A New Focus On Making Traverse City A HealthTech Hub
By Craig Manning | Nov. 16, 2019
Could Traverse City be one of the country’s next hubs of health technology innovation? It’s the goal of HealthSpark, a healthtech program that has launched as part of the 20Fathoms tech incubator. Managing Director Jesse Wolff says the program will help attract companies to northern Michigan, create high-paying jobs within the healthtech space, and build a “culture of health” throughout the region.
Wolff was previously the senior advisor for the “Accelerate Health” initiative at the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation. That program focused on identifying and breaking down the barriers to population health. Wolff’s job was to connect the players in the northern Michigan health space with hopes of improving access to healthcare via technology and transportation. One collaborator was 20Fathoms, where Wolff says Executive Director Andy Cole was already toying with the idea of establishing some sort of “cluster” of healthtech startups and entrepreneurs.
In July, 20Fathoms landed a $750,000 i6 Challenge grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA). The grant is a part of the EDA’s Regional Innovation Strategies Program, which aims to help “build regional capacity to translate innovations into jobs through proof-of-concept and commercialization assistance to innovators and entrepreneurs.” Healthtech was a core piece of the application.
“When we launched 20Fathoms in 2018, we were intentional about serving startups from a broad array of industries,” Cole says. “This strategy led to the success of several notable startups, and Traverse City became nationally recognized as the number four best small town to launch and grow a startup. This is great progress, but if we want to take it to the next level and really drive top talent to our community, we must carve out a niche in which we will be a national authority. It won't happen overnight, but given the momentum we've observed, we have an opportunity to be the best city to launch and grow a startup in health innovation..."
The funding, which also includes an additional $750,000 in matched dollars from local entities, enabled 20Fathoms to launch HealthSpark and bring Wolff on as its director.
Even before the funding came through, there were several companies operating within 20Fathoms involved in health. HealthBridge works with employers and their insurance providers to simplify claim tracking and billing for health insurance plans. Naveego is a cloud-based software company that works with enterprises to manage their data and detect inaccuracies or inconsistencies (Naveego played an important role in Munson Healthcare’s efforts to integrate its nine hospitals).
HealthBridge has since “graduated” from 20Fathoms, establishing its own space on State Street, but the HealthSpark cluster is still thriving. Other healthtech companies with office space at 20Fathoms include SpireHealth, which develops remote patient monitoring technology for individuals with chronic respiratory diseases; and Midmark, which works to improve patient experience through workflow efficiency, technology integration, and more.
Over time, Wolff says the goal of HealthSpark is to draw more companies like these to northern Michigan. One effort could be lobbying for local tax incentives for tech companies, which Wolff say “are often a very key component” in establishing communities as successful innovation hubs. Another piece could be working with “tech transfer offices” at colleges, universities, or hospitals, which take ideas or inventions developed in those institutional settings and work to spin those ideas out into the marketplace. Wolff already has strong contacts at Michigan State University and Michigan Tech, both of which are working to help student and faculty entrepreneurs find investors and homes for their startups.
For now, most of Wolff’s efforts are focused on building HealthSpark into a “super convener and connector” for local and state players that might include existing healthtech companies, colleges and universities, researchers, investors, corporations, and local governments. One early partner was Munson, which signed an agreement with 20Fathoms a year ago to explore opportunities in health technology. Other connections, Wolff says, will help establish HealthSpark as a healthtech innovation hub with a “gravitational pull” for businesses and entrepreneurs.
“When you have a connected ecosystem, one of the functions you can have [as the connector] is to introduce this investor to that company, or this entrepreneur to that university,” Wolff says. “The ability to create those introductions and connections only comes from having a thriving ecosystem with lots of dots in it that are connected. So that’s what we’re working on right now.”
Pictured: Jesse Wolff, HealthSpark; Andy Cole, 20Fathoms; Ben Yule, SpireHealth.