How Stanford-affiliated StartX began to embrace medical startups

By Richard Nieva , written on May 31, 2013

From The News Desk

StartX, an incubator spun out of Stanford in 2010, held its ninth Demo Day last night in Palo Alto. The accelerator is for students who have attended the university, and is a bit different from most, being a nonprofit that takes no equity from member companies. In the past, it has graduated startups like the social network Knotch, and Loki Studios, which was recently bought by Yahoo in Marissa Mayer’s acquisition spree.

But yesterday’s Demo Day had one very clear trend: Out of the 10 startups, half were medical related. Some of the medical companies showcased include BioTx, which makes tiny devices that can be implanted to flow through a person’s blood stream, and can be used to treat things like diabetes or obesity. Teitelman calls it the “Magic School Bus” of StartX. Others include Spire, which makes a wearable clip-on device that specifically tracks breathing, and MedWhat, a natural language app that pulls up content from places like PubMed or the National Institutes of Health to answer a user’s medical questions.

This is a new phenomenon because last May StartX introduced StartX Med, the incubator’s first industry-specific arm. And StartX Med’s very existence is indicative of a slight sea change at the university.

With the renown of Stanford Medical Center, mixed with the rich tech history of Stanford University itself, it might seem surprising that medical startups have not taken more of a front seat in the institution’s entrepreneurial landscape. “Historically, entrepreneurship at Stanford has been more associated with the engineering school,” says Cameron Teitelman, the 24-year-old founder and CEO of StartX.

But while some professors at the Stanford School of Medicine have spun out big biotech companies, medical startups haven't enjoyed the same enthusiasm as other tech sectors, says Teitelman. “For the most part, people were kind of afraid of doing innovation because the medical industry is so hierarchical, bureaucratic and backwards.”

Members of the Stanford medical community say one of the things that compounded this was the medical school’s previous dean Phillip Pizzo's aversion to entrepreneurship. Teitelman says he’s heard feedback that Pizzo wanted the focus more on research and medical practice, and that he limited the interaction between the medical school and business community.

Part of that changed when Dr. Robert Robbins, the then-director of the medical school’s cardiovascular institute and a very influential figure in the school’s leadership, joined StartX in 2011 with his company Stem Cell Theranostics, a company that essentially turns skin cells into beating heart cells. That was the point where other professors realized, well, if he can do it... The medical school’s current dean, Lloyd Minor, is more open to entrepreneurship, Teitelman says.

StartX Med was founded soon after by Robbins’ cofounder Divya Nag, a 22-year-old Stanford student with 17 journal publications under her belt, and Andrew Lee, a PhD student at the Stanford medical school. The idea is to give medical startups the kind of specific help they need to get off the ground as companies. The incubator also connects medical startups with resources from Stanford Medical Center, like helping to guide founders through HIPAA compliance, or providing physicians to consult with founders and make sure the technology won't harm patients.

Because while the culture of startups always seems like life or death, here, it pretty much is.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]