Innovation and Disruption

Marcus Whitney says it’s time healthcare leaders embrace disruption

June 20, 2019 6:49 pm

Industry disruption presents opportunities for established healthcare organizations to partner with emerging companies, the entrepreneur says. For that to happen, leaders first need to adopt the right mindset.

As a child growing up in Brooklyn in the 1980s, Marcus Whitney got hooked on coding when he received a clunky IBM PCjr for Christmas one year. “It basically couldn’t do anything that you didn’t program it to do, so I was programming before I was 10 years old,” Whitney says.

Some 35 years later, the lessons he learned from innovating and problem-solving on his first computer still serve him as a healthcare entrepreneur and founder and CEO of Health:Further, a firm that has undergone its own evolution.

Coming of age in the dot-com era

Entering adulthood during the rise of digital technology, Whitney recognized that coding was a ticket to greater financial security, although he had not yet imagined the potential rewards of entrepreneurship. “There was clearly a fever in 2000 around the internet, and people who didn’t have traditional credentials, but had a serious work ethic, could make a career of it,” he says.

In his 20s, Whitney built his logistical and creative skills as a software developer at three companies and found he was happiest in lean and nimble environments where he had the greatest autonomy. At the smallest company, an email-marketing firm, Whitney worked alongside the founders, moving from contractor status to equity partner. “By the time I was ready to leave, I wanted to do what they had done,” he says.

At age 31, he launched his first software development company and exceeded $1 million in annual revenue. There was one problem: A single client represented 65% of that revenue. The company didn’t survive, but the experience taught Whitney about the importance of managing risk.

“As I have gotten older and more experienced, I have catalogued different design mistakes that radically increase the risk of a venture, and I have gotten really serious about managing risk as an entrepreneur,” he says. An example of undue risk: Building a business that is completely dependent on a third-party platform such as Facebook.

Yet Whitney doesn’t buy into the belief that an entrepreneurial life is inherently risky. “I always thought that working at another company where I didn’t have my hands on the wheel, and someone else had the ability to change the course of the company or make a decision that would affect my employment, was riskier than whatever risks I would take on as an entrepreneur,” he says. “Other entrepreneurs see it the same way — risk is all perception and perspective.”

Jumping into healthcare

One calculated risk that Whitney took was entering healthcare as an outsider. Back in 2010, Whitney and his partner, Vic Gatto, leapt into the healthcare space as early-stage investors when they launched the first technology-startup accelerator in the southeastern United States, Nashville-based Jumpstart Foundry.

In its first five years, Jumpstart Foundry provided $15,000 in seed investment to 40 companies, eight of which were in healthcare. Eventually, those eight companies went on to raise more than half of the accelerator’s follow-on capital. (Today, Jumpstart Foundry has almost 80 companies in its portfolio, including GreenLight Medical, a value-analysis platform; and ScriptDrop, a medication delivery company.)

In 2015, Whitney made another jump and founded Health:Further, Nashville’s first healthcare innovation conference for industry leaders, investors and entrepreneurs. In four years, the conference grew from 650 to 1,800 attendees, with half coming from other states and from countries like the United Kingdom, China, Israel and the Netherlands.

But early this year, Whitney and his Health:Further team decided to end the meeting and pivot to become a strategic advisory firm that helps healthcare organizations and emerging companies discover opportunities for collaboration.

“It felt like if we just kept convening, we would be missing out on opportunities to actually engage with the industry, especially given the relationships that we had developed,” he says.

The Health:Further conference helped Whitney’s adopted city of Nashville become a hub for healthcare innovation. Now, he and his colleagues have set their sights on the United Kingdom. Through Health:Further’s parent company, Briovation (which also includes the Jumpstart Foundry seed fund and the venture capital firm Jumpstart Capital), Whitney is working with partners in Manchester, England, to accelerate healthcare innovation abroad.

Becoming a serial entrepreneur

As a serial entrepreneur, Whitney is particularly drawn to the earliest phase of starting a company, typically the first four years when he is building the business model. “Usually by year four, I’m thinking about some other opportunity and how  
I want to apply the same skill set that I applied in the past four years to a new opportunity,” he says. 

In addition to this restlessness to create, Whitney, now 43, has a competitive streak that has kept his career from getting stale. He credits his experience in high school as a state champion wrestler and state-ranked decathlete for instilling a love of competition that persists today.

Alongside his competitive nature is a knack for connecting companies and fostering partnerships, which he sees as critical in the healthcare industry right now. “The problems are so big that you have to have cooperation and collaboration,” he says.

Getting active in healthcare’s transformation

In the past decade, Whitney has closely monitored the disruptive forces that he believes are poised  
to modernize healthcare and make it more consumer-focused. Beyond the emergence of new technologies, he points to generational shifts and the upsurge in high-deductible health plans that are making patients more cost-conscious. What’s more, rising healthcare costs are leading employers to demand more value for their dollar.

Despite these signs of disruption, he doesn’t believe healthcare can be “Uber-ized.”

“What’s different about healthcare compared with other industries where innovation has moved quickly is that there will not be a swift displacement of the establishment,” he says. “The infrastructure is too entangled, too critical for that to happen.” 

Still, he warns healthcare finance leaders not to discount tech and retail titans like Amazon, Google and Walmart that are eager to get more active in the industry. “They have capabilities, capacity and momentum that we have never seen before,” he says.

Despite the challenges and uncertainty ahead, Whitney is confident that finance leaders can learn to embrace innovation, a skill that taps into their drive to improve their organizations’ performance and provide higher-value care to the patients they serve. As he puts it, “The premise of innovation is a belief that things can always be made better.” 

More insight for healthcare leaders from Marcus Whitney:

Steps to future-proof your organization

Turning headwinds into tailwinds

Worthwhile types of connections


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