Why Include Startup Pitches at a Premiere Medical Conference?

HTC Judging Panel

Building off of the momentum from a successful Health Tech Forum in September, BrandGarage introduced a technology track for the first time ever to the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions conference. Over 17,000 cardiologists from around the world convened for five days in Chicago to brave sub-zero temperatures and participate in this annual heart health pilgrimage, the largest of its kind in the world.

New to this year’s list of attendees are medical startup entrepreneurs from the tech world. Medical devices have long been a staple of these events (and indeed medicine in general), but this was the first time that smaller innovative companies focusing on heart health had a chance to demonstrate their technologies to a larger audience of physicians at Scientific Sessions.

Five startups pitched their products, ranging from a health data EHR integration solution to a lab-on-a-chip, at the Health Tech Competition to a panel of distinguished cardiologists, venture capitalists, and industry thought leaders. After an extremely close race, but Sense.ly pulled ahead as the winner by just 1 point out of 245 possible points. Judges lauded the company’s clinical potential and its innovative product, which features an intelligent avatar-based platform that helps doctors better manage chronic care patients. An accompanying live poll for an audience favorite was equally competitive, with Eko Devices taking the win in a last second tie-breaker over Benecure.

We had a chance to catch up with both the startups and judges after the competition to get some insight on the event:

  • Surprisingly, the judge’s votes were completely inconsistent with the audience vote. Companies that did well with the judges weren’t very competitive in the audience live-poll, and the audience favorites scored the lowest among the panel of judges. This was a bit unexpected, given that both the judging panel and the audience consisted mainly of cardiologists. It appears that our expert judges with their cross-industry experience may have a better eye for technical detail and implementation, while the audience poll reflects the broad changes and themes that the average (tech-saavy) physician believe will be important in the coming years.
  • We had ample time to chat with health tech startups and hear their needs. For smaller companies, money was the most common limiting factor that stifles innovation and growth. However, doctors at the end of the day are evidence driven (as we learned from the Health Tech Forum), and startups can’t drive sustainable adoption in the healthcare system without concrete evidence. This means that as a startup progresses through its life cycle, the next critical hurdle for a healthcare company becomes securing a pilot program, clinical trial, or some other rigorous study with a respectable medical or health institution.
  • Health tech is becoming an increasingly crowded space; the winner won by just 1 point out of 245 possible points. It can be difficult for even a tech-saavy physician to understand all the new options, and there is most definitely a knowledge gap between a medical entrepreneur’s vision and the average family physician. The AHA is just one of several major institutions that are working to close this gap, and you can expect to see more events like this in the near future. One cardiologist remarked how bizarre it was that the entire room laughed naturally at a joke that Sense.ly’s digital avatar made. I guess we better start getting used to that.

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