Massachusetts government-backed startup accelerator awards $200K to first class, gets $170K for second class

By Jonah Comstock
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In many ways, the Pulse@MassChallenge startup incubator operates like any other startup accelerator. But the differences are key -- the program, part of a public-private partnership with the Commonweatlh of Massachusetts, takes no equity in the startups and doesn't accept startups unless a major healthcare stakeholder wants to work with them as a "champion" in a relationship that's half mentorship, half pilot program. 

Pulse held its awards ceremony last night at the Wilbur Theater in downtown Boston, officially sending off its first cohort of 31 startups and awarding $200,000 to three winning companies. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker also dropped by the party to announce that the Commonwealth will be funding a second class -- to the tune of $170,000 -- and supporting the extension of the program into next year. Another $80,000 is being invested in Baystate Health’s TechSpring technology innovation center in Springfield, Massachusetts.

"Digital health to me means a lot of different things," Baker told the assembled crowd. "It can mean wearable biometric data collection devices. It can mean medical devices that actually help people stay healthy, to manage a chronic illness or an acute concern. It means passive devices that can collect data and information and send them to someone who can continue to monitor how someone is doing with respect to how to manage the chronic illness they have. There’s a million different ways you can apply this and I think that’s what makes the digital space in healthcare so interesting."

Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh kicked off the launch of the program in January of 2016 as part of an initiative to cement Massachusett's position as a leading worldwide hub for digital health.

"This is great stuff," Baker said. "We’re really pleased to be a part of it, and we can’t wait to see what you, and the folks who come after you, and the folks who come after the folks who come after you come up with to help people stay healthy and get better and to do it in ways that two, three years ago just wouldn’t have been imagined. That’s what makes this so much fun for all of us; to watch you conjure up that next great app in digital health."

Two of the three winning companies were developing virtual reality technology. Grand prize winner SyncThink, which took home $100,000 has created eye tracking technology that can be used in screening and monitoring of neurological conditions, starting with concussion. And the $40,000 third prize went to Rendever, which uses virtual reality to improve the lives of older people in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. The third winner, Twiage, operates in the telemedicine space, connecting first responders to clinicians with secure two-way video.

In addition to Baker and Pulse Director Nick Dougherty, many of the presenters of awards were from organizations that worked with the partners as champions. For instance, Julia Jackson, managing director of the Healthcare Transformation Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, said she found working with Pulse a refreshing change.

"When Nick invited us to become a part of this program, he started by asking us ‘What are your strategic priorities?’ And then he asked us to come and reverse pitch startups," Jackson said. "So for a big hospital that gets a lot of requests, that was unique. And that tells me that the Pulse program is actually interested in building a genuine community. And so MGH did come to play, we’re so glad that we did, and we’re really looking forward to continuing to support the growth of these awesome startups next year."

More than 80 organizations wanted to work with the 31 startups, including hospitals, pharma companies, insurance companies, industry groups, medical device companies and others. 

"For us, this is really the goal," Dougherty said. "We built Pulse to give startups real offers. These are real deployments of real technology. This is not just funding them, this is doing real work with real people making a real impact."