Zen Chu

Senior Lecturer

Guiding the Next Generation of Healthcare Startups and Venture Capital Investors

Guiding the Next Generation of Healthcare Startups and Venture Capital Investors

Zen Chu is not a newcomer to healthcare startups. He’s advised medical schools around the world. He cofounded three MIT spinouts and invests in and advises many others. He’s a senior lecturer for healthcare innovation and faculty director for MIT’s student-led Hacking Medicine Initiative.

By: Steve Calechman

The Grand Hack, as it’s known, is as much about finding the next innovative ideas as it is mentoring young health professionals and entrepreneurs about how to navigate the pitfalls of bringing the next idea to market.

And there are pitfalls. Healthcare systems are notoriously slow and bureaucratic. They have underinvested in technology for decades and whatever they have is usually outdated. Information isn’t shared; more likely it’s siloed between specialties and “held in walled gardens,” Chu says. But it’s still fertile ground for investment, really fertile ground, he adds. Each of those silos is a potential multi-billion dollar niche due to a few factors. New technologies have digitized records and automated scheduling. People carry supercomputers in their pockets, and more and more venture capital is coming in, not just from healthcare specialists, but from tech investors. It’s all contributed to one thing.

“This is the most exciting time in the history of medicine, and startups are the vehicles for accelerated change,” Chu says.

“This is the most exciting time in the history of medicine, and startups are the vehicles for accelerated change,” he says.

Lessening the Stress and Workload
Chu likes a lot of companies that have passed through MIT. One in particular is Abridge. He met the founder Shiv Rao, a Pittsburgh cardiologist, at a Grand Hack six years ago and heard about why he was planning to leave his practice. The company he was forming would use speech recognition, generative artificial intelligence and large language models to transcribe doctor-patient conversations and make actionable tasks like next appointments, dosage changes, medication changes, and new prescriptions.

Chu seed-invested and helped recruit venture capital. Six years later, Abridge has raised over $200 million, and it’s being used by Mass General Hospital, Memorial Sloan Kettering, and Emory Hospitals, with a benefit that’s two-fold. Patients often forget what’s said in an appointment. Studies have shown that with a cancer diagnosis, it can be up to 80 percent of the information. With Abridge, the patient now has an understandable record that they can refer to and can share with anyone they want.

Abridge also supports doctors by automating many of the administrative burdens that take them away from practicing medicine and cuts into their post-work hours, also called “pajama time”. Addressing that issue is a particularly helpful component of any healthcare startup, since burnout is now reaching epidemic levels in the industry.

“We’re saving thousands of doctors two hours a day at scale, and Abridge is just getting started delivering a range of revolutionary features,” Chu says.

Adjusting to the Pace of Medicine
An immediate challenge with the healthcare space is the space itself. It tends to be change- and risk-averse, and for good reason. Hospitals and medicine have necessary regulations. The Silicon Valley adage of, “Move fast and break things,” can’t apply, Chu says.

But opportunities exist, because “healthcare is such a problem-rich space.” To be successful, any venture has to the hit the “triple aim” of being scalable, saving money and improving patient outcomes. Because the terrain is unwieldy, Chu helps guide young entrepreneurs through a couple of ways. His class, started in 2010 with MIT colleagues Martha Gray and Bill Aulet, brings in physicians, entrepreneurs, students, and patients. It’s more like a learning lab, with the goal of identifying problems and the corresponding tech-based solutions. What can happen? PillPack, the Amazon online pharmacy, is just one. 

Then’s there’s the Grand Hack. Over the years, it’s come with themes: pediatrics, oncology, rural health. This year will be aging-in-place and refugee healthcare. Regardless of the topic, it’s a chance for young entrepreneurs to test out concepts, and Chu says what helps is that expectations are lowered. It’s essential for all the participants to be able to take risks and consider crazy ideas.

Corporate executives are often worried about intellectual property and patents so they don’t reach out and talk to people. In a hackathon, it’s about sharing, listening, and going deep on the problems rather than immediately finding an answer.

“They come up with different and better solutions than if they were just pulling their cards close to their chest and not receiving that feedback,” he says.

One idea that came out of the first Grand Hacks 10 years ago was Podimetrics, a company’s whose product Chu calls “revolutionary”. It’s a mat that people stand on while brushing their teeth and that senses temperature spikes in the feet. Designed for diabetic patients, clinical trials with Kaiser Permanente and the Veteran Affairs Health Administration have shown that it can catch 97 percent of developing foot ulcers on average six weeks before they would have seen a doctor.

“They are eliminating all downstream wound care and amputations in these patients, which is fantastic for the patients but also fantastic for the health system, and all of the high-cost care that would happen,” Chu says.

Being Ready for the Opening
While it’s great to come out of a hackathon with a winning proposal, winning is an elastic term. Funded ideas and pilot programs don’t always work out, but the process builds experience and creates teams that companies might retain to try again or work on a new idea, Chu says. 

Or the team goes out on their own. In healthcare, the possible landing places and partnerships are no longer the traditional ones. Universal Music recently had a conference in Los Angeles with an open call for startups. One that emerged was MedRhythms, which came out of the Grand Hack in 2017 and has raised over $40MM in venture capital.

The company provides therapy for people with Parkinson’s disease or who’ve suffered a stroke. With both conditions, regaining movement is key, and upbeat music can be motivating.  The problem is the music might not be correct for their gait or endurance level. Through foot sensors, MedRhythms can slightly change a song’s tempo to be in sync with the person and keep adapting the rhythm as they progress. This marriage between music and healthcare probably wouldn’t have been considered 20, even 10 years ago, but now it’s being sought out.

“It’s an example of other industries and refugees from tech layoffs wanting to have an impact in healthcare innovation because of its noble mission,” Chu says.