Health IT Innovation

As Telehealth Explodes, A Traverse City Incubator Dives In

A Traverse City-based business incubator has announced a new program to foster startups in the exploding telehealth and digital health sectors — an effort that could benefit the northern Michigan economy and its small businesses.

HealthSpark, the health-tech program that launched at 20Fathoms in 2019, has launched the 12-week HealthSpark Accelerator, which will harness the brainpower of more than 200 business and healthcare minds to help small businesses bring healthcare solutions to rural areas like northern Michigan. It is slated to begin in April, with applications now open.

In the startup world, accelerators are designed to give early-stage companies access to education, mentorship, funding, networking, and other resources. Harvard Business Review defines the accelerator experience as “a process of intense, rapid, and immersive education aimed at accelerating the life cycle of young innovative companies, compressing years’ worth of learning-by-doing into just a few months.”

20Fathoms Executive Director Lauren Bigelow says the program aims to get startups to the point where they are ready to roll out their products for pilot programs or beta tests in rural healthcare settings.

“We’re definitely aiming for northern Michigan companies; they will get higher priority than anybody else,” Bigelow says of the HealthSpark Accelerator application process. “Second priority is Michigan, more generally. Beyond that is the Midwest. Ideally, what we’d like to do is have folks within driving distance of Traverse City, so that we can link them in tightly with the community here at 20Fathoms.”

Jack Miner, who came aboard as HealthSpark’s president last May, says he’s long thought of digital health and telehealth as the keys to driving better outcomes for rural healthcare. As recently as a year ago, that vision was largely a pipe dream: telehealth was a fringe part of healthcare delivery, in part because Medicare and Medicaid wouldn’t reimburse those services. COVID-19 changed all that, and forced healthcare providers to embrace telehealth in new ways. It also created, virtually overnight, huge market needs for digital health innovations – a shift that Miner says changed the focus of HealthSpark and formed the backbone for the new accelerator.

Miner came to HealthSpark from Cleveland Clinic Ventures, an arm of the renowned Cleveland medical center that exists “to make investments in emerging healthcare companies that deliver financial returns to the Cleveland Clinic Foundation while advancing its mission, vision, and values.” Miner tells The Ticker that his previous role has given him ample experience “investing in companies, building them, and bringing them into a healthcare system.” His hope for the HealthSpark Accelerator is that it can provide startups with intimate knowledge of how this process works, so that participants can refine their value propositions and get their business models ready for the marketplace.

“[We’ll be] digging down on each company’s business model, their finances, their marketing strategy, their product strategy,” Bigelow adds. “And a lot of the program is really going to be about honing their materials so that they can pitch to angel and venture investors.”

To drive these various program goals and functions, Bigelow and Miner have assembled a network of 200-plus people who will engage with the participating companies in some form. That list includes keynote speakers like Aashima Gupta, the director of global healthcare solutions for Google Cloud; Salim Hasham, director and global head of business transformation partnership for Google; Peter Rasmussen, MD, chief clinical officer for Cleveland Clinic’s new joint digital health venture with Boston’s Amwell Health; Quinn Soloman, a partner at Bain & Company; and Traverse City’s own Casey Cowell. Bigelow says participants will also have a chance to learn from and network with healthcare system leaders, successful entrepreneurs, healthcare technology innovators, prospective investors, and other people “who are just really bright spots in the digital or telehealth system.”

“Our speakers are really brilliant thought leaders,” Bigelow says. “They have extensive knowledge and a view of the industry that very few people have. And we’ve got a very robust list of investors who are going to do speed networking [with the participants] and teach some classes. So I really hope that the companies walk away feeling like their startup has jumped to the next level, and with a deep understanding of where healthcare is going, nationally.”

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