Health Tech Austin interviews ATI’s Lisa McDonald on COVID-19, her startup Pandemic Tech, and Austin’s promise as a bioscience hub.
Lisa McDonald, MD is Director of Healthcare Incubation at Austin Technology Incubator, the startup incubator of The University of Texas at Austin. She directs ATI’s life science and healthcare portfolios, where she works with early stage biotechnology, healthcare service/IT and medical device companies to develop their business strategies and prepare the companies to seek investment. She has previously served as Global Healthcare Lead for the Global Commercialization Group at The University of Texas at Austin’s IC² Institute, and she has been a lecturer in the College of Natural Sciences teaching the CNS Inventor’s Practicum.
In 2010, Dr. McDonald cofounded Endura Ventures, a global health strategic consultancy focused on delivering high impact programs internationally and through public-private partnerships. One of those programs, the PandemicTech virtual incubator, spun out as a standalone company in 2019. PandemicTech partners with organizations including WHO and CDC Africa to identify and support the innovations of ‘hot zone’ scientists developing technologies to stem the spread of pandemic infectious disease from the front lines.
Dr. McDonald contributes to development of the local life science ecosystem through participation as an advisor, mentor, judge and speaker for a variety of organizations and events. She holds a Master of Science in Technology Commercialization (MSTC) from The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business, an M.D. from Yale University School of Medicine, and a B.S. in Chemistry from The University of Texas at Austin.
HTA – Tell us about your personal/professional background?
I am a physician by training and for the past decade, I have started and grown a number of companies with my business partner and spouse, Dr. Andrew Nerlinger. In 2010, I cofounded Endura Ventures, a global health strategic consultancy focused on delivering high impact programs internationally and through public-private partnerships. One of those programs, the PandemicTech virtual incubator, spun out as a standalone company in 2019. PandemicTech is an Austin-based virtual technology incubator program that connects the global health and technology communities to support innovative local solutions to pandemic infectious disease challenges.
This program has brought private funding and entrepreneurship models to an issue typically within domain of governments and philanthropies; it focuses on the identification of promising innovators in low and middle-income countries and surrounds them with resources from the international technology community to develop and scale their unique approaches to solving local challenges. Since its founding in 2016, PandemicTech has supported technology projects in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Egypt, and Mexico.
My current primary role is as Director of Healthcare at Austin Technology Incubator, the startup incubator for the University of Texas at Austin. ATI is situated at the interface of the university and the community, and we work with both university-based spinouts and community entrepreneurs to support their efforts at technology commercialization. A large part of this work includes facilitating access and engagement across both The University of Texas and the Austin innovation ecosystem.
Andrew and I have been married for 11 years, we have a 5-month old baby girl named Regina and an 11-year old papillon dog named Spoonfed.
HTA – What surprises you about the healthcare industry?
I am surprised and pleased at the emergence of innovation as an important component of our evolving healthcare industry. When I graduated from medical school, there were few if any programs that incorporated healthcare technology commercialization or entrepreneurship into graduate medical education. Increasingly, technologists from outside the healthcare industry are pivoting their efforts toward developing tools that could prove valuable in modernizing the practice and delivery of healthcare.
HTA – Women dominate the health care workforce and make decisions about care for their families, but we don’t see women having that kind of involvement in early-stage startups. Why is that? As a Director at Austin Technology Incubator, what trends are you seeing with women and start-ups?
Hopefully we are starting to see more representation across the board in early stage healthcare companies. I can’t state for absolute certainty why this is, but we have noticed a definite uptick in the number of women-led companies that we are working with. Confirmed Consent is a health-tech company in the ATI portfolio having great success with two women leading commercialization activities for the company.
At Austin Community College’s Bioscience Incubator, female founders lead biotech companies Newormics, Macromoltek, and Speragen, and all have attracted non-dilutive grant funding to drive development of disruptive technologies. Women also hold many positions of influence in our ecosystem that shape the path to market for early stage companies
HTA – How can Austin become known as an epicenter for health tech?
Austin has an active and collaborative health tech community, and we have been working collectively for some time to coordinate our efforts through groups like Capital City Innovation, BioAustin, and Health Tech Austin. As we continue to grow and mature the innovation ecosystem for health technology companies, it will be important to support commercialization efforts of startup companies and the operation and growth of larger businesses. There are several important components that will translate to success in these areas.
We need to develop transitional wet lab space for companies that are maturing past shared spaces, we need to train and grow an entry level workforce to serve as a talent pool for health tech companies, we need to recruit and retain experienced c-level talent in health tech, and we need to do all this as we actively adapt and respond to an economy that will likely undergo dramatic changes as a result of COVID-19.
HTA – What prompted you and Dr. Nerlinger to create PandemicTech?
PandemicTech began in 2016 as a program to address infectious disease threats with the potential to become global pandemics by bridging the gaps between the tech community and the global health security community. Prior to COVID-19, the global health security community was a small and tightly knit group of subject matter experts, clinicians, providers, and basic science researchers whose ongoing efforts have been thrust now into the international spotlight. Through our work in venture capital investing and with early stage healthcare technology startups, we spotted a disconnect between this global health security community and local innovation ecosystems.
Global health security was often considered the responsibility of governments and nonprofits, but we strongly believed and certainly continue to believe that the private sector shares at least equal responsibility for preventing pandemics – an assessment that is undoubtedly strengthened by the impact of COVID-19 on the private sector. We created and have developed the PandemicTech virtual incubator program as a continuously evolving model for how the private sector, particularly innovation ecosystems, can actively support the fight against infectious disease threats.
HTA -What is the company doing, if anything, to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic response?
PandemicTech has been among many voices in the global health security community that raised the alarm about the profound threat of pandemic infectious disease, and prior to the COVID-19 outbreak we had launched programs designed to support locally driven innovation focused on the detection, prevention, and response to potential pandemics. For example, we continue to support an ongoing project in Cairo, Egypt, in focused on building biosafety and biosecurity capacity among healthcare and laboratory professionals in collaboration with prominent Egyptian universities and organized by our Mexico-based senior advisor Luis Ochoa Carrera.
COVID-19 has accelerated our efforts to identify promising locally driven innovations and provide innovators with the support they need to advance their ideas. In February 2020 we launched “The PandemicTech Innovation Fellowship 2020,” a $100,000 global health security innovation challenge, as a way to expand our innovation pipeline and attract diverse experts to participate in building our virtual pandemic-focused innovation ecosystem. We have also received significant interest in our program from both early stage companies and from the funding community. At Austin Technology Incubator, we are also actively pursuing ways to bring the Austin health technology community together with the shared goal of fighting COVID-19 and preparing to predict, prevent, and respond to the next potential pandemic.
HTA – How could technology help prevent a pandemic?
Preventing a pandemic can occur at many points in the emergence of an infectious disease, and early detection, testing, and treatment (if available) are all critical components to preventing the emergence and spread of a potential pandemic. PandemicTech has elected to focus on technology areas that reflect the strengths of our team and that parallel my work at Austin Technology Incubator, including telemedicine, digital health, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and big data analytics.
Telemedicine is a critical new tool in the toolbox for public health officials given its ability to complement physical distancing practices, and I strongly believe that COVID-19 will accelerate the adoption of telemedicine even after the pandemic subsides.
HTA- What kinds of new technology is the company supporting to assist in pandemic response?
We are preparing to announce our first fellowship award for a project that adapts a unique data-driven epidemiological tool for COVID-19, as we believe that learning from how COVID-19 emerged will help technologists design tools that can warn epidemiologists about the emergence of future potential pandemics. We are also thrilled to see our portfolio company Wella Health, a Nigerian startup that provides microinsurance for infectious diseases and includes access to testing and treatment, designing new tools to support Nigeria’s response to COVID-19.
The company recently received an award from a prominent Nigerian accelerator for this work and we are excited to continue helping the company develop these ideas. We are also currently evaluating how we can assist the many companies that have contacted us amidst the COVID-19 pandemic with exciting solutions in testing, monitoring, and treatment of infectious diseases.
HTA – Besides assisting with the innovation awards, how else is PandemicTech assisting the World Health Organization?
PandemicTech has collaborated with the WHO’s Africa Regional Office and Health Emergencies Programme with a focus on private sector engagement in healthcare technology development and global health security. WHO leaders such as Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Regional Director for Africa Dr. Matshidiso Moeti have illustrated their belief in the importance of WHO in supporting locally driven healthcare innovation through their support of WHO’s innovation initiatives and the renewed emphasis on private sector engagement.
We have had the honor of discussing PandemicTech with both Dr. Tedros and Dr. Moeti, and we have focused our efforts on advising and supporting WHO’s own leaders on innovation to most notably include Dr. Moredreck Chibi, WHO’s Regional Advisor on Innovation for Africa and the lead for the WHO Africa Innovation Challenge.
HTA- How do you learn? What are you reading?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I am focused on staying updated on the evolution of the pandemic worldwide. I regularly read the Washington Post and the New York Times, and I also obtain updates on COVID-19 from sources such as the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and scientific journals like Science and the Lancet.
One of my favorite ways to obtain detailed, authoritative information on COVID-19 and other outbreaks is ProMED Mail, a daily email service run by the International Society for Infectious Disease that combines crowdsourced reports and expert commentary on emerging infectious disease outbreaks.
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Interview reposted courtesy of Health Tech Austin. Copyright © 2020 Health Tech Austin