SXSW Interactive 2015: Our future selves, a maturing health tech industry and why failing is productive

SXSW Impact Pediatric HealthJudy Wang, MS, is a program manager in the Telehealth Program at Boston Children’s Hospital.

In 2012, when I attended the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference for the first time, health tech was still an emerging field. It was the first year the world’s leading conference for emerging technology and digital creativity made any effort to include health tech programming, and the first time its Accelerator pitch event included a category for health tech startups.

Only three years later, SXSW Interactive (March 13­–17, 2015) has grown to include almost 50 events related to health and medical technologies. Martine Rothblatt, CEO of the biotech company United Therapeutics, gave a keynote titled “AI, Immortality and the Future of Selves” that was both inspiring and provocative. She spoke to a world in which our 24/7 selves are increasingly being captured digitally. Audience questions captured by Twitter pondered the ethical implications of what Rothblatt called “mind clones”: future mechanical beings digitally programmed with our mannerisms, habits and memories.

This year also featured the Impact Pediatric Health pitch competition, captured in this Storify. More than 150 startup companies applied for the opportunity to pitch to a slate of venture capitalists, executives from four major children’s hospitals (Boston Children’s, Cincinnati Children’s, Texas Children’s and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia), and ABC “Shark Tank” investor and entrepreneur Mark Cuban. Ten companies were chosen as finalists, and Boston Children’s Hospital’s CIO Dan Nigrin, MD, Chief Marketing Officer Margaret Coughlin and John Brownstein, PhD (Health Map) were among the judges.

Ideas and products pitched included wearables to help expectant mothers understand and gauge their baby’s health, a toothbrush that measures lung function in children with asthma and software platforms to streamline care coordination. Boston Children’s researcher Jason Kahn, PhD, was given the opportunity to pitch his company, Neuro’motion, as one of two “speed pitch” finalists: Neuro’motion builds video games that help children regulate their emotions.

After three sessions of pitching, CareALine, a parent-formed startup that creates comfortable wraps and sleeves to secure inserted catheters, emerged the overall winner. CareALine collected all three first prize awards from the VCs, hospital executives and Mark Cuban—who pledged to not only purchase 1,000 of CareALine’s PICC line sleeves for branding with the Dallas Mavericks logo, but also to provide personal introductions to children’s hospitals in the Dallas area. Here’s CareALine’s pitch at Hacking Pediatrics last fall:

This year, for the first time, SXSW added the SX Health and MedTech Expo to promote creativity, innovation and collaboration in health tech. Sessions focused on topics such as the economic potential of the digital health industry, the use of big data in health care and the use of 3D bioprinting and biometrics. The panels I attended demonstrated how SXSW’s health tech programming has matured, focusing on scaling health care technologies as opposed to educating tech entrepreneurs about health care.

Interestingly, as my friends and I agreed over dinner, this SXSW conference departed somewhat from the usual programming. It didn’t question our capability to build technology that advances humanity, but focused on the advancement of technology—whether and how we should advance, at what cost and how regulatory environments would adapt or react.

Whereas previously the government was cast aside as impeding innovation, many of this year’s panels highlighted the government’s increasing role in stimulating innovation in highly regulated environments. For example, the Affordable Care Act’s stipulation that health insurance companies can no longer deny coverage based on preexisting conditions has increased the number of consumers shopping for health care insurance coverage. This has incentivized insurance companies to find new ways to decrease costs to the health care system and has provided a pathway for consumer-driven health care delivery.

While Rothblatt’s keynote may have made many audience members uncomfortable, it inspired SXSW attendees to believe that a future in which transplanted organs are produced via 3D printing, and stem cell seeding is possible within the next 20 years. Astro Teller, head of Google X Labs, closed out the conference with a keynote that cast failure in a positive light. He inspired audience members to work on “moonshot” problems and to set themselves up for creative, productive failures, as failures are what ultimately lead to breakthrough innovations.

Here at Boston Children’s, our moonshot problems involve solving pain points in delivering pediatric health care, and it was encouraging to see the excitement around pediatric innovation grow among the attendees and sponsors of Impact Pediatric Health. I hope to see that momentum continue at our Boston Children’s Global Pediatric Innovation Summit + Awards 2015.