When creating groundbreaking health care technology, keeping products user friendly is a necessity. Photo via Getty Images

In the vibrant landscape of startups, the quest to build groundbreaking products can sometimes overshadow the true essence of our existence — to solve problems for our customers.

It's a trap many fall into, often leading to two common outcomes: prolonged product launches stretching over years or an unfortunate mismatch between product and market leading to startup death. But a dynamic solution exists, minimum viable products, or MVPs. MVP has propelled startups to unprecedented success.

A real-life testimony: MVP's power

Imagine a health care-focused at-home testing startup partnered with a major player. The aim: a telehealth support system for the at-home colon cancer screening. Unlike traditional telehealth services, this system required guiding members through a complex process of collecting stool samples accurately.

Challenges presented

  • Develop a user-friendly telehealth solution in five to six weeks on a limited budget and secure a high-stakes multimillion-dollar deal.
  • Carefully integrating telehealth on the existing portal for user-friendly access while aligning seamlessly with user expectations.
  • Address the complexities of Telehealth, including clinician staffing and regulatory adherence.

User Insights

User journeys and interviews confirmed the necessity for guided support during test-taking, but users showed reluctance to navigate the process independently and expressed a preference for customer support over a clinician assistant.

Interestingly, telehealth was not instinctively linked to test support, but rather to medical advice.

The birth of an MVP strategy: a catalyst for innovation

Since the main user problem was the guided support during test-taking, we created the following MVP solutions.

  • Video call integration: Direct video call button under customer support.
  • Guided messaging: Articulate call support purpose.
  • Testing guides: Portal's step-by-step guidance with videos.
  • Video guide in test kit materials.

Our MVP led us to an excellent NPS score and became a guide for our future roadmap.

Next time you build, remember this and embrace the dynamic MVP strategy — create, learn, and reiterate are the cornerstones of success in digital health product management's journey.

Here are four steps for building a successful MVP in telehealth.

  • Identify crucial user problems: Pinpoint your target customers' most pressing issue.
  • Solve a small problem simply: Initiate a straightforward solution to address a minor problem.
  • Plot the user's journey: Map out the user's path through your solution.
  • Prioritize ruthlessly: Discern the key features and prioritize with precision.
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Tanu Jain is the founder and CEO of Houston-based Digital Health Innovator, a strategic marketing firm for health care products.

This Houston expert describes the main phases central to any innovation journey. Photo courtesy of Slalom

Houston expert: How to navigate the innovation journey — from PoC to MVP

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As a technologist, one thing I learned early in my career about the technology landscape is its constant improvements and I understood that companies who kept up with those changes remain successful and competitive. However, only companies mastering a disciplined innovation framework are truly able to harness the power of emerging tech to help them solve their most complex business challenges.

Innovative solutions come in all shapes and sizes, but not all of them should come to life. Specifically, when considering digital solutions, there are a few widely accepted innovation approaches in the product engineering field. This quick guide describes the main phases central to any innovation journey.

Feasibility Study

Ideating can be fun but executing a feasibility study will ground you on what will work and what may still be science fiction. The thought here is to spend two to four weeks doing research and talking to experts to answer a few key questions that will help you determine the feasibility of your idea or concept. Through the study, you will learn how to look at it from both a technology and a business perspective. More importantly, to answer the question 'Is it even possible to accomplish your goal with this technology?'

A subject matter expert (SME) will quickly tell you yes or no and why. If you find the technology is indeed suitable, then you will move on to evaluate the business feasibility. Does it make financial sense? Does it work within established business policies? Will there be a healthy Return On Investment (ROI) within an acceptable timeline? If you find positive responses to those questions, then you should feel confident to move on to a Proof of Concept (PoC) or even jump to a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). On the other hand, if either the technology is not feasible or the solution doesn't make business sense, then you've just saved yourself a lot of time, budget, and possibly headaches.

Proof of Concept

This phase is about testing the theory and proving the hypothesis, technically speaking. You'll need to go through a Proof of Concept if the technology solution you have in mind hasn't been tested in either a lab setting or in the field. Thinking outside of the box and innovating is all about trying new approaches and solving problems in a novel way, so you'll have to spend the time and budget ensuring it will work as expected. However, you must be very careful to not get carried away.

A proper PoC should take four to six weeks, max. It should help you quickly determine whether the technology will live up to its promise or if you need to pivot to another approach. Building a team with the right skillset is vital to this process because they are the ones evaluating the proposed solution and comparing it to the expected outcomes. Any signs of discord should empower the team to stop the project, saving further investment, and should help you decide if another approach is even possible. If all criteria has been met, then move on to the MVP stage.

Minimum Viable Product

At this point, you have confirmed the solution you imagined works and you are ready to unlock its potential. But you must start small. You must prioritize all the features you want this product to have and decide what the core functionality should be. This is important because if you choose too many features to start with, you may initially spend too much money and time and may even miss a window of business opportunity you may have lined up. Hence the name of the MVP, it is a product that employs the minimum time, money, and features while still being a viable product.

In summary, if you have an innovative idea for a technology solution, I recommend you first determine whether it's feasible, both technology and business wise, through a short and focused study. If feasible, then you can put that concept to the test through a PoC and determine its desirability. If this product is indeed desirable, then moving into building an MVP will help you understand its viability – and that is how you can successfully innovate while keeping risks at bay.


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Alfredo Arvide is the director for the products and innovation practice at Slalom Consulting in Houston, where he helps clients solve their most complex business challenges by leveraging emerging technologies and applying innovative technology solutions.

A Houston startup is making it easier to connect and manage the relationship between tech freelancers and businesses with software projects. Image via Pexels

This Houston startup is changing the way companies access tech talent

freelancers unite

With the gig economy continuing to grow — especially in light of the COVID-19-caused crisis and growing unemployment — a Houston startup has created a portal for companies to access technology-focused freelancers.

FreelancingTeams, co-founded by Raj Kal, allows companies to easily search and find tech professionals for projects — as well as manage that team throughout the work. On the other side of the table, the startup is allowing the country's growing population of freelancers a platform to get picked up for jobs.

"We are changing the way we look at team building," Kal says, noting that a huge percentage of freelancers struggle to find jobs with existing resources.

Not only does FreelancingTeams act as a marketplace for tech talent, but Kal says the platform allows for project management and payment processes. While there are other talent portals — like Fiverr and Upwork — this added capability sets the startups apart from its competition.

"People come in with an idea, and they can do it from start to finish," Kal says, explaining that users don't have to find separate tools to find their team, manage the project, and price and pay for the work.

FreelancingTeams is free for clients to list and staff their projects, and a 10 to 15 percent cut comes out of the freelancer side. However, there is an option for clients to upgrade to a paid subscription option for larger, more complex projects that require additional hands-on management resources from FreelancingTeams.

With its free option, FreelancingTeams has seen a lot of interest from startups looking to build there minimum viable product, or MVP.

"We are working with a lot of startups as a Station Houston partner," Kal says. "We are helping them get their MVP done, so that when they come to our platform, we can work with them to understand the requirements and connect them to their teams."

Betsy Furler, founder of For All Abilities, a Houston-based software company aims to help businesses support employees with ADHD, Dyslexia, learning differences, and Autism, recently used FreelancingTeams to staff her MVP development project. She says using the platform made it easy to manage and test the work the freelancers were doing.

"FreelancingTeams helped me build my MVP quickly and inexpensively," Furler says. "Their quote was much less expensive than the others [I received] and the work was fantastic. Because of the platform, I also spent more time thinking through what features were needed and how to prioritize them, rather than just giving a developer or project manager a list to complete."

Outside of affordably building tech for startups, the coronavirus has greatly affected the workforce with unemployment at a historic high. This has led to an increased interest in freelancing.

"A lot of people are unemployed and are looking for alternative options," Kal says. "Freelancing is a place where we are seeing large growth."

He says he's also observing an increased interest in freelancers from large companies and even retailers who need to upgrade their online presence.

"The COVID situation has brought more challenges to bigger businesses, and they are looking for cost-effective solutions as well," Kal says.

Kal is looking to grow FreelancingTeams, which might include fundraising in the future, he says. For now, the company has a low overhead and uses freelancers on its own site to develop its technology.

"The next step for us is to grow bigger in Houston and then around Texas," Kal says.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.