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Ballad Health’s focus on innovation positions it to be a national leader in rural healthcare

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

With 21 hospitals, post-acute care and behavioral health services, and a large multi-specialty group physician practice serving parts of four states, Ballad Health is clearly a major player in the economy of the Appalachian Highlands region.

Now, with two emerging and complementary initiatives – one focused on innovation and the other a fund to invest in innovation – the Johnson City-headquartered organization is poised to be a national leader in the delivery of rural healthcare. That priority is vitally important to residents of the 29 largely rural counties that Ballad serves in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, Northwest North Carolina, and Southeast Kentucky.

After all, it’s about access to available healthcare at an affordable cost with high-quality outcomes.

Over the past few months, we increasingly had heard leaders in the regional entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem – Heath Guinn at the Sync Space Entrepreneur Center, David Golden at East Tennessee State University’s (ETSU) Research Corporation, and David Nelson of FoundersForge – talk about how Ballad had become more involved in and supportive of their efforts. That led us to a conversation with Bo Wilkes, Managing Director of the Ballad Health Innovation Center and President of Ballad Ventures.

Bo Wilkes

“We’ve been in stealth mode for about two years,” he said in reference to the two complementary initiatives that were conceived in 2019. A major reason for that “under the radar” posture has been the impact of COVID-19 on all business ventures, but particularly those that are focused on delivering healthcare services. Treating patients is the top priority.

Wilkes says that Ballad’s most senior executives – Alan Levine, Executive Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, and Tony Keck, System Innovation and Chief Population Health Officer – and the Board of Directors have remained committed to the innovation vision in spite of the challenges that COVID-19 has presented. How serious? There’s an Innovation Committee of the Board that is chaired by the Chief Information Officer for Eastman Chemical Company, and there is also an Innovation Council that is spearheading the specific activities.

First announced in mid-2019 (see Kingsport Times-News article here), the Ballad Innovation Center is designed to serve as the hub for development of partnerships and collaborations that can bring to market life-saving initiatives and other technologies and services that can improve the human condition. About six months after the Innovation Center was launched, Ballad Ventures was established and made one of its first investments in Winter Innovations LLC, the company co-founded by Lia Winter and Preston Dishner, a native of Northeast Tennessee, and a finalist in the second annual PYA-sponsored “Ballard Innovation Award.”

“Innovation goes beyond a simple new idea, device, service delivery, or method,” Wilkes says. “Rather, innovation is a feasible, relevant offering, such as a product, service, process or experience that is perceived as new, adopted by consumers and found to result in a viable business model.”

Specifically, the Ballad Innovation Center looks for innovation in several areas. One is what Wilkes describes as “inside/out” – the identification and development of intellectual property conceived within Ballad Health that can be commercialized for external markets. The second area is just the opposite: “outside/in” – innovations from others like Winter Innovations that can be used by Ballad Health. The third is focused on the larger innovation ecosystem and successful partnerships with ETSU and others.

“We can’t do it alone,” Wilkes says in relation to partnerships that Ballad Health is forging. To underscore the importance of collaborations, he cites the way that two well-respected healthcare institutions – the Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic – have forged strong and lasting partnerships that have driven not only their respective reputations, but the services they deliver.

To facilitate the complementary initiatives, Ron Moore has been hired as the Manager of the Innovation Center, and Wilkes is recruiting for a Managing Director for Ballad Ventures which invests in early stage healthcare companies that help solve the problems facing the Ballad Health system specifically and the industry more generally. The focus is on: (1) care delivery resulting in improvements with clinical experience, extension of clinical reach, or workforce challenges; (2) patient experience allowing for more personalized care and access; (3) clinical improvements and delivery allowing for improved quality outcomes for the system and industry; and (4) cost of care with emphasis on value-based arrangements.

Ballad Ventures invests in angel, seed, and Series A rounds, typically from $500,000 to $1.5 million. It does not invest in pharma, biopharma, and drug discovery. Wilkes adds that Ballad Ventures prefers to invest alongside strategic partners rather than leading a round. In addition, companies must be ready to partner with Ballad Health through strategic contracts (or line of sight to a contract), research and/or development opportunities, or clinical trials.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, patients have become more tolerant of remote tools like telehealth/telemedicine. “Care anywhere is becoming the mantra,” Wilkes says, so digital tools and techniques are high on Ballad Health’s areas of interest. There’s also considerable interest in emerging innovation areas like robotics, artificial intelligence, and predictive analytics.

Looking to the not too distant future, Wilkes asks, “How can we leverage technology to address the workforce challenges – both at Ballad and within the industry?” That’s just an example of how the leadership at Ballad Health is approaching the challenges of delivering high-quality healthcare at an affordable price, particularly in more rural communities like those it serves.

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