Lessons from leading a digital health innovation community

HealthTech Sydney is a leading innovation community for healthcare technology that aims to improve education and accelerate commercialisation of ideas in healthcare. HealthTech Sydney connects players from research, medicine, biotechnology, and healthcare with technology, entrepreneurship, design and business to grow and support innovation in health.

The Why

For nearly 3 years, I've been leading a digital health innovation community named HealthTech Sydney. As a young biotech engineer in Australia, I worked on cochlear implant calibration and speech pathology software at the Bionic Ear Institute. However, there was no local network that made it easy to find mentors, active companies and problems to solve. It meant lack of career opportunities, and leaving health technology to work in finance for many years. But my passion has always been in healthcare, to develop innovative technologies into new products. So, I left one rewarding career and pivoted back to healthcare. I want to prevent this from happening to talented professionals who have a passion that is much needed in industries of the future, but lack opportunities for a rewarding scientific career.

Healthcare & Technology

Australia is home to a deep scientific community and successful health companies like Resmed, Cochlear, Saluda Medical, Clarity Pharmaceuticals, Lorica Health, NeuClone, SpeeDx, Prospection, Precedence Healthcare and Osprey Medical to name just a few. However, successfully commercialising innovation is complex and requires combining multiple knowledge domains. The executives and scientists who have managed to create world-class companies have done it through great rigour, and often with little initial assistance or appreciation of their vision. Their experience is profound, and I believe it is crucial that their knowledge be applied to guide the paths of new entrants in the workforce, and design new business ideas that challenge incumbent models.

Innovation in Digital Health

Healthcare is a highly specialised industry with low levels of integration across services and solutions. The expectations of 'ready-to-go' customer experience remains unfulfilled in healthcare services, not only for patients but also for many of the doctors and service providers in this field. This is changing with new niche solutions provided by companies that cater to the needs of specific patient groups, providing high quality of care and improving outcomes in a privately managed patient services ecosystem. This is the inception of creative upheaval in healthcare - by those who innovate despite the complexity.

We are in times of great change. Competitive forces birth new business solutions just as they render unadaptable ones to dust. Easily accessible technologies and impassioned entrepreneurs have overturned businesses in all sectors. Our careers span decades, geographies and now multiple industries. We need to remain on a continuous learning path. Healthcare is the latest one to feel the forces of innovative upheaval, and we need to keep up with the advances.

Reflecting on the difficulty of knowledge sharing in healthcare, a thriving community ecosystem needed development.

The Importance of Communities

A community fills the gap in an ecosystem where there is no supporting infrastructure to learn, engage and lead. It provides grassroots evidence of a need that precedes the development of a formal exchange or solution, either for knowledge or commerce. The gap is filled where the existing formal organisations do not cater for emerging customer segments, who have a different price point and use case. This exclusion occurs when the main avenue to learn and connect with like-minded professionals is via conferences that price out most people, or are not often enough to sustain an ecosystem.

A thirst for knowledge, connectivity and a shared vision to create positive change in the world is what sustains community groups. There are many people out there who want to put a 'dent in the universe', but lack a vehicle to help get them there. A vibrant community provides one such route.

So, these are lessons I've learnt from running HealthTech Sydney. I believe these principles can be applied in a variety of scenarios, companies, and organisations looking to seed ideas and build communities; from low-resource settings in developing countries, to corporates and incubators thinking about managing innovation groups, culture and new ideas.

  1. Have a passionate vision: Your passion is infectious. It permeates the culture, attracting those with a similar vision to affect change. One of the main reasons I run HealthTech Sydney is to strive toward a vision of making Australia a major health-tech hub. This is also a core quality to seek in building the team around you, and to paraphrase Josh Tetrick (CEO, Hampton Creek), "It's not hard to recruit the best people if your values and vision are to positively impact mankind." (Founder World 2015, SF)

  2. Pick a pain point: Draw the attention of the community to a pain point that has driven health, technology, government or business conversations and strategic agendas. Talk to members to find out what keeps them up at night, what makes their jobs difficult, what patients care about, and what kills entrepreneur's business ideas and companies, or extirpates the potential impact of innovative research and technology. Addressing these pain points is crucial to improving innovation outcomes and realising the potential of serving unmet needs with relevant services. These conversations drive selection of the most pertinent topics that people care about and can rally behind.

  3. Empower the community: I believe a community is a member-centric organisation that should provide maximum benefit to members for their patronage. The organisation is the channel that empowers members to achieve their objectives. In HeathTech Sydney, an aim has been to connect professionals and leverage the broad multi-disciplinary expertise in the group to achieve learning and innovation outcomes. The social, exploratory conversations in a community that uncover pain points also lead to discovering the expert knowledge and experience of your members. I've learnt to ask more questions and listen more closely in the process.

    In 2015, we held an event focusing on oncology clinical trial management that went into the frustrations and failures of managing this important stage for new drugs and devices. It was incredible to hear the accounts of Dr Ben Kong and Dr Vishal Gopal who manage oncology trials at a major Sydney hospital. Clinical trials for cancer may be international efforts that span hospitals in several countries. The difficulties are many, including understanding patient reaction to therapy, responding in timely fashion, cataloguing consistently and facilitating easy access to data. This was an incredible talk that kept attendees glued to their chairs (videos). I later discovered that Flatiron (NY, USA) are working on a solution to just this global problem, providing validation of the relevance of the discussions.

  4. Go deep on content: There is limited value in answering questions that are easily accessible, documented, or skin-deep in content. Real value comes from deep conversations that delve into a topic in great depth, and showcase solutions with multiple use-cases. Leverage expertise in innovative companies to talk about design considerations of developing their solutions to understand what works and what doesn't. These are often the most invaluable lessons in designing innovative products - the considerations and failures that others have been through. Challenge your assumptions and always ask 'why' - don't accept things at face value.

  5. Prepare and give your best knowledge: There is deep satisfaction in learning about trending topics and delving into the complexities of innovative businesses and technologies. There is greater satisfaction in sharing this with others. I learnt a lot of great concepts and frameworks during my MBA at IE Business School that I use in thinking about innovation, and that I wanted to share with others going through an explorative journey in strategy and technology.

    However, if the objective is to be on the leading edge of news, innovation and technology, expect to be challenged. You need to do at least 3-5 hours of preparation to present in an engaging way for 5 min on a new topic. Share your best knowledge and spend time on preparation as this raises the quality and outcomes for everyone in the community. It also distinguishes your industry event from the numerous events readily available in cities most nights, and doesn't waste the time of attendees and speakers.

  6. Build a great team: I'm very thankful for the team and supporters who helped build HealthTech Sydney. I could not have delivered the quality and number of events without them. In the past three years, I went from almost single-handedly delivering seminars, to creating a team of four who have been critical in building and sustaining the community. In any enterprise, scale, consistency and quality requires dedication and teamwork. Building a great team requires training, establishing processes, building confidence, and constantly improving. If you want to create an innovation community, select people with broad skills but a shared passion. Establish tasks ownership, expectations of commitment, and help measure success. Communicate clearly, and celebrate together.

I'd like to acknowledge Lissanthea Taylor for seeding the initial Meetup group in 2013. The group has expanded rapidly and there are now similar groups in Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra. We welcome you to join us as we build our new platform - HealthTech Sydney.

In Part 2 of this article, I will share the remaining lessons and provide some updates on the vision ahead. I look forward to hearing your experiences in building communities.