Zen Chu

Senior Lecturer

KB draft-Digital Health Scales Medicine

KB draft-Digital Health Scales Medicine

Zen Chu leverages digital technology to improve healthcare access, cost, and quality across the globe.

By: Alice McCarthy

“Now is the best time in the history of the world to be an entrepreneur and a technologist focused on healthcare,” says Zen Chu, of MIT Health Sciences and Technology Program and the Sloan School of Management. “Fundamental shifts in technology and business models have created immense new opportunities that only startups and innovative companies can capture.”

As a serial entrepreneur and MIT researcher, Chu embraces what he calls tectonic shifts in healthcare, not just the changing incentives in the United States but also consumer healthcare in emerging markets where smartphones and connectivity are increasingly ubiquitous. As the co-founder and lead faculty director of MIT Hacking Medicine, a program focused on healthcare transformation through technology, Chu convenes technologists, entrepreneurs, clinicians, and life scientists to review and assess new models and new ventures in digital healthcare at the core of these shifts.

Pioneering healthcare hackathons

MIT’s Hacking Medicine Initiative applied the long history of hackathons in software and tailored it to the complexities and unique challenges of healthcare. Five years later, over 10,000 attendees at 40 events on 4 continents have learned the process of pitching healthcare problems, assembling teams around those problems, and attacking business models, experience design, and solutions with technology. Chu has taken this process to many countries, yet localizes it to the healthcare ecosystem and economic realities on the ground. “No matter where we are we teach participants how to bring diverse perspectives together to focus on their priorities in healthcare.”

“In addition to our larger public events, we regularly host private idea sessions and hackathons with pharma companies, biotech companies, and the big med tech companies, as well as startups around their priorities,” Chu explains. Each of those groups is being impacted by the digital transformation of healthcare simultaneously wrestling with a literal onslaught of digital health solutions. “We bring these groups together for policy sessions and to help them chart the path of healthcare innovation,” he adds.

As a result, Hacking Medicine has convened “a small army of some of the world’s best clinicians and health technologists” to judge and rate the best of the best apps, connected medical devices, and healthcare services at the Hacking Medicine Institute.

Proving digital health innovation at population scale

Born out of MIT’s Hacking Medicine health technology program, the Hacking Medicine Institute (HMi) is building a Consortium of academic, public, and private institutions to tackle challenges in measuring, analyzing and judging the effectiveness of digital health products and their combinations with traditional drugs, diagnostics, and health services.

Based in Boston, amid the world’s most dense network of academic institutions, high-tech and pharmaceutical companies, HMi is an unbiased, non-profit educational institute, convening global healthcare leaders to accelerate data, proof, and adoption of effective new healthcare hacks — clever applications of technology. As its name implies, Hacking Medicine participants hack clever solutions for tackling important healthcare goals.

Public policy and government organizations, such as the FDA, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Veterans Affairs Administration, have also participated in Hacking Medicine events to learn about healthcare innovation and digital health and to identify which tools are the best of the best. “There is so much noise in the digital healthcare world,” says Chu, “and we help cut through some of that noise to understand the policy implications and the unintended consequences of consumers using this digital healthcare technology.”

Notable digital health successes

Several companies have evolved out of the MIT Hacking Medicine ecosystem that embody this new wave of healthcare redesign. Companies including PillPack, Quanttus, Podimetrics, Wellist, RubiconMD, and Arsenal Health (recently acquired by athenahealth) have raised over $120 million in venture capital over the past few years.

PillPack, a mail order pharmacy, provides a pre-packaged drug delivery experience for people managing multiple medications. “They are now one of the best funded companies either in Boston or Silicon Valley in digital health and recently won a battle with one of the largest incumbents and barriers to innovation in pharmacy delivery,” Chu says. Another is Figure1.com, a free app that offers the services of the largest group of health professionals worldwide in 190 countries and is one of the top medical app downloads on both the Apple and Google platforms. “They are connecting over one million doctors via this sharing network to rapidly diagnose patients with rare diseases, and common but undiagnosed diseases, and they are all doing it for free,” adds Chu. “It is an incredible example of crowd-sourced diagnosis in healthcare.”

Chu believes some of the most intriguing advances in the digital transformation of healthcare are found in the Apple and Android app stores themselves. “They are ecosystems, testing grounds,” says Chu whose group tracks the tools they have created, including Apple’s Research Kit which he says is fantastic for more rapidly and cheaply generating validated clinical data. For example, through ResearchKit, over 50,000 patients have enrolled in a clinical study at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in a number of weeks. “That is ground-breaking,” Chu says, mentioning his team advises Apple, Google, Facebook, IBM, Aetna, Novartis, Stanford, UCSF, MGH, and other leading health tech innovators. “But we try to teach everybody because we want all boats to rise.”

Serial successful entrepreneur

Chu credits his own startup success to MIT. In 2002, he and four MIT professors licensed technology from MIT to form 3-D Matrix, now a publicly traded regenerative medicine company. Since then, he has formed several startups and now heads AccelMed Ventures which specializes in building early-stage medical technology and healthcare service companies, usually serving as co-founder and first investor.

“I’ve now been lucky to mentor dozens of startups that are trying to do the same thing across medical devices, surgical tools, and implants and biotech in addition to digital healthcare,” Chu says. “The fantastic thing about digital health is that it scales so much faster and so much more inexpensively and efficiently, so you can benefit more patients around the world faster with digital health when you get the business model right.”