HHS innovator: Grants, challenges are growing healthcare entrepreneurs
When you hear “government” and “healthcare,” you probably think Medicare, Medicaid and other government programs directed at the general public.
Wil Yu, director of innovations at the Department of Health and Human Services in the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, by contrast, wants to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem in the private sector to solve big healthcare problems.
His tools? Data liberacion and app challenges that are designed to help entrepreneurs think up and build the next innovative solution for problems facing the industry.
In his government job, the former investment banker and equity analyst:
- Leads several innovation grant programs and created “Investing in Innovations;“
- directs the Strategic Health IT Advanced Research Projects program;
- serves as a senior adviser at the CMS Innovation Center and on the HHS Innovation Council;
- manages the DC-to-VC program;
- and co-founded the Federal mHealth Collaborative.
Yu talked with MedCity News about gaming and health, access to data, and the DC-to-VC program.
MedCity: Many people are skeptical about government’s role in innovation. How can you convince people that government is on their side?
Yu: I think that we are very clear that we support private sector mechanisms for innovation. It is not the goal of the federal government, at least within my office, to innovate on behalf of the public.
If you divide up the process of innovation into multiple steps — everything from the design of the idea to the development of the prototype to reaching proof of concept, to test that opportunity — the federal government is in a position to support the movement of these innovators through those various stages in a very efficient manner.
The federal government has made available through the Health Data Initiative, hundreds of data sets that American people funded. We are trying to make those data sets available to innovators much the same way that we released weather data to folks that develop tools and algorithms on top of that data.
We are trying to release health data as much as ethically and legally possible to the external world so that we can contribute to more informed research and so that we contribute to innovative efforts that ultimately lead to commercialization. We are hosting the Health Datapalooza on June 5 to 6 in Washington, D.C. About a thousand innovators will come and we will hold challenges and competitions around them.
From my standpoint, I have seen some incredible applications and tools that people can build on top of this data. It’s one opportunity that the federal government had not capitalized on in the past, but we are actively trying to do so now by making this data available, helping to encourage innovation and not necessarily try to pick winners and losers.
MedCity: What are some of the projects connecting gaming and healthcare?
Yu: Specifically, we have funded challenge efforts where innovators externally can develop new applications, new tools, new ways of interpreting data. Many of the solutions from external innovators have been games or game focused.
What we love to see is the use of gaming technologies to promote healthy behavior because ultimately, we are trying to innovate around three things: better health, better care and lower cost through continuous quality improvement.
One of the early applications that we funded as a result of the Cancer Data Innovation challenge is called Ask Dory. It’s a personalized assistant to really support connecting patients and their family members to clinical trial researchers nearby.
They are not all games strictly, but they incorporate aspects of gamification to achieve the ultimate goal.
MedCity: Can you talk about the VC-to-DC program?
Yu: Early on, we felt that there was an opportunity to innovate in healthcare and specially in health IT, but we weren’t seeing a lot of activity within the space. We felt that it was incumbent upon the federal government to really highlight these opportunities through various stake holders.
We felt that investors, in particular, were at the time unaware of the level of opportunity that was taking place in health IT and how they could support innovation. We had strong support from Morgenthaler Ventures in Silicon Valley and Lemhi Ventures in Minnesota.
MedCity: You talk about health IT and apps. What kind of apps do you use?
Yu: Especially on my smartphone, I am trying to track some of my health indicators — my weight, calories consumed, level of exercise, how far I have walked. Just trying to be a little more quantified with regard to my own healthcare.
MedCity: Any final thoughts?
Yu: I think that one thing that people fail to appreciate is that healthcare in the future will be data driven.
Imagine a world where patients, their family members, physicians and even other stakeholders like payers and pharmacies, have significantly higher and more robust levels of data, and then ask what will it take to function efficiently within that environment, what would be the IT infrastructure to support it. Then you begin to get a glimpse of what can take place.
If you can think about all the innovations that have taken place with the Internet in terms of how we interact with technology … many of those applications can work within healthcare. Of course privacy and security considerations are paramount, but I think we are in for a very rich era of change and I look forward to helping support that.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.