Hot healthcare tech scene bubbling up north in the Twin Cities
If funding were all that mattered, Kyle Rolfing would have based Bright Health somewhere other than Minneapolis. But for Rolfing, president of the consumer-oriented health insurance company, success starts with talent.
And Minnesota—with a well-established medical industry led by insurance giant UnitedHealth Group in Minnetonka, the Mayo Clinic healthcare system based in Rochester, and devicemaker Medtronic in Minneapolis, among others—provides both inspiration and manpower and is leading the Midwest in terms of venture capital funding of healthcare startups.
So in 2015, Rolfing and two others, all with ties to UnitedHealth, launched Bright Health in the Twin Cities.
“We live here, is one thing,” he said of the decision to start a company in the area known as Medical Alley. “But we also have roots here related to the entrepreneurial healthcare side.”
In just two years, Rolfing’s startup has come a long way. Last year, Bright Health was the best-funded healthcare startup in the state, drawing in $80 million, more than half of all the venture funding that went to the digital health industry in the state. The company last year partnered with Centura Health’s hospitals and doctors to bring insurance to the Colorado market after UnitedHealthcare and
Humana announced they would quit the state’s individual insurance exchange.
Bright Health’s success shines a light on the growing healthcare startup industry in Minnesota— particularly in the Twin Cities. Though the coasts still dominate both the overall and healthcare startup scenes, Minnesota has made a name for itself, drawing not only on larger healthcare companies such as UnitedHealth and Medtronic, but also on companies with scientific bents, such as 3M.
“Minnesota is a pretty incredible state in the healthcare sense,” said Glafira Marcon, chief facilitator of Healthcare.mn, which has more than 1,600 members who work in healthcare startups and local healthcare companies or are enthusiastic about healthcare innovation.
In Minnesota, about 439,300 people are employed in the healthcare industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Last year, 98 health technology startups
in the state raised $420.3 million, according to the Minnesota trade group Medical Alley Association, outdoing all of their Midwestern neighbors. (BioEnterprise, a business accelerator, puts that number a little higher, with Minneapolis alone raising $422.4 million last year). The area hit a high point in 2015, when companies raised $456.3 million, according to Medical Alley, contributing to nearly $2.75 billion since 2009.
Most of the money is flowing into and around the Twin Cities, where healthcare startups make a variety of prod- ucts, including mobile apps, sleep-apnea devices and medical image-sharing software. They’re thriving on the banks of the Mississippi River thanks to an influx of venture capital dollars and a spirit of innovation that’s stereotypically—and falsely—assigned just to the coasts.
The state of Minnesota also offers the Angel Tax Credit program, which gives investors a 25% tax credit on funding that goes to Minnesota-based businesses younger than 10 years old (or 20 years old for medical devices and pharmaceuticals that require Food and Drug Administration approval).
The majority of money raised last year went to medicaldevice startups, which received $252.2 million. That makes sense, given the historical strength of the medicaldevice industry in the area. Minnesota ranks second only to California in total medical-device employment, which has been steady from 2012 to 2015.
Digital health companies in Minnesota are hard on the heels of devicemakers, with an 80% increase in funding from 2015 to 2016, when they raised $127.3 million. It’s not just that there are more digital health companies—it’s that each company is also raising more money. The median first round of funding for digital health firms was five times greater last year than it was in 2012.
Along with Bright Health, other digital-health winners in Minnesota last year included telehealth company RetraceHealth and MedNet Solutions, which makes software for managing clinical studies. RetraceHealth found support from both near and far, with a $7 million round of funding from Minnesota’s Lemhi Ventures, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and HealthEast Care System, as well as California’s McKesson Ventures. MedNet, which works with Medtronic, Novartis and others, raised $16.5 million, led by Santa Monica, Calif.-based Arrowroot Capital.
Though MedNet’s funding occurred in the fourth quarter of the year, overall investments slowed in the period compared with the previous year, likely due in part to the post-election uncertainty around the threatened repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Fourth-quarter investments in Minnesota’s healthcare companies were $83.7 million in 2016, down 57% from $194.6 million in that quarter a year earlier.
There are several draws to attract talent to Minnesota. For one, Healthcare.mn’s Marcon said, it’s politically progressive, and the cost of living is relatively low, at least when compared with other startup hotbeds, such as Silicon Valley. According to Medical Alley, average compensation in the health technology industry as a whole was $122,000 in 2015. But the cost of living in Silicon Valley, where the average healthcare startup salary is $104,000, according to AngelList, is 65% higher than in Minneapolis.
John Robertson, CEO of MedNet Solutions, said local talent has provided his company with excellent, relevant work experience gained while working at other Twin Cities-based healthcare companies. “It’s given us a great resource pool,” he said. Indeed, in Minnesota, Medtronic employs more than 9,000, Boston Scientific has about 8,000 workers, and St. Jude Medical has about 3,000. 3M Health Care, Smiths Medical and Optum also employ significant numbers of science- and tech-savvy folks.
The usual trajectory is from larger companies to smaller, more entrepreneurial ones, Rolfing said, not the other way around. But sometimes people end up back in bigger endeavors when startups are acquired, as was the case when Rolfing’s insurance company Definity Health was bought by UnitedHealth in 2004 for $300 million.
also can leverage their talent to serve larger companies. For example, TreeHouse Health, a healthcare innovation center started by former UnitedHealth executive Dr. John Blank; his son, Jeffrey Blank; and Joe Whitney in 2013, has partnered with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota to both share and gain insights into the transforming healthcare industry.
“The ecosystem that we have in this marketplace, I believe, rivals that of the coasts,” said Laurie Healy, director of marketing and communications of CoCo, a group of coworking spaces that are home to about a dozen healthcare startups in the Twin Cities. “There’s a really strong entrepreneurial backbone here to help these companies grow.”
In the Twin Cities, “there are industry leaders in virtually every sector of healthcare,” said Jeffrey Blank, managing director of TreeHouse Health, adding that his goal is to create an ecosystem. The group’s portfolio companies include app creator Pops Diabetes Care and software firm Carrot Health. Last August, TreeHouse announced a partnership with consulting firm Accenture that will help guide TreeHouse’s startups.
Minnesota may lead the Midwest in funding healthcare tech startups, but it’s still a small market compared to Silicon Valley and Massachusetts. Yet what it lacks in the number of companies, it makes up for in the concentration of patents: Minnesota leads the country for health technology patents per capita, with 55.72 patent grants and applications for every 100,000 people, followed by Northern California, according to Medical Alley.
Minnesota also makes up for it in expertise, Jeffrey Blank said. “Many of the entrepreneurs that we work with oftentimes have deep sector expertise and understand how healthcare is delivered and paid for.
“There’s not necessarily the same volume of healthcare companies as in other markets,” he said, “but the quality of companies that are coming out of here is as good as anywhere.”
CoCo runs a group of coworking spaces in the Twin Cities that house about a dozen healthcare startups.
Healthcare.mn has more than 1,600 members who work in healthcare startups, local healthcare companies or are passionate about healthcare innovation.
Kyle Rolfing and his co-founders decided to launch Bright Health in the Twin Cities because of the area’s deep talent pool and entrepreneurial roots in healthcare.