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The Future of Health Innovation in Austin: 3 Things to Know

Dec. 20, 2021

Quick: What’s the first city you think of when you picture “health innovation”? Is it Boston? The Bay Area, maybe? Well, consider adding Austin to that list.

A panel hosted on Dec. 9 by Texas Health Catalyst explored what makes Austin a prime place to move the needle on health innovation — and what might be holding us back. The takeaways?

No. 1: Without Baggage, Austinites Can Innovate Freely

Every health and innovation ecosystem across the U.S. has unique strengths. One of Austin’s strengths is that innovators here can start fresh. And, crucially, it’s a bona fide tech hub that also hosts a prestigious public research university with a young, mission-driven medical school — so expertise and new ideas are in no short supply.

“In some sense, Austin has the benefit of not having a lot of history,” says Garheng Kong, M.D., Ph.D., MBA, managing partner at HealthQuest Capital. “One analogy is mobile phones: In the United States, we had all these copper wires and phone lines overhead, and then we went to mobile phones. Other countries that never had landlines went straight to mobile phones and didn’t have to overcome the existing infrastructure. In the same way, people here can innovate afresh and not get slowed down by legacy systems.”

No. 2: … But the Ecosystem Needs to Be ‘Stickier’

We want companies to be born here and, ultimately, stay here. Austin’s health innovation and medtech ecosystem must be “sticky” enough to retain local talent and encourage growth; among other things, that means increased access to capital, more coordinated relationships between partners and leaders, and incentivizing larger companies to maintain a local presence.

“When our successful startups in Austin are bought, they typically go to corporate headquarters that are in other cities,” says Lauren Forshey, president of Revival Capital. “Twelve months after they get bought, they’re gone — the Austin shop is closed. We need to have a robust enough ecosystem for the talent that we’ve brought here to stay here.”

No. 3: Goal — Build an Organic Community of Experts

There’s an abundance of expertise across sectors with which to build a community of experts — medtech, pharmaceuticals, systems design and more. Local leaders would do well to avoid identifying an area of specialty in advance before building up such a community; let progress develop naturally and see what strengths arise that serve the betterment of health for Central Texas patients and families.

“We need to continue to advance health and health care in Austin,” says George Macones, M.D., interim dean at Dell Med. “One of the ways to do that is what we’re doing here at Dell Med, which is to continue our rapid evolution into a world-class academic medical center that will serve the people and patients of Central Texas.”

Background

On the panel, Texas Health Catalyst director Nishi Viswanathan, M.D., MBA, moderated a discussion with Macones, Kong, Forshey and Brian Windsor, Ph.D., CEO of Lung Therapeutics, Inc.

Texas Health Catalyst is a collaborative, cross-campus initiative of Dell Medical School with the Cockrell School of Engineering, College of Natural Sciences, College of Pharmacy and Office of Technology Commercialization that supports innovation across all health care sectors and advances early-stage discoveries that have the potential to improve health. It’s part of the CoLab at Dell Med, a hub for product innovation and entrepreneurship.

The panel convened as part of Texas Health Catalyst’s annual Demo Day, where teams supported by Catalyst presented projects like an at-home STD test and a wearable device for monitoring brain hemorrhages.

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