Getting early pilots, and the right pilots, can make a big difference in the success of early stage healthcare startups. That's why a number of digital health accelerators focus on forming strategic partnerships with hospitals and other stakeholders that can serve as pilot sites for their customers, including PilotHealth NYC, which is entirely focused on matching startups with pilots, and Healthbox, whose CEO Nina Nashif told MobiHealthNews last year pilots were a main measure of success for them.
"Healthcare organizations tend to be comfortable with what they’ve always done and who they’ve always worked with," she said at the time. "So taking a risk and working with someone new is not always common.”
At the HxRefactored event in Brooklyn last week, Josh Stein, CEO of AdhereTech, spoke about the lessons his company has learned from its early pilots. AdhereTech, which is developing a smart pillbottle to improve medication adherence, is currently working with two hospitals (Walter Reed and Weill Cornell), two pharma companies (Boehringer Ingelheim and a top five pharma company AdhereTech isn't disclosing), and an also undisclosed pharmacy benefits manager. Stein had seven tips for the startups at HxRefactored that might be embarking on their own pilots in the healthcare space.
1. Be honest
Stein cautioned companies to resist the temptation to puff themselves up in the face of a daunting partnership.
"The last thing you want to do is over promise and under deliver," he said "If you’re very transparent, this risk is much lower than it would be. We also understand the value of early stage companies selling the vision of the company, as opposed to where it is currently. Just be transparent. Say 'It will be here in six months,' and pharma companies, or whatever companies you're [hoping to work] with, will be willing to work with you."
2. Choose the right partner
It might be tempting to work with anyone who will work with you, but vetting partners can help a company set itself up for the future, Stein said.
"I don’t mean cross-examining them," he said. "Just thinking 'Is this organization innovative?' 'Are our interests aligned?' 'Are we trying to get the same thing out of the study?' 'Might they have a high likelihood of becoming a customer if this all works out?'"
3. Grow with your partner
Pilots are an opportunity not just to validate a company's technology but also to iterate, improve and learn what shortcomings might be obvious to a potential customer, that were missed on the development side. Stein urged the audience to listen to these suggestions.
"It’s a very likely scenario that, when you enter into a pilot, the customer may ask you 'Can you also do X?'," he said. "If they’re asking you for that, there’s a high likelihood your other potential customers will see value in that same feature."
4. Fit into your partner's workflow
AdhereTech's philosophy on working with users and working with pilots is remarkably similar, Stein said: Make them do as little work as possible.
"Human behavior is really hard to change, so the less additional steps you’re asking your pilot partner to do to use your solution, the higher likelihood of success," he said. "So we actually flew down to one of our PBM mail-order pharmacies to see how they normally fill prescription pill bottles, and we designed our process around how they normally do things."
Stein said that at the pilot stage, he doesn't think having an API is as important as some people say. But it is important that the partner be able to access whatever data they need easily, one way or another.
5. Do the regulatory work upfront
Being on the level with the FDA and HIPAA will make any company a more attractive pilot partner in the healthcare space, Stein said. It sends the message that a company is serious about working in healthcare.
"One of our pharma partners asked us to register with the FDA [as a Class I medical device]," he said. "We were nervous about it initially, but we did it and it was a fantastic decision. It seems really daunting at first, but when you go through that process not only will it accelerate your development as a company but it will increase the value of your early stage company, because now we’re an FDA-registered Class I medical device."
6. Have an internal champion
"Obviously, as an early stage company, you’re not going to be at every meeting that your pilot partner’s at," Stein said. "If you can have someone there that truly understands the value that you can provide to their organization, chime in and say 'AdhereTech is really great because X,Y,Z', that’s really valuable."
The way to get that champion, he added, is just to do the other things on the list -- be easy to work with and have an effective product. He said that because healthcare companies tend to operate slowly, turning things around in 24 hours is a good way to build a good reputation.
7. Stay positive and thankful
As Healthbox's Nashif pointed out, healthcare companies take a risk when they work with startups on new technologies, even if that's the only way for mobile and digital health to move forward. Stein ended by reminding attendees of the value of that relationship.
"These big healthcare companies are dedicating their time and resources to you and your technology," he said. "Obviously they’re doing it because it will provide value to their organization, but you will hit some speed bumps along the way. If you’re positive and excited to work with them, it’ll go a long way toward increasing the likelihood they’ll become a customer down the line."