Average startup evolves over time, not overnight

Published in UT San Diego, June 5, 2012

Everybody remembers that favorite teacher from college. In 2003, University of Pennsylvania senior Eric Heil volunteered to help nursing

Kim Park, Eric Heil and Kathy Bowles

professor Kathy Bowles develop the analytics for a hospital discharge system to reduce preventable readmissions, which cost Medicare $12 billion a year. In 2011, when Heil returned to earn an executive MBA, the two reunited and formed RightCare Solutions to market a product based on her research.

At the recent seventh annual Wireless Health Convergence Summit in San Diego, RightCare Solutions was awarded first prize and $100,000 in the first Janssen Connected Care Challenge sponsored by Janssen Healthcare Innovation, a San Diego-based venture that is owned by pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson. The problem that RightCare solves is which patients are most at risk for readmission within 30 days. The product — D2S2 — uses a proprietary algorithm that assembles, scores and identifies the high-risk patient during the admission process.

The story of RightCare Solutions has several important lessons for entrepreneurs.

First, startups evolve. They don’t always happen overnight. We often think of entrepreneurs like Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg who quickly turn their idea into a company. Many times, that is not the case. With one of our recent investments, we talked with the technical founder for more than a year before we formed the company.

Second, raise your hand. Bowles presented her research to a group of engineering students at Penn and asked for analytical support. Heil was the only one who volunteered to help write an algorithm based on her work.

Third, prizes are becoming a more important source of innovation and of early money for entrepreneurs. In addition to the $100,000 first place Janssen prize, the company also received $50,000 for winning the Wharton business plan competition and $50,000 for being a Janssen finalist. That is $200,000 without giving up any equity. RightCare is using the money to further build out the software and participate in a pilot with four hospitals.

Fourth, a team with diverse skills is essential. Bowles had the technical knowledge, and she needed a partner with a business background to turn her research into a company. Heil was a good fit with an executive MBA and work experience that included serving as director of business development for a biotechnology company and as an associate at a leading life sciences venture-capital firm.

Fifth, it’s nice to have an unfair advantage. In this case, Bowles had received more than $5 million in federal research funding over a period of years. RightCare licensed her work from the University of Pennsylvania, which will benefit if the company is successful.

Sixth, tackle a big problem. RightCare is attempting to solve a multibillion dollar issue. The company is also developing a second product to identify where to refer patients who are high risk for readmission. For example, should they get care at home or go to a skilled nursing facility?

The company is planning to close on $1 million in financing in June. “Winning this prize has catalyzed a number of groups which want to participate. This got them over the top,” said Heil.

Rule No. 58: Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again,” but clearly you can go back to school.

Barbara and I were at multiple events recently. Mine was ACT, the Alternative Clean Transportation conference. The problems being addressed were alternative fuels, cleaner air, new diesel engines and the proliferation of natural gas in all its forms as a source of energy.

What I saw was the classic problem of the innovator’s dilemma reborn in the guise of the chicken-egg syndrome. The clean technology exists, but the scale is not yet here. How do you roll out enough trucks with new engines to match enough fueling stations? This concern is politely called “range anxiety,” not to mention cost to construct. There is an optimistic sense of “if you build it, they will come.” But what if they don’t?

Changing the way we interact with the world, whether it’s patient readmissions or transportation, requires persistence and dedication. Maybe it’s time for all of us to go back to school.

Neil Senturia and Barbara Bry, serial entrepreneurs who invest in early-stage technology companies, take turns in writing this weekly column about entrepreneurship in San Diego. Please email ideas to Barbara at bbry@blackbirdv.com

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