HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 24

COVID-19 provides huge opportunity for telehealth, says Houston health tech leader

Lance Black says the COVID-19 outbreak has led to some interesting opportunities for Houston startups and health tech as a whole. Photo courtesy of TMCx

The Texas Medical Center's accelerator program has one foot in the health care system of today — operating in collaboration with the TMC's wide network of member institutions — as well as representing the future of health care as it cultivates new technologies those medical institutions need.

This unique setting makes Lance Black, associate director of TMCx, an interesting perspective on the COVID-19 outbreak, and something he says he's excited to see rise to the occasion — and, in this case, crisis — is telehealth.

"One of the things we focus on at TMCx is the ability to remotely monitor and care for patients outside the four walls," Black says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, "and this particular crisis really lends to that."

For better or for worse, the outbreak has forced a turning point in health care, and it's also put telehealth and other health tech companies to the test.

"This is going to force the health care system to take a hard look at what these platforms are capable of doing," Black says. "And it's going to stress the capabilities of these companies. To be honest, if there's a silver lining, that is one of them in my mind, that this will prove out the technology [in telehealth.]"

In the episode, Black provides some tips for startups going through the crisis, as well as praises the collaborative effort within the tech community in Houston. And in a way, something felt familiar to Black, a medical doctor who previously served in the United States Air Force.

"In the military, we joked about how there's a 'hurry up and wait' attitude. You hurry up to get things ready, and then you're just sitting there waiting for the right time to respond," Black says. "I feel like that's what our startups are doing now."

Black says he has seen startups taking inventory of their resources, accommodating their products for different uses, assessing their personnel, and waiting to see where they fit in to help.

Meanwhile, there's plenty Black can do to help serve TMCx's startups. This year marked the first cohort of TMCx's revamped program, and last month the TMC Innovation Institute welcomed in 19 startups for a bootcamp. While that went off without a hitch, Black says, the next phase — due to start in May — could be pushed back.

"Out of respect for our hospitals and member institutions, we want to delay the physical presence of the companies in Houston," Black says. "But that doesn't mean we're not able to call or virtually meet with the companies. There's a lot of pre-work we can do in order to prep the companies appropriately so that when they do have meetings face to face, they can put their best foot forward."

Black discusses the coronavirus' effects and offers his advice to startups on the podcast. Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


For newly named CEO of Topl, it's game on. Courtesy of Topl

From a business perspective, Kim Raath, founder and CEO of Topl, sees the challenges and expected recession caused by COVID-19 as an opportunity — and a test.

"A bunch of companies — like Airbnb — were built in the 2008 recession," Raath says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I'm excited to see if we make it through here, I think we can survive anything."

Topl was founded by Rice University graduates — Raath, James Aman, and Chris Georgen — to track impact in various industries, such as carbon footprints in oil and gas or fair wages for farmers in agriculture, via a robust blockchain network. The company closed a $700,000 seed round last year and is looking toward another round of investment this year — yes, even amidst the current situation.

Raath just recently took over as CEO for the company following the completion of her Rice Ph.D in statistics and a Master's in economics, and it was a perfect time for the founders to sit down and realign their company. Aman will continue to focus on the tech, Georgen will focus on the customer, and Raath will steer the ship.

"It was definitely a cool experience for us as founders to go through together, but I'm glad that all three of us came out of this excited about what we're doing moving forward," says Raath.

And then, the coronavirus hit, which, to Raath, has proven to be an added obstacle and an exciting time to be in the track and trace world of blockchain.

"A lot of these COVID-19 trackers that everyone is watching, the data is being pulled into these trackers in the same way you could be tracking your chocolate, diamonds, anything," says Raath. "I'm excited to see the virtual and digital side of this — people are realizing you can use data to visualize things — and at the same time use that data for informed decision making."

She's observed that people are actually thinking of the effects on supply chain — in more than just the business sense.

"I don't think any of us thought this much about supply chain. Most of us just went to the grocery store, and we had all these options," Raath says.

Raath, like many startup founders, have had to make some tough calls and some huge cuts to her business, which has been scrappy and bootstrapped most of its existence anyways. In the episode, she offers her fellow startup leaders some advice about making these cuts as well as reminds them, as well as herself, that everyone is in the same boat right now — ask yourself what you can do to stand out and survive.

"Everyone is in the same place — including your competition right now," Raath says. "You don't have control of the uncertainty — but no one does. What do you have control over right now and how can you act on that control. That's what my focus has been."

Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.