Faster, slower: How the West Coast and East Coast look at digital health

By Laura Lovett
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Panelists at MassBio's Digital Health Impact event yesterday talk the pros and cons of the West Coast's tech culture and the East Coast's clinical tradition.

Photo Credit: MassBio

Startups can have a difficult time striking a balance between the fast pace of tech culture and healthcare’s slow-and-steady validation culture.

In part, the culture clash is a West Coast-East Coast divide, with tech giants congregating for the most part in California and hospitals and pharma in the Northeast, according to a panel moderated by CNBC’s Christina Farr at the MassBio Digital Health Impact event on Monday. 

But digital health companies have sprouted up in both locations, with the Bay Area, New York City, Boston and Los Angeles topping the charts of the most active health tech startup deals, according to Startup Health.

“I do believe that on the East Coast we take a long time because we want to get it right,” Lesley Solomon, SVP and chief innovation officer at Dana-Farber, said. “We want to have that evidence-based work show through, and say it is clinically validated, and therefore I can move forward on the product.”

In contrast, Solomon said tech tends to move faster. However, she stressed that both approaches have their merits. 

“I think there is something in between where you can get the clinical validation, but you can also start to get up and running,” Solomon said. “If we could pick a little bit of that attitude up from the West Coast, I think it would move things along faster.”

To some degree, approach is associated with local expertise.

“I worked for Google, a West Coast company. I do think we very much appreciate and can learn from the tech side. It is an important side, and at the end of the day we need to make sure we are leveraging data, so we very much welcome that,” Luba Greenwood, a Harvard lecturer, said. “But I think we would like to get back to the life sciences aspect because we go through digital health with a life science lens, versus our West Coast colleagues, who usually look through the tech and data lens. 

"I personally think looking at life sciences and tech through the life sciences lens approach is a better approach because at the end of the day, we are dealing with people’s lives.”

It’s no secret that health is in vogue in the tech world. But there is sometimes a lack of understanding from not just startups but investors.

“I think there was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm from tech investors in the early days thinking, 'Healthcare is the next big thing, I want a piece of that,' without truly understanding the entire ecosystem,” Grace Colon, CEO of InCarda, said. 

Part of those ecosystems are the providers and hospital systems, which often want hard evidence before rolling out a new program. 

“At its core, healthcare is a very skeptical group of people,” Dr. Yuri Marichich, chief medical officer at Pear Therapeutics, said. “They are people who deal with some of the biggest challenges we face. So, it’s not a tell me world; it’s a show me world.”

But startups looking to prove their mettle in a pilot can run into a new set of challenges. Solomon said working with a large academic hospital such as Brigham and Women’s, where she previously ran the iHub, can be slow-going for startups. 

“What I would recommend to a lot of the startups that would come to us was to actually first go to a community hospital,” she said. “They will get it up and running faster. Then maybe there is another academic medical center that has some researchers there that might want to work with you and can get it done a little bit speedier than possibly we could. Then could you work with us and we can come to an agreement.”

She also advises startups to look for faculty who might be a good fit for the pilot, rather than putting the extra burden on the innovation team, which might be short on extra time. 

While the two coasts may not see eye to eye on approach, panelists agreed each has strengths to offer the digital health world. 

“I would love for us on the East Coast to work with our West Coast brothers and sisters to develop more tools to really empower our patients,” Dr. Raolat Abdulai, clinical research director at Sanofi, said.