At Columbia Startup Weekend, health care ideas come to life

Dr. Aaron Gray (center), a University of Missouri physician, discusses his idea for a business called Smart Visit. Gray's pitch was one of 17 chosen as a project for the weekend. | Photo by Eduardo Gonzaez
Dr. Aaron Gray (center), a University of Missouri physician, got his startup off the ground at Columbia Startup Weekend in 2013. | Eduardo Gonzalez/Missouri Business Alert

With each passing minute, Dr. Aaron Gray grew more frustrated. The University of Missouri physician was spending too much time typing up notes and entering data, and he knew other doctors shared this frustration with documentation.

“It takes them away from their families and away from their patients,” said Gray, who turned his dissatisfaction into the idea for a startup, now called MySmartVisit, that aims to address the problem.

Amid reforms being ushered in by the Affordable Care Act, challenges and opportunities are plentiful in the business of health care. Bryan Bliven, Chief Information Officer for the University of Missouri Health System, points to Kaiser Family Foundation data that underlines the size of the opportunity: The American health care industry accounts for 19 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product, and it would be the fifth-largest standalone economy in the world.

MySmartVisit and MedSocket, a company founded by Columbia physician Dr. Karl Kochendorfer, are among the many startups vying to establish a foothold in the industry. Both MySmartVisit and MedSocket can trace their origins back to Columbia Startup Weekend, the local version of a global event designed to help would-be entrepreneurs get business ideas off the ground in the course of one weekend.

The fourth Columbia Startup Weekend begins tonight and runs through Sunday at the Museao building. And, if past years’ projects and this year’s pre-event programming — organizers hosted an event last month focused on health IT startups — are any indication, the weekend could give rise to other startups in the same vein as MySmartVisit and MedSocket.

Easing health care’s pains

Pain points in the health care system include spiraling costs and wasted time. Gray sought to find a solution for which doctors would actually be willing to pay. “I asked my colleagues, ‘Would you pay for something that cut the amount of work you had to do?'” Gray said.

Gray pitched his idea last year at Columbia Startup Weekend. “As a physician, I rarely cross paths with developers and designers and entrepreneurs,” he said, “so I decided to participate.”

His story followed the same basic script as that of other Startup Weekend participants: Individuals deliver 60-second pitches the first night of the event. Next, participants vote for the ideas they like most, and teams form in support of the most popular proposals. Teams are set by the end of the Friday night, and they spend all of Saturday and most of Sunday establishing the foundations for a viable business. On Sunday night, teams present their projects, and judges award prizes to the best.

When Gray pitched MySmartVisit, several people were interested. Businesspeople, health policy experts, software developers, a dietitian and someone who worked for the state health plan joined Gray’s team. The group conducted research and developed a business plan targeting those time-deficient physicians.

“If that physician can see one extra patient every half day, that’s potentially a lot of extra revenue that physicians and clinics can bring in,” Gray said, “and it also improves patient access.”

At the end of the weekend, the judges gave Gray’s team honorable mention. “I’m a competitive person,” he said. “I played sports my whole life. Obviously, a little part of me was a little disappointed that I didn’t win.”

However, it’s what happened after Startup Weekend that defined the future of the project. Gray and some other members of the team are still working on MySmartVisit, and they plan to have a product that doctors and patients can actually use by January 2015.

Addressing inefficiencies

Kochendorfer’s company, MedSocket, links health records like lab results and blood pressure measurements to risk-scoring calculators to determine things like which patients need prostate exams.

Kochendorfer, a computer science major turned physician turned startup founder and CEO, came to Startup Weekend in 2012 to build a minimum viable product based on an idea that arose from his frustration with inefficiencies in health care.

Matthew Botkin, Kochendorfer’s co-founder, was part of the Startup Weekend team in 2012. Today, he serves as the company’s COO.

“Out of that weekend, we started working together on nights and weekends and meeting on Fridays for lunch, putting together a business plan and trying to raise money,” Botkin said.

MedSocket incorporated in 2013 and currently has three full-time employees. The startup has raised $850,000 to date and expects to reach profitability by mid-2015, Botkin said.

“Any revenue you get you want to spend by jumping back in and improving the product,” he said, “but our goal next year is to be profitable.”

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