“36|86 Conference” panelists agree SE can become a healthcare innovation hub

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By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Can the Southeast be a hub for healthcare innovation? That was the question posed to the opening panel on the second day of Launch Tennessee’s “36|86 Conference” yesterday in Nashville, and the answer was a resounding “yes.”

Two leaders in the Nashville healthcare sector – former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Vic Gatto, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Jumpstart Foundry – joined Trung Do, Vice President of Business Development at Boston-based Partners HealthCare, on a panel that explored the topic.

Moderator Darria Long Gillespie of Sharecare posed a series of questions that focused on the region’s assets, the perception that others have about the Southeast, and strategies that would allow the goal to be achieved.

For Gatto, success starts with expanding the geography to include Middle America, not just the Southeast, and capitalizing on three factors – the large population base, many people with chronic diseases, and a strong innovation community.

During the panel discussion and an earlier breakfast attended by more than 150 people, Frist emphasized the importance of leveraging the region’s outstanding universities that include Emory, Georgia Tech, Georgia, University of Tennessee, and Vanderbilt. In the smaller event, he continually underscored the role of technology and the opportunities the region has. Those opportunities span the continuum – everything from machine learning that would help drive down administrative costs to delivery of healthcare directly to the patient and even the use of technology to help address the shortage of healthcare workers.

Yet, that broader geographic base also presents a unique set of challenges compared to the more compact nature of Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area which are have greater population and asset density as well as a much longer history of collaboration.

“The Southeast should not try to replicate Boston or Silicon Valley,” Gatto declared. “They were created pre-Internet. We can connect like-minded individuals via the Internet.” That is part of the thinking that led Gatto to found Health:Further several years ago.

Frist, the noted heart surgeon turned investor and entrepreneur, used one word to emphasize his positive outlook. That word was “culture,” something that Do, who was making his first visit to Nashville, underscored with a different set of words. He said that Boston has enjoyed a long history where its many prestigious universities and vibrant investment community work collaboratively to drive what he called “real discovery and intellectual curiosity.”

Do believes the Southeast “has all the pieces; it’s a matter of connecting the dots and knitting them together.” One of those key regional assets is the “large and expansive network of providers” which, when coupled with the nature of the population base, provide an ability to scale innovation.

Gatto noted that a hurdle that must be overcome is the tendency of many corporations in the region to take a more passive view to technology development rather than actively supporting technology start-ups.

“(Local) corporations view innovation as akin to a science fair,” he observed. “Let’s go see those cute things on the weekend, then get back to our real work on Monday.”

No discussion about innovation and technology ends without some mention of workforce. It was clearly an important topic for Frist who noted that job creation over the next 10 to 15 years is going to occur in middle market cities that have strong educational and research universities, something that is clearly a positive for the region.

Yet, the feedstock for those universities comes in large measure from the region’s K-12 educational systems that still rank generally between 40th and 50th among public systems.

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