Despite the increased interest in telehealth brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, for healthtech startups in Canada, a key challenge remains commercialization. Whether navigating the murky waters of public or private sector procurement, “you can’t do healthcare innovation unless you figure out who pays,” according to MedStack CEO Balaji Gopalan.
One of the best bridges over these murky waters is a pilot program, which provides startups with a first customer to unlock revenue, credibility, and needed feedback. So when Ryerson University expanded its Venture Zone programs to Brampton and opened applications for its first healthtech incubator program, sourcing corporate pilots became a key focus.
The power of pilots
Young startups have the benefit of being nimble with product development, but are still left with the big challenge of picking the right thing to build. Corporate pilots help address this concern, said Usha Srinivasan, the Director of Ryerson Venture Zone (RVZ) Brampton, because building for a commercial pilot focuses a startup’s energy.
“Without market and customer validation, startups do not know if they are building something valuable,” said Srinivasan. “Corporate pilots are a way to get that validation.”
“Without market and customer validation, startups do not know if they are building something valuable. Corporate pilots are a way to get that validation.”
Pilots aren’t just about product validation, though. Large healthcare entities often avoid working with startups due to concerns with their ability to handle the scope of work or being around long enough to navigate regulatory approvals. A partner like Ryerson Venture Zone helping to source pilots de-risks the value proposition on both sides.
“Corporates care about their customers and will bring a startup product for pilot study to see if it has some market interest before potentially becoming the first client for that product,” said Srinivasan.
Dynacare is one such healthcare corporation. Headquartered in Brampton, Dynacare provides a variety of medical and laboratory services for patients, healthcare providers, and corporate clients. VP of HR and Communications Donna Pascal said that working with startups fits in with the company’s core values of innovation and supporting overall health in the Brampton community.
“Our business expertise could help [startups] think through some of the challenges they may be experiencing” as they start their businesses, she said.
From the startup perspective, pilots are fantastic… if only they can find or get access to the right partner. Startup founders typically have difficulty finding the right point of entry with corporate partners, and with no healthcare conferences happening right now due to COVID-19, intermediaries like Ryerson are valuable in helping to facilitate introductions.
Sundar Manku, the co-founder and CEO of healthtech startup MedaKi, said this was the key value he found through RVZ.
“Getting an introduction with large organizations can be difficult, but through the RVZ program, we get to dive deep into the problems industry leaders such as Dynacare and AGE-WELL are trying to solve,” said Manku.
The right structure to scale
After the introductions are made, a successful pilot requires managing a lot of moving parts, especially when it comes to healthcare. This is where a third partner like Ryerson can help startups and corporates alike by building the background infrastructure. To help startups see what needs large healthcare companies have, RVZ holds industry challenges where corporations pose problem statements and startups build proposed solutions to pilot.
“We bring startup teams and entrepreneurs on board to solve for specific problem statements that are put forward by the corporates,” said Srinivasan.
This not only helps startups focus their resources, but also gives corporations a chance to meet multiple startups and get to know them before committing to a large contract.
“By the time the companies are engaged with them for a pilot they are a known entity,” said Srinivasan.
Manku said he loved the challenge concept explicitly because it helped him focus MedaKi’s efforts in a sea of problems to solve.
“Through the problem statements provided by the industry partners and the design thinking course, we were able to pinpoint key issues faced by the healthcare system in our community and pivoted our solution to meet those needs,” said Manku.
Srinivasan added that, if a startup already has a fleshed-out product with a value proposition and some revenue, then RVZ focuses on helping them find new clients. That may be through a partner in the industry challenge or another avenue.
On the corporate side, Pascal said that finding the right startup for Dynacare to support is not just a matter of technological capability. She said she looks to ensure the startups know what they are building, why it’s valuable, and how it can help both Dynacare and the broader community. In other words, you can’t build a solution just because a corporation told you to.
“The question I think is so essential is, ‘what problem are you trying to solve?’” said Pascal. “If you can’t articulate that, it’s very, very difficult for an outsider to really try to align with you or support you.”
Building a healthtech ecosystem
Because innovation hubs like Ryerson have an opportunity to help young startups skip over some of the bigger challenges a startup can face with commercialization, RVZ engages with corporations as early – and as often – as possible. It’s not just about the ask to pilot with a startup.
“Our engagement with the corporates starts way before the pilot stage,” said Srinivasan. “We engage them right from identifying the problem statements or the white space where they see a gap in innovation and are looking for solutions.”
“We need to address healthcare from all angles.”
For Pascal, that mentality works perfectly for healthcare companies like Dynacare that value innovation and community support.
“We were quite intrigued because we felt that this type of initiative not only supports our core value of innovation, but we’re very committed to the community of Brampton, where we’re headquartered,” said Pascal.
Further, it’s not just about healthcare problems Dynacare can sell solutions for. It’s about a broader healthcare mandate.
“This for us is a bigger picture,” said Pascal. “We need to address healthcare from all angles.”
For healthtech startups, these early introductions and pilots can be invaluable. It’s one thing for a startup to try to make inroads on their own. It’s another thing entirely when a third party like Ryerson Venture Zone is in your corner.
“By focusing on solving problems together with industry partners, we hope to get our service in the hands of patients that need it the most to show the impact young startups and large organizations can have when they work together,” said Manku.