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BU hosts health care entrepreneurship discussion, encourages students to be bold

For aspiring entrepreneurs at Boston University interested in health care ventures, making that leap into the business world doesn’t have to be inconceivable.

“The Princess Bride” film. In a Wednesday webinar hosted by Boston University’s Institute for Health System Innovation and Policy, venture capitalist Lisa Suennen used the film as an allegory to explain health care entrepreneurship. ILLUSTRATION BY HANNAH YOSHINAGA/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

BU’s Institute for Health System Innovation and Policy held a virtual event Wednesday entitled “The ‘Princess Bride’ Guide to Healthcare Entrepreneurship.”

Venture capitalist Lisa Suennen, the leader of digital and technology at Manatt, Phelps and Phillips — a Los Angeles law firm — used a relatable metaphor to discuss how to be successful in launching health care ventures.

Suennen, who has been a leader of venture initiatives for over 20 years, used the classic 1987 film “The Princess Bride” as an allegory to understand the field of health care entrepreneurship.

“In the movie, they’re constantly… inventing little technologies or finding cool things to help them get out of trouble,” Suennen said at the event. “In the entrepreneurial world, people are inventing new technologies, new products, new devices, new this, new that, all the time.”

The event marked the first installment of IHSIP’s 2021 Nexus Series, which involves campus collaboration and discussion about developments in the health care realm.

Anand Devaiah, director of the biomedical and health technology development and transfer domain at IHSIP, introduced audiences to the event.

Devaiah, who has known Suennen for 15 years, said during the talk she’s only grown more knowledgeable through her work, which exists “at the intersection of innovation, health care and technology.”

In the lecture, Suennen explained how everyone has their own idea of success and their individual purpose. By creating a health care product for venture capitalists, she said, it is important to recognize their purpose is monetary success.

“Entrepreneurs have a plot too, their plot is to do whatever it takes to get their idea to success, and success is really broadly defined,” Suennen said at the event. “From a venture capitalist perspective, their plot’s pretty simple, it’s almost always the same. It’s make a lot of money.”

Additionally, product creators have to ask themselves questions their creation could solve and whether it’s needed in the market, Suennen said. She said in academia, keeping the problem at the center of your focus is often lost.

“Think about the problem first,” Suennen said. “What are you trying to solve and what do users actually want and need? This is the first place that most companies break down, frankly.”

She added that in the field, the health care products will not go far without thinking about all the different customers along the way.

“If you’re developing an app for managing diabetes, the ultimate user is the patient, probably,” Suennen said, “but the provider, the doctor, the nurse, the diabetes educator is the person who also has to feel comfortable with it.”

Future entrepreneurs should be adaptable when creating their product and always think about the end goal of reaching one’s own “definition of success,” she said.

“You always have to be evaluating honestly with yourself, how it’s going and what you need to change, in order to get where you need to go,” Suennen said. “The trick here is having the confidence to acknowledge that it’s okay to change.”

While part of the process is paying attention to what users need, Suennen said it is also important to remain aware of changing trends and laws when creating health care products specifically.

For instance, when COVID-19 hit, telehealth experienced a large and rapid boom. Suennen said she thinks online resources and communications in the industry could “persist” in a post-pandemic world. To be on top of such trends, she said, is a sign of a good entrepreneur.

“There was a lot of recognition all of a sudden, literally overnight, by health systems in particular,” Suennen said, “that this whole digital slash remote thing might have some use.”

Sean Cahill, an adjunct associate professor in health law, policy and management at BU’s School of Public Health, gave the perspective of the customers in health care, specifically with the rise in telemedicine.

“Another trend that we’re seeing over the last year is a very rapid shift to telemedicine and telehealth,” Cahill said in an interview, “that was necessitated by the societal shutdown that we all experienced in the middle of March.”

As Director of Health Policy Research at the Fenway Institute — Fenway Health’s research and education center primarily serving LGBTQ communities — Cahill said the group made the switch to telehealth within a week after the shutdown.

Telehealth services increased by 154 percent in the last week of March 2020 — just after many states shut down —from the same time in 2019, according to a CDC report from October. The report said many of these visits in late March were for COVID-19 reported matters.

“This marked shift in practice patterns has implications for immediate response efforts and longer-term population health,” the report stated. “Continuing telehealth policy changes and regulatory waivers might provide increased access to acute, chronic, primary, and specialty care during and after the pandemic.”

For those seeking to explore telehealth and any element of the field, Suennen said it’s important for entrepreneurs to remember — though they should accept feedback from investors — they are in charge.

“You really want to be ahead of your investors because that’s your job,” Suennen said at the event. “Their job is to succeed by giving you money, and other things, support, help, advice, introductions, best practices, experience, but it’s not their job to run your company.”


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