What’s driving millennials to health tech?

by Judy Wang on July 28, 2014

Judy Wang, MS, is a program manager in the Telehealth Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. She is currently serving on the Mayor’s ONEin3 Council, which works on projects dedicated to maximizing the positive impact that young people have on the City of Boston.

young health tech entrepreneurs

(ITU/Rowan Farrell creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode)

If you Google the term “millennials,” you’ll see that Google automatically fills in such search terms as “millennials lazy,” “millennials spoiled,” “millennials trophy kids” and “millennials entitled.” Ouch.

As part of the Mayor’s ONEin3 Council and a Founding Hacker for MIT’s H@cking Medicine, I could not disagree more with this assessment of my generation. I’ve observed young people increasingly drawn to civically minded work with public impact—including work in health tech.

Several successful startup companies that formed out of H@cking Medicine hackathons, for example, were launched by entrepreneurs under the age of 35 (Smart Scheduling and PillPack, to name a few).

Given that talented young people could be working in other industries, why choose to be an entrepreneur in health tech? I posed this question to some young Boston-based entrepreneurs.

Drawn to a challenge

“After school, I wanted to explore my options, but a lot of the options had to do with business or general consulting,” says engineer Liz Asai, 22, co-founder and CEO of the teledermatology company 3Derm and a Healthbox graduate. “For many college students, Wall Street is seen as the ‘safe’ route. With entrepreneurship, you’re doing something new and exciting.”

Millennial entrepreneurs

(ITU/Rowan Farrell)

Asai and her co-founder, Elliot Swart, were sophomores when they explored the possibility of engineering a 3-D surgical probe that could assess a tissue’s tactile properties without exploratory surgery. They pivoted to exploring how 3-D imaging technology could be used in dermatology, so they could enter an entrepreneurship competition around primary care innovations. They ended up winning a $100,000 primary health care prize from the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT).

“We thought we were millionaires,” Asai laughs. “We weren’t just playing around in the lab anymore.”

Other young health tech entrepreneurs report similar motivations: The health care space is challenging and exciting, with the potential to impact a wide audience.

“From a scale perspective, health is a major issue for so many people,” says Cole Boskey, 27, co-founder and Chief Growth Officer of Wellable, which uses consumer technology to help employees be proactive about their health. “I can’t think of another space that is as complicated and challenging: how people think about and manage their health.”

“At the beginning, it was just a desire to have fun—a lot of really smart people are at hackathons and interested in health care,” says Crystal Law, 29, co-founder and CEO of Twiage, which leverages mobile devices to provide emergency room physicians with up-to-date information from paramedics in the field.

Millennial entrepreneurs

(ITU/Rowan Farrell)

Twiage is one of many startups focused on unsolved “pain points” that physicians, patients and consumers experience in their everyday activities. The company began last year at a H@cking Medicine hackathon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital as a way to ease the patient handoff and clinician communication processes.

LeanBox, a food services company, grew out of co-founder and CEO Shea Coakley’s difficulty in accessing healthy, affordable food near his workplace. “This is a major gap,” says Coakley, 30. “How do we tackle this healthy food piece that is one piece of the grander health care problem?”

Age discrimination?

While all health tech entrepreneurs encounter barriers as they grow and fund their businesses, young entrepreneurs often face another barrier: age.

“A lot of people don’t trust young entrepreneurs in this space, even though young entrepreneurs have changed other [technology] spaces,” says Asai. She points out that Facebook, Google and Uber were all created by young entrepreneurs and didn’t seem to receive the same scrutiny that health tech companies face.

Law agrees. “We’re met with more skepticism because we’re younger and trying to implement change with people who sometimes like things the way they are,” she says. But there are supporters as well. “Many people we work with have been exceptional champions for us and are hungry for change.”

Boskey feels that his age is an asset: It’s allowed him to commit to building Wellable full time and take bigger risks. “If you’re older, you might have a larger network and you might be more successful more quickly, but I don’t really see that as a barrier to entry,” he says. “There are a lot of resources to help younger entrepreneurs.”

While Boston has a supportive startup ecosystem, and health care is ripe for disruptive innovation, all four young entrepreneurs caution that health care still moves relatively slowly.

“It’s not the type of startup that you can turn around in two years,” warns Asai, “but it’s definitely worth it. Even incremental changes can have a large impact.”

Despite the challenges, all four entrepreneurs see exciting possibilities. “That’s the great thing about disruptive innovation,” Boskey says. “A lot of health care startups are innovating in spaces where larger companies might not have the opportunity.”

At the same time, he adds, “seeing companies like Samsung, Apple and Adidas getting into wellness on the consumer side is a huge win for us. I’m excited about their ability to educate consumers and make [wellness technology] more mainstream and normal.”

What excites Coakley most is the growing number of entrepreneurs who are passionate about the health care space and want to make a difference. “Health and wellness is one of the most direct and obvious ways that you can do that,” he says. “You can make a very tangible effect on your customer’s life.”

We invite all health tech entrepreneurs—from millennials to boomers—to attend the Boston Children’s Hospital Global Pediatric Innovation Summit + Awards. The Summit kicks off October 30 with a panel on mobile and digital health, and will feature an Innovation Tank (October 31) where entrepreneurs can pitch their ideas. #PedInno14

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