Health care business accelerator is spurring innovation, entrepreneurship in Flint

Mark Harburg poses with his patented medical device, called SafetySit.
Mark Harburg poses with his patented medical device, called SafetySit. Photo: LeoSage Images

For Linda Bell, it is a project of the heart inspired by her mother, who was deaf. The founder of Flint-based Bell Tech Communications is seeking a patent for a tablet that uses her software to help deaf individuals communicate without relying on sign language interpreters.

Mark Harburg piloted a study at a Flint hospital to verify that his patented medical device, called SafetySit, is an easy-to-use tool to help deliver edge-of-bed therapy to patients in hospitals, rehabilitation centers or home settings. The goals: Enhance patient recovery from surgeries or illness, prevent injuries among medical staff and patients, and potentially save millions of dollars in health care costs.

Bell and Harburg are among a dozen business founders who completed a rigorous, 12-week boot camp for aspiring entrepreneurs. The boot camp was created by XLerateHealth Flint, a health care business accelerator that launched in Flint two years ago.

Linda Bell demonstrates communication software she developed to allow written, visual and audio translations between deaf and hearing individuals.
Photo: Cliff Veach

Since 2017, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has granted $705,000 to support the Flint-based health care accelerator. XLerateHealth Flint is now accepting applications through April 30 for its third boot camp.

“We were thrilled that Mott gave us the opportunity to get up to Flint and begin to create an entrepreneurial system for health care there,” said Jackie Willmot, CEO and co-founder of XLerateHealth, a nonprofit based in Louisville, Kentucky.

Since its founding in 2013, XLerateHealth has helped more than 90 startups in health care-related enterprises validate business models, determine sales strategies, and begin to attract customers and investors. XLerateHealth’s portfolio of companies has collectively raised over $200 million in funding.

A thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem takes time to develop. But Willmot is confident that Flint has the fundamentals needed to be a successful incubator for health care startups, including biotechnology, life sciences and digital health. She said Flint has three hospitals with significant volume that are ripe for “working on solutions that would impact innovation,” as well as a robust higher-education presence, including University of Michigan-Flint, Kettering University and Mott Community College.

Efforts to encourage and advance a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem could be a game-changer for Flint and Genesee County, Willmot said, bringing investor dollars and more job opportunities to the community.

“We wanted to harness ideas that were happening in the universities and possibly ideas in the health systems that have not been tapped,” Willmot said. “We want to get those ideas out of the building and start planting the seeds for innovation and commercialization.”

The accelerator sets a demanding pace for founders. Their assignments are designed to ingrain key lessons for building a successful business, from analyzing markets and obtaining customers to presenting weekly progress updates to mentors and coaches. The boot camp concludes with Demo Day, when company founders pitch their companies to investors and potential customers.

Entrepreneurs in the XlerateHealth Flint 2020 cohort participate in a virtual boot camp.
Photo: XlerateHealth Flint

To help get entrepreneurs ready for the rigors of the boot camp, XLerateHealth Flint started offering two feeder programs this year. In partnership with the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, it will run a five-week biomedical innovation and commercialization program, twice annually, called Fast Forward Medical Innovation’s fastPACE. XLerateHealth also has teamed up with the University of Louisville LaunchIt program to offer a 10-week startup training for any entrepreneur in any field.

“The main goal is to stimulate the ecosystem and get people thinking about entrepreneurship and innovation, and begin to understand the steps required to take a concept from the idea stage through commercialization,” Willmot said.

Boot camp participants said the accelerator helped them develop their businesses, hone their product pitches and expand networking opportunities with investors and potential customers.

“Without them, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Bell, whose team is working to program a tablet using sign language, words and symbols for infants to preschoolers who are deaf. Earlier this year, Bell won a $10,000 first-place prize in a Flint pitch competition; she needs another $70,000 to pilot her device.

Bell, who has worked as a sign language interpreter, has mapped out a future for her device, which will grow with children into their adolescence and adulthood.

Harburg validated the design for SafetySit at Hurley Medical Center, where 10 clinicians were able to correctly set up the device with only a user manual. He is seeking $150,000 in funding to kick start production of the device, which is made of washable plastic and allows patients to sit safely on the edge of a bed for physical, occupational or respiratory therapy.

Harburg said the XLerateHealth program helped put him in a position to start talking to investors now.

Willmot said regions that want to create an accelerator or an entrepreneurially spirited economy must be patient, allow time for the process to work and trust that it will work. “There’s a certain degree of momentum that you have to build before really magical things start happening,” she said.

Learn more about the accelerator at Apply for the 2021 Flint cohort here.