3 Insights from the StartUp Health Festival – Logan Plaster – Medium

Roberto Ascione (L), founder of the European health tech consultancy Healthware, shares insights into Europe’s expanding digital health market. All of our interviews will be available on

This week I touched down in rainy San Francisco for the 7th annual StartUp Health Festival, which takes place in conjunction with the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference. The Festival — it really does feel more like a party or a family reunion than anything else — brings together a curated community of around 2000 health entrepreneurs, heath tech investors and industry heavyweights from the world’s biggest health systems and pharma companies. Not to mention filmmakers, journalists and rock stars (Jerry Harrison from the Talking Heads performed). Over the course of the two days which was livestreamed to thousands online, Jill Biden, Sanjay Gupta, Bernard Tyson, Todd Park and other heads of state shared the mainstage with more than a hundred entrepreneurs.

As StartUp Health’s media director and the editor-in-chief of StartUp Health Magazine, my objectives at the Festival were split. On one hand I needed to help make sure that a rich range of media was captured so that we can share content from the event with a broader audience throughout the year. (To be fair, our content team is so savvy this usually amounted to me merely asking if I could bring someone a cup of coffee.) On the other hand, I knew I needed to take the time to simply listen well. I spent the Festival interviewing top investors, startup CEOs and industry executives, hoping to come away with a better understanding of where the industry is heading. Here are three things I learned:

  1. Collaboration is a dream worthy of our greatest efforts

“What if big pharma companies really collaborated? What could we accomplish if we combined our resources and knowledge around certain health challenges?” This question (paraphrased) was posed to me by a relatively powerful “Big Pharma” executive over coffee. For starters, I told him, it might help engender public trust, something that the pharmaceutical industry has struggled with of late. More importantly, a breaking down of silos between competing pharmaceutical companies could open up new opportunities to build/improve health infrastructure and speed up clinical research. With optimism in his voice, this particular pharma exec said, “I don’t know how it could happen exactly, but maybe StartUp Health can bring the various sides together.” This might sound like I’m being self promotional, but it’s actually just acknowledging a fact. StartUp Health has brought a long list of pharmaceutical companies into a single ecosystem under a shared mission in a way that few, if any, other organizations have done. At the StartUp Health Festival, where C-Suite execs literally link arms in pursuit of a common global mission, we’re taking steps towards a new kind of collaboration. I’m hopeful that this could in turn open the door to groundbreaking collaborations between the biggest names in drug manufacturing.

2) We need to get much more creative about the opioid crisis

On the second day of the StartUp Health Festival we announced an urgent health moonshot to end the opioid crisis. Our Chief Medical Officer Howard Krein held a candid chat with Sanjay Gupta on the matter, diving deep into the CNN medical correspondence’s recent reporting. Two things about this moonshot became clear to me through the experience. First, the passion is present and the mission is clear. This scourge is killing more people in a year than died in the entirety of the Vietnam War. A full 10 percent of Baltimore, my city, is gripped by addiction. But we have YET to apply our brilliant, creative minds to the challenge. There are too few health tech companies sizing up the problem. I sincerely hope StartUp Health’s call for innovation brings new solutions and tech to the surface, but it’s going to take radical collaboration, with everyone thinking creatively, exploring brand new business models, treatments and platforms. We’ve taken a first step, but we have a long journey ahead. Let’s go.

3) Mindset matters. A lot.

The positivity at the StartUp Health Festival was so thick I could cut it with a biodegradable plastic knife, but I did chat up one Debbie Downer. A man looked up at a wall covered in the logos of hundreds of health startups and said, “The problem is, most of these folks will fail.” Now, the line between negativity and pragmatism is less about what you say, and more about how you say it. He wasn’t being derisive, but it was indicative of his mindset. We all know that in the world of startups, success is never guaranteed. Quite the opposite! The only thing guaranteed is that the road will be hard and the future is unknown. And yet, the spirit of the entrepreneur takes that which others call impossible, and builds something new in the hope of changing the world. And if they fail, they learn from their mistakes and get right back to it. In the words of another entrepreneur I bumped into (who happened to be gazing at the same wall of logos): “Resilience is more important than brilliance.” The fact that some will fail is a given. But the mission — rallying health innovators to improve health for everyone on earth — is worth the struggle, and worth a dose of optimism while we’re at it.

I learned a heck of a lot more than these three things while at the festival, so I’ll share more notes in a later post. We recorded the entire two-day event and have made it freely available on YouTube, so I strongly encourage you to check it out and give me your feedback.

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