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Who's Marcus Whitney? An Emerging Force Behind Healthcare Innovation

Analysis  |  By Mandy Roth  
   October 29, 2018

The CEO, investor, and entrepreneur behind Health:Further shares perspectives about how innovation is transforming healthcare.

Marcus Whitney, CEO of the Nashville innovation event Health:Further, knows something about innovation because he's a man who designed his own destiny. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and says he could have headed down a much different path in life. Instead, he's become a force on the scene of healthcare innovation, a path that started 18 years ago when he became a computer programmer at HealthStream, with little formal training.

He's a connector by nature, building bridges and alliances between people and organizations, a skill he has parlayed beyond his own career, touching the lives of thousands of people and hundreds of organizations determined to remake or impact the healthcare system. Connecting, he says, serves as a catalyst for change, and health systems can better position themselves for the future by creating platforms for innovation.

Whitney is also president and cofounder of Briovation, a company focused on stimulating health innovations, and founder of Jumpstart Foundry, a four-year-old seed-stage healthcare innovation fund. One of its greatest successes was the launch of Sightbox, an end-to-end consumer contact lens subscription service that includes an annual visit to any optometrist who takes payment via the phone, and 12 months of contact lenses for a set monthly fee. The concept was so successful the company was purchased by Johnson & Johnson.

I spoke with Whitney about Health:Further, how innovation will impact the future of healthcare, and the role of health systems and entrepreneurs in that dynamic. Following is an excerpt of our discussion, edited for clarity and space.

HealthLeaders: Four years after launching, your innovation conference Health:Further has become a significant event in the Southeast for healthcare innovation. How did it get started?

Marcus Whitney: We needed a way to engage the industry, and convening is a good way to do that. People like to come together if the value proposition is right. There wasn't a great gathering in our market that focused on innovation and the future state of the healthcare industry, so we saw that as an opportunity to provide value. Over the last four years we've built out a network of industry professionals who are clearly engaged and interested in what the future state of the industry is going to look like. Now we're exploring more strategic ways to engage with that network.

HL: What impact does an event like Health:Further have on healthcare innovation?

Whitney: Convening is a catalyst for relationships. if you bring the right people together, and you can create the right relationships, some amazing innovation and change can happen as a result of that. It's a pretty simple recipe. It's our job to really think about who we want in the room. If we are able to connect this person with that person, what could they do two or three years after developing a relationship that they couldn't have done before? That's what we try to do for thousands of people. Our job is to be a catalyst for relationships and also to provide insight that will help innovators and industry leaders to do their jobs more effectively.

HealthLeaders: What are the three biggest trends on the horizon that you think will have the greatest impact on healthcare innovation?

Whitney: That's a big question. There are trends bigger than healthcare at play here:

1. The Rural-Urban Divide

One really big trend is the rural and urban divide in America. The divide is significant, and we're seeing that play out in politics and in healthcare. There's an influx to the urban core because that's where economic vibrancy is right now. It's a big deal because in urban settings you have a much different economic mix, and people can afford to pay for healthcare in different ways. The types of providers also are very different.

There's a real need for healthcare innovation in rural America. We're not going to be able to continue to provide care in the way that we have because of the lower reimbursement rates. We're [also] seeing rural hospitals either being sold off by large health systems or just close completely at a rate that we haven't seen in the last 50 years. That's a big trend. There are lots of opportunities, but there are lots of challenges, as well.

2. Demographic Shift

Another big trend is demographics. It's about the shifts in generations. Baby boomers are moving out of power and millennials are moving into power. My generation, Generation X, is sandwiched between those two. We're a smaller generation by numbers. I don't want to say we're irrelevant, but we don't matter quite as much.

The boomers are a big deal with the whole silver tsunami, the number of people that are going to be on Medicare, and how much longer people are living. It's going to create a whole new situation in healthcare, especially for Medicare, than we've ever had before. The millennials are going to introduce new expectations in terms of the way that they want to receive their care and the data that they expect to have access to have to. I think they're also going to start impacting legislation over the next 10 to 14 years.

3. Interoperability

Another exciting trend that everyone needs to watch—because it's going to impact both the healthcare market and healthcare legislation—is interoperability. When we can achieve interoperability, it is going to open up care coordination and new care models that we just can't have right now because the data is so fragmented. There appears to be a serious push from the government, [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services], and the Blue Button initiative to drive towards sort of forced interoperability.

Once all this data was on paper, then we had the HITECH Act, and that moved everything into the electronic medical records, but the data is siloed. If we can get through the next big push and get that data, along with claims data, and other things, we could be truly interoperable. You can just imagine the wave of innovation that could come on top of that. When we can get to the point where our [medical] records are truly accessible, that's going to be a big game changer and that's probably the most optimist trend. I'm excited about interoperability.

HL: If you could recommend ONE thing health systems should do in the realm of innovation, what would it be?

Whitney: Health systems have to figure out ways to become platforms for innovation. They have some incredible resources: operational capabilities, financial capabilities, serious capital, and incredible data. One of the biggest resources health systems have is the data that they sit on. This gets back to interoperability, but often, it's siloed.

Quite frankly, health systems are not designed to innovate from the inside. They're designed to care for people in an integrated way and to manage that process. But we're in this era where there's no question we have to change the way that we provide care.

We need better outcomes. We need them at lower costs. Doing business as usual is not going to be the way that we get there. Health systems have an opportunity to play a big role. We're going to see more and more offerings for care outside of hospitals­­—even acute care in specialty facilities.

If they can figure out a way to become platforms for innovation, while not letting their day-to-day business fall off a cliff, it can be incredible for them and also for the communities that they serve.

HL: What are some of the considerations you weigh when your company sizes up prospects for investment? Some health systems have innovation arms that are doing the same thing and might learn from your process.  

Whitney: It's very important to say that we are industry-first investors. [Some considerations include]:

  • We are focused on understanding viable opportunities in the market. The venture world is all about making smart investments, which means there has to be a product-market fit if there is going to be real value.
  • We like to work with incredible entrepreneurs who have the right ideas, and have put together the right team, and have built great products.
  • It's hard to know whether something's viable or not in healthcare. I don't know how [entrepreneurs] do that without having real relationships with the industry and having conversations with decision-makers who have budget authority.
  • If you have previously worked inside of the industry, if you have relationships and you've been able to validate [your idea], that's super exciting.
  •  If you've already proven [your idea] through some market traction—you've gotten your first two or three pilots up and running—that's really helpful.
  • If you've simply got an idea based on things you've been reading, and you built a product, but you have no real market traction, no map, and no validation, we probably will not be investing.

HL: Do you have a philosophy about innovation that you'd like to share?

Whitney: You have to be a lifelong learner. You're striving to make "something" better, but you have to understand a lot about the "something" before you can improve it. There's rarely a point where you have it all figured out.

Everyone has something to offer. [You need to] continue to have conversations with people, always being open to learning, and stay away from being the smartest person in the room and knowing it all. The more you learn, the more likely you actually can be successful and make something better.

Mandy Roth is the innovations editor at HealthLeaders.

Photo credit: iStock Photo


Connecting with others focused on innovation serves as a catalyst for transformation.

The urban-rural divide, demographic shifts, and interoperability are the trends that have the greatest impact on healthcare innovation.

Health systems have a valuable resource to contribute to innovation initiatives: data.

Great ideas have minimal value unless there is a product-market fit.

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