For year two, Pulse@MassChallenge brings back reverse pitches, adds fee

By Jonah Comstock
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Pulse@MassChallenge, a startup accelerator/contest backed by the city of Boston, the commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, opened applications for its second class this week. While there are some changes stemming from lessons learned, the organization is mostly considering the more experimental elements of the program a success and continuing them into year two.

First and foremost of those is the idea of the "reverse pitch" -- rather than startups pitching solutions, healthcare stakeholders including hospitals, insurers, and pharma companies pitch their problems, giving the startups some time between now and October 10th (when applications close) to tailor their approach. Pulse refers to those stakeholders as champions, and they will each ultimately be paired with a startup from the program to offer mentorship and, often, pilot opportunities.

"The thought process behind this came from my experience and that of other entrepreneurs in the area where it’s really difficult as a startup to understand where the priorities are of the customers you’re looking to talk with," Pulse@MassChallenge Director Nick Dougherty told MobiHealthNews. "Even if you have a solution that can decrease the top line, increase the bottom line, and improve the experience for staff and patients, you still might not get adopted because you weren’t part of the strategic plan or the budget for that year. And you might get into the next year’s budget, but then you’re looking into a 24-month sales cycle and you’ve got 18 months of runway and you die before you get to the promised land."

Reverse pitches happen now, at the start of the application process (one session was on Tuesday; another is scheduled for September 13th). In December, before startups are matched with champions, startups chosen for the program will do a session of regular pitches as well.

Almost all of the champions from last year are staying on, Dougherty said, and some new companies are joining in, among them Aetna, OSF Healthcare in Michigan, and Campbell's (yes, the soup company). Campbell's invested last fall in Habit, a personalized nutrition startup. They're interested in the nutrition space here, too, as is AARP, one of the returning champions.

In addition to nutrition, other focus areas for the stakeholders in the program include mental health, health disparities, and the opioid epidemic. A number of companies are also particularly interested in AI and machine learning.

"One compelling thing that Massachusetts General Hospital is focusing on is that fourth pillar of the quadruple aim, which is improving the provider experience and reducing administrative burden and burnout," Dougherty said. "The burnout is real in some of these large institutions and people are leaving medicine, so they want to make sure that the [provider] experience is a good one."

The big difference between year one and year two? This time around, Pulse is adding an entry fee: $49 for early birds and $99 regular price. Dougherty says he expects the change to decrease the quantity of applicants, but increase the quality.

"The reason we’re introducing the fee is a number of applicants last year didn’t complete profiles and didn’t take it as seriously as we would have liked them to," Dougherty said. "The people who are reading this are director, VP-level people and we didn’t want to waste our judges' time with people who don’t take it seriously."

Even startups who don't get picked for the program will get value out of applying, Dougherty said, which makes the fee a reasonable ask.

"No matter what, you’re going to get a pool of amazing judges reading and providing written feedback on your company," he said. "That’s the worst case scenario. And then the best case scenario is you get multiple strategic partners and you get to collaborate in this great program."