Accelerating healthcare innovation

John Blank, Chairman of TreeHouse Health, puts ideas into action

Tell us about your role at TreeHouse Health.

We started TreeHouse over three years ago as an innovation center in Minneapolis. We wanted to create a place where healthcare companies interested in innovation could collaborate and rub shoulders to take advantage of opportunities. Often, we see businesses come in after working on an issue for some time. We realized that if we saw them earlier and provided input, we could have helped to make them a more successful company.

As chairman, my time is spent looking at early stage companies to see if they seem like a good fit for us. The rest of my time is spent working with those organizations to figure out how to help them grow. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time. It’s an amazing time to be involved in healthcare.

Your background is as a physician. What led you to work on the business side of healthcare?

I practiced pediatric oncology. So I worked with kids with cancer and blood disorders. I enjoyed the close, intense relationship with the kids and their families. But, it was stressful. I found that I had a desire to do something more than work with one patient at a time, so I started to get involved with the health system where I was working. I became involved with populations, looking at systematic ways of approaching large problems. That is what led me to the business side.

Describe the type of work TreeHouse is doing to fuel innovation in healthcare.

We look at a large number of companies—the range is broad. But we want to find businesses that we can help with more than just money. We help them identify opportunities for their technology. We say, “if you did it this way, a payer could use it.” Or, “here’s how it could help the consumer side.” We help them to identify new markets and new ways to use the technology.

Once we identify what we think are potential opportunities, we can help get companies in front of the right people at the right organizations. It’s not uncommon to see situations where innovators have talked to people at a prospective company, but not the right decision maker. We get them talking to the people that make sense for their innovation. It’s a fun matchmaking experience.

As a practicing physician, what were some of the biggest challenges you saw in terms of healthcare innovation?

Part of the real challenge is when you are taking care of patients, you’re busy. You are so involved in the day-to-day practice of medicine that it’s hard to step out and say, “we can do it better.” It’s easy to get caught up in the process of how we always do it. It is also difficult to try to change within your realm without impacting other people. They may not like the way you change things, so it takes a lot of time to get through those complexities.

Your business helps accelerate growth for healthcare innovators. What are some of the most exciting breakthroughs you’ve seen come out of these businesses?

A lot of healthcare innovation is incremental, such as changing the way care is delivered. But a few significant game changers come to mind. One is Stemonix. They take skin cells and grow them into differentiated stem cells. They can make functioning heart or brain tissue out of skin cells. Initial customers are drug companies who use tissues as a way to screen for toxicity of new drugs. By prescreening, they can cut the cost of drug development.

The technology is so advanced, imagine being able to do that with individuals’ abnormal cells or tumor cells.

What do you envision to be some of the more game-changing digital healthcare innovations in the next three to five years?

Blockchain has the potential to be significant in healthcare. The big challenge is transparency in healthcare. You go to the doctor and have no idea what you are going to pay until four months later. Blockchain has the potential to make that instantaneous. It can track deductibles, copays, in network or out of network claims. It is changing the way people think about transparency.

Healthcare delivery will change as well. Digital is enabling the individualization of treatment at a cellular level, or genetic level. Treatment can be much more customized to the individual.

As a healthcare consumer, can you ever just go to a doctor’s appointment, or are you constantly observing and absorbing all that you see around you—all of the opportunities for improvement?

What has struck me as interesting about the health system is that when you are a patient, the rest of your brain goes dead a bit. More often than not, you get caught in the process and lose objectivity. My wife and I always bring the other one with us when we go to the doctor because the doctor will tell you something and it goes out of your brain quickly—or you get caught up on one word.

When I used to practice medicine, if I had a newly diagnosed kid, I would tape record the entire initial conversation with the family and give it to them so that they could truly hear all that was said.

What do you like most about your job?

I really enjoy talking to entrepreneurs. It’s interesting when you think about the pioneers who settled our country in the early part of the last century. They left to explore new opportunities. They had spirit and energy. That’s what I see every day with entrepreneurs, many who had good jobs. They left the security of a solid company because they had vision and passion to do something different. That is energizing.

Do you have any special hobbies or interests?

We live on a rural farm in Minnesota, so I like to play in the barn and my wife shows horses. We’ve had chickens, three dogs and three horses. The nice thing about dealing with animals is that you never have to explain anything. Just give them your time and care. I wish I could be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.


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