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VOL. 10 | NO. 15 | Saturday, April 8, 2017

Starting Up

Regional One center brings innovation mainstream

By Andy Meek

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Scott Vogel is part of a small but scrappy band of entrepreneurs in Memphis focused on building and launching startups. Some have come here from around the country to participate in any of the area’s startup accelerators. They’ve founded everything from innovative medical devices to enterprises built around new twists on old challenges.

And then there’s Vogel, launching what basically amounts to a startup inside one of the least likely places of all – a hospital.

When Vogel – a serial entrepreneur in Memphis who’s worked around the startup scene for a while now – got the call from Regional One Health president and CEO Dr. Reginald Coopwood, it was to launch a new Center for Innovation inside the hospital.

The challenges intrinsic to the health care industry and to health care delivery are, by now, no surprise. The industry is also tightly bound by regulations, by patient expectations, by technology limitations, by innovation, and more.

Coopwood wanted a center that could help push through all that and work around it.

“The nation’s health care system as a whole is resistant to change,” Coopwood said last May, when Regional One announced the center’s formation. “Our desire, whether it’s a product or service delivery or whatever we look at, is to be disruptive to the normal health care environment.”

Coopwood saw something in the bustling, dynamic world of startups and startup founders – an appetite for taking on the status quo, for bringing creativity to long-established challenges. He decided something like that should be brought to Regional One and broached the idea with Vogel, basically giving him a blank slate.

The center is, in one sense, an idea hub where doctors, nurses and Regional One employees can bring problems they’ve experienced and solutions they’ve conceived. The center will try to help put them into practice – or, if the idea is for a product, to figure out how to bring it to fruition.

In a larger sense, the center is also an example of how Vogel says companies and entities of almost any kind can bring a startup mindset inside their organization to disrupt the status quo.

“We want people to think in a new way,” said Vogel, who will talk about the center and how its lessons can be applied to other organizations as the keynote speaker at The Daily News’ startups-focused seminar on April 13.

The event will be held at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art at 3:30 p.m.

Vogel, who currently works two offices down from Coopwood in an office fitted with whiteboard walls, will talk at the seminar about how important it is to have an interest in disruptive innovation emanating from the top of an organization, as it did with Coopwood at Regional One.

“He and I have worked closely together over the last year and a half to refine what the job needs to look like,” Vogel said. “To me, it’s like my own startup inside the hospital, in that it allows me to also develop products or services within the innovation center that could be used in the hospital or commercially viable, but also to help encourage and motivate employees to bring ideas to the table.

“We’re looking at completing a Center for Innovation in the outpatient center that’s currently unused space,” Vogel said. “We’re in the process of raising funds to build a facility that’s about 15,000 square feet, … where doctors, nurses, technicians, whoever wants to be a part of the ecosystem will have access to the center.”


One lesson he’s already learned that can be applied to other organizations? Innovative cultures are top-down; it doesn’t work as well if they have to percolate from the bottom and slowly find their way up through the organization.

It’s a message Vogel plans to incorporate in his seminar keynote, under the rubric of “starting up to never stop.” That last part is a tip of the hat to Start Co., the entrepreneurship organization in Memphis that runs a few accelerators and promotes startup creation.

Its mantra and rallying cry is “Never Stop.”

Vogel says another indispensable feature of the Regional One Health Center for Innovation is that it’s somewhat walled off from day-to-day operations of the hospital. Because it doesn’t have to worry about keeping the hospital’s wheels turning, it is free to think big in pursuit of innovation, which means “employees can come out their shell a little. And start thinking about - what if?”

It’s a question lots of startup founders – and stakeholders in the local startup ecosystem – ask every day.

The city has organizations like Start Co. and EPIcenter that are hubs of startup and entrepreneurial programming, education and support. Memphis also is home to myriad startup accelerators, including several hosted by Start Co. and other entities like ZeroTo510, that give founders investment funding, access to mentors and other benefits to build their startups.

The city, of course, is not a hotbed of scrutiny and interest like San Francisco is. But stakeholders here are adamant – it doesn’t have to be that. Moreover, Memphis has plenty of strengths like a low cost of living that draws cash-strapped founders who might otherwise have been resigned to decamping to a bigger, more expensive city.

The city’s startup community is also not monolithic. It is, in a way, a collection of themed tribes. Sometimes, for example, industry-specific niches will congregate inside an accelerator, rather than the city’s startup ecosystem trying to be all things to all people.

Key players, like Start Co., are also evolving, incrementally adding programming and services to extend and enrich their value to startups. One piece that was missing for a while, for example, is the post-acceleration activity that Start Co. works to offer now, through follow-up availabilities with mentors and investors, instead of essentially sending graduated companies out into the wild.

This, says Start Co. president Andre Fowlkes, is where the next phase of job growth is coming from. And what’s happening at Regional One – the center Vogel is leading – is one example of the core beneath all of that startup activity.

It’s the willingness to try something different in service of building new companies, products and services.

“We don’t want this to be in essence a suggestion box, where employees just drop in saying this is wrong, that’s wrong – we want to help people to formalize a problem in their department and formalize a solution,” Vogel said. “And then for the innovation center to work with them on developing that idea, whether it’s by engaging patients, improving care or improving the hospital’s processes.”

As far as what’s next, the center has been in talks with representatives of EPIcenter, ZeroTo510 and venture capital firm Innova about working with startups after they’ve finished going through their accelerator. The thinking being, perhaps the Regional One Center for Innovation can identify one or a few companies that meet a need or address a problem germane to the hospital. The startup or startups could be brought into the center, given access to key players and other resources, and continue building and refining their venture.

In that scenario, everybody wins.

“When you talk about quality care and zero harm to patients and excellent customer service, an important thing Dr. Coopwood is really trying to create is a culture where patients have a choice of where they get care,” Vogel said. “He’s trying to create this culture, as you also see in the campus out east, of giving patients a choice in their care and at a very high level. And a lot of that has to do with thinking outside the box.

“In my mind, innovation is just looking at a problem and finding a solution that’s better than what’s in place already. You can always find a new solution to an old problem that’s out there.”

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