HHS Start-Up Day: Have bespoke, short pitches — and always have an ask

Armand Lauzon, founder of a company that’s trying to provide foot and hand care for high risk diabetic patients at-home, listens as “on-stage mentors” Tod Fetherling and Connie McGee critique his pitch at a joint event hosted on June 6, 2018, by the Nashville Health Care Council and HHS. Photo/NHCC

In a live, less glitzy “Shark Tank,” several Nashville start-ups were on stage selling their product to federal and local health leaders: there were some nerves, several apologies for powerpoint gaffes, and real-time learning about what the ‘investors’ wanted to hear.

Tod Fetherling complimented MannieBear Technologies for its “great emotional hook” but pointed out “I never heard the ask… Always have a big ask.”

MannieBear, which has developed digital stories to help therapists engage and treat children, was the first to pitch, so subsequent companies learned from Fetherling.

Utilize Health’s Lon Hecht, chief revenue officer, “wasn’t planning to have an ask” but opened the door to partnership conversations, investors interested in the business or others looking to analyze government data.

Connie McGee, who works for Microsoft in Nashville, reminded the executives they can’t set out to “boil the ocean” so pitches should be tight and focus on the market most likely positioned for success.

And what about all the apologies for powerpoint hiccups?

“Practice. Practice. Practice,” said Fetherling, CEO of Perception Health, on stage at the event hosted by the Nashville Health Care Council and the Nashville Tech Council. “If you can’t talk through the numbers without slides — you’re not ready.”

Introducing start-ups, earlier, to the government

The pitch session closed out a HHS Start-Up Day, a summit designed to help start-ups, or any company, that wants to attempt to crack the “black box” of working with government health agencies.

It’s a way to explain “how you can actually talk to folks in government,” said Ed Simcox, acting chief technology officer of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Amanda Waller, founder of MannieBear Technologies, pitches the company’s digital tools to help and hasten mental health treatment for children to a panel of health care experts in a “Shark Tank”-style session hosted by the Nashville Health Care Council in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Photo/NHCC

Simcox reeled off the problems with dealing with government: lengthy decision making processes, ambiguous priorities, byzantine administration that makes it hard to find the right contact.

He understands that some companies have “just sort of given up” and that’s one reason why HHS is out on the road hosting start-up days around the country. Simcox came in place of Bruce Greenstein, the chief technology officer of HHS who left earlier this month to return to the private sector.

Nashville’s health care tableau has expanded but its core remains hospital centric

It was also a chance for Nashville’s health care technology to show off its potential and distinguish itself from the city’s deep rooted facility operator and services sector. 

A 2016 report tipped Nashville as a potential hub for health care technology but also outlined the obstacles that face the deeply hospital-centric local sector.

Michael Burcham, a longtime fixture of the city’s health care roster, said he’s seen the city change over the last eight years to include an expanded health care technology space.

But there’s frequently a disconnect, which Burcham noted, between the companies that see themselves as the tech-enabled vanguard of fresh thinking and the giants that, perhaps quietly, like the status quo or prefer the manual systems they structured over the years to protect patient care.

“We have a lot of tech people trying to solve a problem they don’t even understand,” Burcham said. “There’s also a lot of hospital people, terrified, who would just as soon have people with manila folders than technology.”


TennCare: ‘In very short, tell me a problem you can solve’

Hugh Hale, chief information officer of TennCare, and Simcox both said they want to hear from companies that understand the agencies, where the friction points lie, and have thoughtful solutions.

Hale specifically noted that entrepreneurs should avoid starting an email by asking if he’d be interested in hearing about something.

“All my needs are on the internet… I’m very transparent,” said Hale. “We’re starving for innovation so we need you to approach us, but I want you to do it thoughtfully.”

Simcox highlighted Blue Button 2.0, which gives API access to live Medicare data as a way to “liberate the data” and encourage developers to dig in. The program can have an app reviewed and approved in two weeks, which he said “is a little bit unheard of in government.”

Hugh Hale, chief information officer of TennCare, talked about what he looks for in pitches from start-ups or would-be partners. Ed Simcox, acting chief technology officer of HHS (center) and Michael Burcham, founder of Narus Health, joined Hale on June 6, 2018, for a discussion about the pitfalls, realities and rewards of trying to work with government agencies. Photo/NHCC

Hale and Simcox underscored the importance of being clear and concise with what is on offer, and knowing when to push back if a request is outside of a company’s scope or resources.

Sometimes, Hale said, ‘it’s like an elephant helping a mouse” in that “if we move we may hurt you.

Simcox urged entrepreneurs to seek out subcontractors that have positive relationships with HHS and “don’t let the government take advantage of you.”

They said they are open to crafted and smart pitches.

Outside of a request for proposals or request for information, an introduction or even a cold LinkedIn pitch could get Hale’s attention.

“I’m on LinkedIn… in very short, tell me a problem you can solve,” Hale said. “I may not respond but I do read them all.”

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