Where Mass General Brigham plans to invest for innovation amid the pandemic

Boston-based Mass General Brigham had big plans for healthcare innovation in 2020.

The situation changed when the pandemic hit and the health system sustained significant losses. However, Chief Innovation Officer Chris Coburn joined the Becker's Healthcare podcast to discuss innovation amid the pandemic and the health system's investment strategy and venture fund, Mass General Brigham Ventures.

The health system is in the process of launching a new fund that is quite a bit larger than its current $170 million fund. "We expect the same sterling performance in this new fund that we have had historically where our team has been in the upper quartile of all healthcare venture funds of their vintage," Coburn said. "It's an exciting time and there are many new modes of partnering, and we are excited about all of them, and especially about our new fund, which we think has great promise."

Below is a brief excerpt of the conversation. Click here to hear the full episode and download the Becker's Healthcare podcast.

Question: What are your biggest challenges?

Chris Coburn: The thing to stress is we were in a great place at the beginning of this year. We have a new CEO, Dr. Anne Klibanski, working with our board and senior leadership. She was implementing a very broad strategic approach for the whole system, things that had never been done before, and setting priorities in a way that was going to position us to be very strong going into the future. The arrival of COVID-19 upended a lot of that. Interestingly, strategic priorities set in the recent past greatly prepared us in terms of our ability to respond with our enterprise data and digital health initiative, which was a $500 million investment to enhance our digital patient-facing capabilities. That was launched in the middle of last year and thankfully created a platform that many of our initiatives to respond and get in front of COVID came through. On one hand, that strategic preparation paid off enormously.

On the other hand, if you talk about where we're at, we, like a lot of systems, took some very serious shortfalls in revenue and we're still working our way through that. At one point there was a concern that we would lose $2 billion this year and for a nonprofit entity to lose that kind of money has enormous repercussions. Our clinical and research teams have been back online and the system is returning close to the state it was pre-COVID, so that is all very positive, but relative to implementing new innovation initiatives, we still have to get back to financial equilibrium and then look at some of the new things that we have been pursuing.

Q: How have your investment strategies changed during the pandemic?

CC: If you look at the venture and public markets around the support of new therapeutic technology, they remain very strong. There have been financings, public offerings, some even involving technologies coming out of our hospitals. When we think about new technology breaking through, new drugs and even new digital solutions, the investment capital has been there, so the application of innovation has been unabated during this crisis.

The areas like CAR T therapy, just to pick one in terms of immunology and cell therapy, are an area we have great strength in. The industry and academic community have continued to work that full throttle over the past many months of the pandemic. That's a category we expect to see a lot happening in.

In terms of responding to the pandemic, on the therapeutic side some of the technologies that have been developed ore are underdeveloped are promising. Some in areas like chronic cough would appear to bring a ton of potential in terms of the ability to help patients. So we have many digital technologies and many of them were in place before the pandemic but had been enhanced and reprioritized in the provider world. On the patient side, patients are becoming more comfortable with technology and technology is becoming more intuitive to them. Thinking about the future, we've been at a peak level over the past few months in terms of the use of telehealth. That will subside a bit, but I think folks across the industry believe it will remain a core component of future care, whereas in the past, it was more of an incidental one.

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