Saturday at SXSW: Hooray for health

MM&M isn't big on the whole cheerleading thing. Sure, we hand out awards (deadline soon!) and come up with lists (prep your noms for our upcoming 70 Over 70 presentation!) and generally celebrate a profession that has managed to evolve in rapid tandem with the science it supports, which is no small feat.

But we also chronicle areas where pharma and healthcare companies come up short. Case in point, the industry's inability to craft coherent value-proposition messaging and unite behind it, say, or its almost willful intransigence when it comes to abandoning time-tested practices and venturing into the wilds of the future.

See also: Uber partners with startup to take patients to the doctor

That, in large part, is why this year's SXSW's health event is such a revelation. Six years ago, the health track didn't exist; last year, it was relegated to a hotel more than a few steps away from the Austin Convention Center. The content sang, but attendees found themselves outside the heart of the SXSW action. It felt like a conference unto itself.

This year, however, there has been a degree of enthusiasm usually associated with Marvel fanboys. On Saturday, lines snaked outside the two conference rooms devoted to health panels. One panel, “Patients-Centric Healthcare: The Future of Health,” seemed a particularly big draw and was attended by a wide range of health-adjacent professionals: On the badges I non-stealthily and thus obnoxiously observed, there were more quote-unquote mainstream tech companies and analytics/data players than organizations that typically dominate pharma and health klatches.

Furthermore, there has been an unusual and welcome degree of diversity, both in the sort of presentations generating buzz and the individuals steering them. “How Wounded Warriors Are Transforming Biotech,” “LGBT Community Driving Digital Health Innovations,” and “101 on Women's Health: More Than Fertility” are just a few examples. For the first time in the history of gatherings of people, white dudes rocking the blazer-over-an-Oxford-with-jeans look have not been doing a majority of the pontificating. Onward and upward, y'all.

See also: How a startup is educating kids with diabetes with a teddy bear

Technically SXSW's health track is still a sub-track of SXSW Interactive, but during the first two days of the conference it had a main-event feel. Let's see if we can get the nomenclature adjusted accordingly next time out.

Some other thoughts from Saturday's sessions:

1. Don't count on wearables. Three sessions unified under the #SWSHACKMED banner did more to demystify the health-tech startup world and the challenges created by its sudden, explosive growth than all the TED talks on the topic combined. I may be mistaken, but over the course of 180 minutes worth of presentations and Q&As I do not believe the word “wearables” was mentioned a single time. More on that coming.

2. Failing is not an option when it comes to patients. In “Hacking Your Health: Future or Fail,” a panel led by HCB Health's Amy Dowell, traced the evolution of the health hackathon. This was more grad seminar than Health Hackathons 101. Among the best tips: There's a hackathon role for pretty much every person in the healthcare ecosystem, including patients (to offer needed real-world perspective on the proposed hacks) and marketers (to focus and frame narratives for eventual presentation to hackathon judges and, later, the VC community); and that, as cardiologist and IDEO Palo Alto director of health Dr. Farzad Azimpour put it, the tech world's mantra of “fail fast and fail often” might not be the smartest guiding principle when lives are at stake.

3. What health-tech entrepreneurs need to know. “Real Stories of Success From Health Hackathons,” moderated by Juice Pharma's Bob Palmer, wasn't as example-heavy as its title might have suggested — which, given the volume of insight and even trade secrets shared during it, was a good thing. Xpress CEO Kimberly Corbitt offered a play-by-play on the glories and frustrations that have come with the evolution of her exceedingly ambitious start-up. Per a Silicon 66 story linked on the Xpress website, Xpress “takes information about all the drugs on the market – including their benefits, side effects and costs, as well as the coverage rules of insurance companies and clinical trials — and integrates it into one searchable screen” that doctors can view alongside a patient's EHR. One senses that, successful or not, Corbitt will be able to give a master class on health-tech entrepreneurship before too long. The details were fascinating, especially as they pertained to the human needs all too often shunted aside during the rush to innovate.

4. How to sell your startup. Of course, innovators often aren't the most adept communicators, as was noted during “The Pitch: Selling Your Disruptive Health Startup,” moderated by AbelsonTaylor's Noah Lowenthal. AT's Tristen George surveyed the parallels between the digital experiences she devises for pharma clients and the narratives health-tech entrepreneurs must create to capture the imagination of would-be investors. Her remarks were amplified by Bunnygraph Entertainment founder and executive product John Heinsen – who, as a “Hollywood Guy” with stints at Fox and the Academy Awards (as the transmedia producer partly responsible for the famous Ellen selfie) was seemingly an unlikely participant here. That said, Heinsen's stories likening the Hollywood pitch process to the hoops through which entrepreneurs must jump were both revelatory and a hoot. The force of personality (and willingness to deploy it) play a disproportionate role, in entrepreneurship as in life in general.