At SXSW, while health doesn’t take center stage, it’s certainly a part of the conversation. With a dedicated track of SXSW programming focused on health & wellness, a dedicated portion of the exhibit floor for health companies, and plenty of side events by health brands from small to huge, it’s great to see our industry represented among the tech innovation elites.

What stood out this year among the programming, activations, and attendees on the health innovation side of SXSW? Let’s take a look at the highlights.

Personal, Interoperable Health Records

We keep asking for it: When will we get interoperable health records and the ability for a person to manage their health records all in one place? On a panel at the W2O partner programming track entitled “An Insider’s View into Healthcare Innovation,” an active audience participant from an EHR company—admitting they are part of the problem—asked what it will take for us to finally get there and stop having to ask this question at every conference we attend. Panelists, including Robin Thurston, CEO of Helix, noted that the complete view of a person’s health is likely to be in a device and/or cloud managed by the patient—with the recent beta release of Apple’s Health Records and more health systems signing up to be a part of it each week, this may be closer than we think.

W2OSXSW’s “An Insider’s View into Healthcare Innovation” panel included Kristi Henderson, Vice President, Patient Access & Healthcare Transformation, Ascension and Clinical Professor of Population Health, Dell Medical School at UT; Robin Thurston, CEO, Helix; Jay Bernhardt, Dean and Professor, Moody College of Communication, The University of Texas at Austin; and Mona Siddiqui, Chief Data Officer, Department of Human Health and Services.

Chief Data Officer of HSS Mona Siddiqui, MD, MPH, also on the panel, referenced the previous week’s announcement at HIMSS by CMS Administrator Seema Verma and Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner, that interoperability is a top priority for this administration. This begs the question: Will we have meaningful (pardon the pun) progress towards this goal at this point next year? It certainly feels like the tipping point—with big tech companies and government seeming to be on the same page toward making this a priority. But it’s hard to ignore how we have been asking this question at health technology conferences for years—with little progress. (Let’s not forget the false starts of Microsoft HealthVault and Google Health; or the unintended consequences of Meaningful Use that ended us up in a siloed data nightmare.)

Pharma in the Spotlight

On the pharma side, it was encouraging to see such a large presence by the big pharma companies at SXSW this year. Sure, part of it may just be a PR push to seem more innovative alongside one of the world’s hottest tech conferences, but there were also signs of meaningful collaborations between tech and pharma this year.

Notably, Bayer has within the last six months launched its “Grants4Apps” digital innovation program for the first time in the U.S.—it has previously been popular for years in Europe and around the rest of the world. Applications for the first-ever U.S.-based “Generator” program—in which 16 startups will be selected to sit down with Bayer and discuss a paid partnership in the area of self-care—close this month and we’re excited to see what type of companies will be present at the pitch competition on May 24.

J&J also made news during SXSW week with its collaboration with Alphabet on Verb Surgical. The companies have quietly invested $500M in the joint venture. It seems more and more that tech giants are the partners of choice for traditionally risk-averse big pharma companies—if they are going to get their feet wet in the world of digital innovation. For example, Novartis’ $100M joint venture fund with Qualcomm, dRx Capital, has already made three investments in digital health startups. This is another way we’ve seen pharma companies borrow expertise from established tech companies—both companies can jointly explore exciting spaces such as digital therapeutics, as evidenced by their investment in Omada Health.

Yet another topic of conversation was the recent acquisition of Flatiron Health by Roche. Many are trying to figure out what this means for both companies moving forward—and still scratching their heads on how a pharma company can own an EHR company. While we’ve seen many methods of digital innovation among the pharma elites, one thing is for sure: If you are a big pharma company and haven’t launched some sort of venture fund or partnership program for working with digital health companies, you’re very far behind.

Crazy Demos on the Exhibit Floor

We saw some crazy stuff on the exhibit floor of SXSW Interactive. A $45 drone you control with your smartphone to take selfies? Check. 3D printed “teleported” sushi from Japan? Check (and see below for how it was done). Robots fighting each other with lightsabers? Check. Anything remotely this interesting on the health side of the floor? Disappointingly, no.

That’s OK, health innovation often just isn’t as eye-catching as some other industries. What did grab our eye on the health site of the exhibit hall? One of our favorites (a hometown favorite at that—based right in Austin, TX) that we think can truly disrupt healthcare is EverlyWell. Some folks heard of them through their $1M deal with Lori Greiner on Shark Tank last year. It may not have been robots or AI being live-demo’d on the floor, but it certainly may be more disruptive. You could go up, pay with your credit card for a lab test, administer it right there on the spot (with a finger prick, saliva, or urine sample), and get notified of your results by email within about a week. This will truly be a test of whether direct-to-consumer products can pick up steam in healthcare—but we’re bullish. And what is more exciting for a pharma company than getting more test results in the hands of consumers so they can be properly diagnosed—and treated—for any health issues?

Final Thoughts

Each year, new brands, agencies, investors, governments, and startups make the trek to SXSW Health programming for the first time—and from what we’ve heard, they rarely regret it. The best part of SXSW and what makes it truly unique is the creative, relaxed, and fun environment where all of these stakeholders can kick back and generate new ideas for projects and partnerships—all in the gorgeous, quirky capital of Austin, TX. No other industry event has such a high concentration of creative marketing agencies; big pharma and other large health players; and startups and digital innovators.

The announcement of the finalists from the annual HealthSpark two-day pitch competition hosted by MIT Hacking Medicine, AbelsonTaylor, JUICE Pharma, and HCB Health.

Here’s a few other resources to check out:

ATX.Health: A primary on Health at SXSW put together by local Austin-ites who have been there from the beginning.

SXSW 2018: Digital Health Trends: A slideshow recap by WPP Health & Wellness of their top highlights.

HealthSpark: An official part of SXSW programming, this two-day pitch competition was hosted by MIT Hacking Medicine, AbelsonTaylor, JUICE Pharma, and HCB Health.

W2O Recaps: The W2O partner programming at SXSW, while not entirely health focused, had a slew of great speakers from every side of healthcare.

  • Jennifer Lannon

    Jennifer Lannon is the Health Innovation Lead for dotHealth, the official registry of .health domain names. She is responsible for the company’s partnerships with both health startups and the health innovation groups within large companies and health systems. A health-tech enthusiast, Jennifer also co-leads the Miami chapter of Health 2.0. She previously ran the Health Innovation Hub/Life Science Accelerator for Springboard Enterprises, where she managed the addition of 31 women-led life science and health tech startups into the portfolio.


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