what they want it to do, but they can’t. There’s this gap between the technology and the people who know how to use and apply it. What we want to do is build a bridge between the technology and these experts who know best how to apply it,” says aspiring doctor Ralph Passarella of Reify Health, a start-up that's building a mobile software platform for doctors to manage specific conditions outside of the clinic.

Many of these start-ups are not only paving the way for new platforms but also increasing efficiencies among existing ones. For example, when a patient needs physical therapy, he or she has to make an appointment, show up, and meet the therapist. One of the Rock Health start-ups, Home Team Therapy uses online games to help patients practice physical therapy and heal in the home rather than in a clinic or at a gym. Similarly, Prescribable Apps allows doctors to track users with chronic illness via text message, saving both parties the time and money involved with visits. Like Reify Health, the goal of these solutions is to give doctors the tools to keep an eye on patients outside the doctor’s office and to continue care in an efficient and effective manner like never before. 

With organizations like Rock Health, the city of Boston is going above and beyond to see that the traditions of healthcare as we know it will be broken once again. 


This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated, a supporter of the Rock Health organization. The views expressed are the author's own

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Lydia Leavitt