Battle of the coasts: How Boston-based digital health companies compete with Silicon Valley for tech talent

When you think of tech startups, you probably think of the West Coast and, specifically, Silicon Valley — but the East Coast is on a mission to change that image.

Massachusetts, in particular, has devoted considerable resources to fostering growth in the local digital health industry. Through initiatives such as the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and its eHealth Institute, the commonwealth forms partnerships across businesses, academia and government agencies to promote innovation.

Laurance Stuntz is the director of the eHealth Institute, which recently launched a Digital Health Sandbox Grant Program to give healthcare technology startups access to local cutting-edge research and development facilities, beginning with Worcester Polytechnic Institute's PracticePoint facility.

Here, Mr. Stuntz discusses how the Boston area's many institutions conducting groundbreaking academic research and long history of pioneering health reforms contribute to luring tech talent away from Silicon Valley.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: How does the eHealth Institute grow Massachusetts' digital health industry?

Laurance Stuntz: Broadly, it started by working on digitizing healthcare data and getting electronic health records installed across the state. Here in Massachusetts, we have largely completed that, including into behavioral health and post-acute care organizations: Well over 95 percent of patient visits today are captured in an electronic health record.

So, first we were capturing healthcare data, and now we're sharing it. We're working to support the health information exchange and to support organizations within the exchange. The goal of the institute is to leverage that data to drive innovation and encourage growth of what we think is the best ecosystem for digital health companies in the world.

Q: How do those digital health companies draw tech talent away from the West Coast to the East Coast?

LS: There are a lot of reasons to work for a digital health company here. For one, there's a culture of science here that is really interesting. We hear a lot from our digital health companies that they're building companies around evidence-based research and in collaboration with the extremely strong academic researchers in Massachusetts, as well as with the state's long history of folks working in health reform.

If you have interest in building a health company, it's very likely you come to Massachusetts. You can find tech talent, you can find medical talent, you can find medical device designers, you can find science talent, and the reason is based on that whole ecosystem and that whole cluster of companies that you can draw talent from. So, for example, if you're founding a company here and you need life sciences talent, you would come here, and not necessarily the West Coast. By being in this ecosystem you can grow your company a lot faster because there's a lot of people here with the specific talents you're looking for.

Q: Do you have any insight into how benefit packages compare between Massachusetts and California?

LS: The salaries in Massachusetts are competitive with what's going on in the West Coast; the cost of living is less here. There's a lot of reasons to be here, but the salary or "perks" at certain companies are not something that I hear people are trying to compete on — they're trying to build something that impacts people's lives. In digital health, you're building something that, quite frankly, saves lives and that's what draws people to a company.

They don't say, 'Oh, the guys on the West Coast have better snacks.' That's not something that we're hearing.

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