pitch perfect

Female founders win big at this Houston health tech pitch competition

Ria Health took home first place at the third annual Fire Pitch Competition. Courtesy of Ignite Healthcare

All it takes is a spark for something to ignite, and, at the third annual Fire Pitch Competition by the Ignite Healthcare Network, eight female founders set the stage on fire.

The Fire Pitch Competition first started in 2017 to shine a spotlight on female entrepreneurs in health care. With two successful events under her belt, Ayse McCracken says she knew she could do more to help these women with their business ideas.

"What we discovered is that it's not enough. Startups get to pitch all over, and they want to invest their time wisely," McCracken says. "And it's not enough for the rest of the ecosystem — the customers — and the investors want companies that actually are investable."

So, this summer, McCracken and her team launched a mini accelerator. Thirteen companies participated in the Fire Pitch Customer-Partner Program that matched the companies with potential customers, pilot opportunities, and more. Participating customer organizations have included Humana, Houston Methodist, Memorial Hermann Health System, Gallagher, Texas Children's Hospital, Texas Children's Pediatrics, DePelchin, Next Level Urgent Care, University of Houston College of Medicine, VillageMD, and The Menninger Clinic.

Then, eight finalists of the group were selected to go on to pitch at the Fire Pitch.

Also new this year: More cash prizes. In previous years, the Fire Pitch has around $20,000 on the table. This year's awards doled out $265,000 in cash and investment prizes to six of the eight companies that pitched. The panel of five judges included: Babs Carryer, entrepreneur, and director of Big Idea Center for the University of Pittsburgh's Innovation Institute; Tom Luby, director of the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute; Kerry Rupp, partner at True Wealth Ventures; Sarah Sossong, principal at Flare Capital Partners; and Andrew Truscott, managing director for Health and Public Service at Accenture.

Here's which companies took home prizes at the 2019 Fire Pitch Competition at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute on October 17.

First place: Ria Health

Ria Health, a San Francisco-based elemental health practice that uses technology and care to provide treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder, was the big winner at the pitch event.

Jen Douglas, CFO of the company, took home first place and the $15,000 prize from Ignite Healthcare Network, but the company also snagged one of the new awards this year. The Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute awarded Ria Health with a $50,000 investment prize. Ria Health previously participated in the TMCx08 digital health cohort, so the team is very familiar with Houston and the TMC.

Second place: SoundScouts

Sydney, Australia-based SoundScouts is on a mission to help early detection of hearing in school aged children. Carolyn Mee, founder and CEO, represented the company on the stage. She took home second place, which didn't come with an investment or cash prize.

Third place: Savonix

Savonix also didn't walk away with any money, but was recognized by the judges for founder and CEO Mylea Charvet's pitch. The San Francisco-based company is a digital cognitive assessment platform that can easily and cheaply gauge cognitive function.

Texas Halo Fund $100,000 award: PATH EX

The biggest winner of the night based on investment size was Houston-based PATH EX. Led by CEO and co-founder, Sinead Miller, PATH EX has a solution to hospitals' biggest killers: Sepsis. The current TMCx company has a unique pathogen extraction platform that can directly capture and eradicate bacteria.

Miller accepted a new award for this year's program that came with a $100,000 investment from the Texas Halo Fund.

Texas Halo Fund $50,000 award: PyrAmes 

One award wasn't enough for the Texas Halo Fund, which handed out a second new award to Cupertino, California-based PyrAmes. Presented by co-founder and CTO, Xina Quan, the company has created a wearable blood pressure monitor that is reliable and nonintrusive to patients. Quan accepted the $50,000 investment from the fund.

Houston Angel Network $50,000 award: Materna Medical 

San Francisco-base Materna Medical, which created a device to help protect and prepare expecting mothers' pelvic health ahead of childbirth, took home the last investment prize. President and CEO Tracy MacNeal presented the company and accepted the Houston Angel Network's $50,000 award.

The new tech hub at Houston Methodist has trained hundreds of physicians in telemedicine practices. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston Methodist's recently opened its new Center for Innovation's Technology Hub in January, and the new wing has already been challenged by a global pandemic — one that's validating a real need for telemedicine.

The 3,500-square-foot tech testing ground was renovated from an 18-room patient wing and showcases new digital health technologies like virtual reality, ambient listening, wearables, voice control, and more. The hub was focused on giving tours to medical professionals and executives to get them excited about health tech, but in the middle of March, Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist, says they saw a greater need for the space.

"We turned the technology hub into a training center where physicians could come on site and learn telemedicine," Sol says. "We had some foresight from our leadership who thought that telemedicine was going to be heavily utilized in order to protect our patients who might go into isolation based on the outbreak."

The hub has trained over 500 physicians — both onsite and digitally. Sol says that at the start of March, there were 66 providers offering virtual care, and by March 25, there were over 900 providers operating virtually. On March 12, Houston Methodist had 167 virtual visits, Sol says, and on March 25, they had 2,421. This new 2,000-plus number is now the daily average.

"Telemedicine is here to stay now with the rapid adoption that just happened," Sol says. "The landscape will change tremendously."

Another way new technology has affected doctors' day-to-day work has been through tele-rounding — especially when it comes to interacting with patients with COVID-19.

"We are putting iPads in those rooms with Vidyo as the video application, and our physicians can tele-visit into that room," Sol says.

It's all hands on deck for the tech hub so that physicians who need support have someone to turn to. Sol says the hub used to have a two-person support team and now there are eight people in that role.

Sol says the iPads are a key technology for tele-rounding and patient care — and they are working with Apple directly to secure inventory. But other tech tools, like an artificial intelligence-backed phone system, an online symptom checker, and chatbots are key to engaging with patients.

"We're looking at how we can get our patients in the right place at the right time," Sol says. "It's very confusing right now. We're hoping we can streamline that for our patients."

The hub was designed so that in case of emergency, the display hospital rooms could be transitioned to patient care rooms. Sol says that would be a call made by Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer of Houston Methodist Hospital.