AI-enabled platforms. Smart needles. Mobile-based healthcare. These were some of the themes pitched by startup founders at Venture Hall’s inaugural Demo Day, held in Portland on Sept. 8.
The 13-week accelerator graduated its first cohort of six promising early-stage, health and wellness-focused startups, and offered them a chance to present their companies to an audience of roughly 200 people from Maine’s startup ecosystem, including accredited investors. (The event was live streamed online and is available in two parts: here and here.)
David Roux, a Maine native and co-founder of Silicon Valley-based Silver Lake Partners, one of the largest tech-focused private equity firms in the country, kicked off the event with a keynote talk that discussed the nature and importance of entrepreneurship.
“In theory, entrepreneurs are the engines of our advanced modern economy, and they account for about half the growth of the economy,” he said. “They are risk-seeking missiles. At a societal level, risk-seeking is a useful pathology: it helps you get past all the very good reasons you shouldn’t start a business.”
Roux, who also serves as chairman of The Jackson Laboratories’ board, made an impassioned pitch for Portland to start an engineering school in the city, an idea the audience loved.
Venture Hall’s accelerator chose the startups from a pool of 83 applicants from 23 states and seven countries. They each focus on frontline caregivers, and have a working prototype of a product, app, or service that helps to improve efficiency, lower costs, increase engagement, reduce errors, and save resources for providers and patients. Venture Hall partnered with Village Capital, a Washington, D.C.-based global accelerator and venture capital firm, to develop the curriculum.
Two of the six startups—SpinDoc and SmartSharps—are based in Maine, but Venture Hall CEO Mike Sobol said that’s not because they had any quota to meet.
“The border did not factor into our decision-making process,” he said. “There are two Maine companies in our cohort not because they’re from Maine, but because they are able to clear a very high national bar for competition.”
Unum, a major insurance provider, and MaineHealth, the largest healthcare system in the state and parent company of Maine Medical Center, each provided $100,000 in financial support to make Venture Hall’s plan to launch a startup accelerator a reality. The two companies also offered mentors, resources, connections, and subject matter experts to the entrepreneurs to support learning, rapid iteration, and improvement.
“We have a long term, established interest in nurturing these emerging businesses,” said Ted Reed, vice president for business development at Unum. “Their work is relevant to our business because they may help solve a problem for one of our clients. And our employees learned from the entrepreneurs, who have the kind of questioning, ambition, and refreshing perspective that can be hard to teach.”
MaineHealth President Bill Caron agreed that the accelerator’s first year was “a phenomenal exercise.” He valued the exchange of information in both directions, and praised the opportunity to partner with Unum on a project focused on Portland’s economic development. “This gave MaineHealth an opportunity to innovate,” he said. “It showed that we can develop great ideas right here in Portland.”
Accelerator graduate Mehmet Kazgan, Founder and CEO of cliexa, says that getting access to leaders like Missy Cormier, director of MaineHealth’s Chronic Disease Program, made a difference.
“Venture Hall had connections, and as startups, that’s what we need. We’re always hoping to learn from our customers, and getting into rooms with clinicians and executive leadership at a major health system allowed us to learn and improve rapidly,” Kazgan said. “I found Portland to be innovative, open-minded, and backed by the kinds of state initiatives and grants that entrepreneurs seek when we’re looking to grow.”
Darryl Palmer, Co-Founder and CTO of Janus Choice, based in St. Louis, said that his experience with the Venture Hall accelerator inspired him and his wife, also a co-founder, to start a second office in Portland.
“Thirty days in, we knew we needed an office in Maine,” he said. “There’s wealth in Maine that’s not about its architecture or natural landscape. It’s about the people who are here. Unum helped me to see that patient choice is power, and we looked forward to talking to people at MaineHealth every day. There’s security when your values and mission align.”
Sobol said the real advantage of the accelerator is that it adds value to Maine’s existing business environment. “Everything we do is geared toward activating the resources already here in our ecosystem,” he said.
“The accelerator helped us to swarm people around problems,” Sobol continued. “Venture Hall aligned interests and developed ongoing relationships with experts, startup boosters, and mentors. That’s our development strategy for Maine: advance the circumstances you have, including the fact that startups can get better access to experts in our close community, which means more access to cutting-edge opportunities.”
Sobol said Venture Hall “absolutely” plans to host a second cohort.
“We are currently catching our breath, reviewing how things went, and developing what a 2018 program might look like, as we continue to support the teams that just completed the program,” he said.
Venture Hall’s inaugural graduating class of startups consists of the following companies:
- SmartSharps, now part of CareWorks, is based in Maine and has developed needle systems that help doctors eliminate patient harm from incorrect needle placement. The company is currently miniaturizing its devices for clinical testing, validating regulatory strategy, and securing IP protections for follow-on applications.
- Welnys, based in New Jersey, has a platform that helps companies manage the logistics of their on-site employee wellness programs. This quarter, Welnys closed partnerships with over 500 health and wellness vendors and signed deals with companies including Jet.com, Justworks, and Venom.
- LIVZO, from San Francisco, is a disease management platform designed to help the 26 million chronic kidney disease patients in the US manage a rigorous diet and health regimen. A beta version of the platform has been adopted by more than 200 users, dialysis patients in a consumer discovery pilot, and Kaiser Permanente nurses. LIVZO is also conducting a medical study with Emory University and Fresenius Medical Care.
- Janus Choice, headquartered in St. Louis, just opened a second office in Portland. The company has developed an Artificial Intelligence platform that helps match patients with post-acute care providers. Janus Choice currently has a sales pipeline of more than 300 hospitals, and it was recently named a Jumpstart Foundry and a Singularity University company.
- SpinDoc, based in Maine, automates the process of matching the millions of documents physician practices and hospitals receive each year to the patient’s electronic health record. The company recently completed its first pilot with ten physicians and is moving into production in October 2017, with plans to commercialize next year.
- Cliexa, from Denver, uses an interactive mobile platform that helps chronic disease patients report their conditions to directly to care teams. The company will continue its work with MaineHealth to integrate and expand its mobile platform to track congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.