On Wednesday, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker joined members of the Massachusetts Digital Health Council to announce a new program to drive the growth of innovative startups in the state, helping them access unique R&D facilities in the state. The announcement was made at Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s PracticePoint research, development and commercialization alliance, the first R&D ‘sandbox’ selected to host startups as part of the program. That facility was the recipient of a $5M infrastructure grant from the state back in 2017.
Over the next two years, the Massachusetts eHealth Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MeHI), will provide financial assistance to startups, allowing them to access sandboxes. WPI’s Practice Point research, development and commercialization alliance is the first sandbox approved under the program and a prior recipient of state funding.
Digital Health ‘Sandbox’ Program Background
Spearheaded by the Massachusetts Digital Health Council, the Sandbox program aims to boost digital health across the Commonwealth by connecting digital health companies to innovative test beds that will bolster the research and development lifecycle. Managed by MeHI, the Sandbox Grant Program will expand to include additional sandboxes across the state, providing a variety of testing environments and services. The program will help match Massachusetts-based companies with the approved sandboxes and will provide funding directly to the sandboxes to cover the costs for companies to access their R&D services, supporting the product development of homegrown startups while also expanding the user base for these innovative sandboxes.
Sandbox Program Management
The Sandbox program will be managed by MeHI, along with an independent steering committee that will review submissions for new sandbox locations and make funding recommendations for tuition grants to support Massachusetts startups interested in accessing the approved sandboxes. The program will announce additional sandboxes on a rolling basis, expanding access to the variety of world-class R&D facilities that exist across Massachusetts. By increasing access to these sandboxes, the program aims to reduce the time, cost, and resources required to test and validate new products and services.
Digital Health ‘Sandbox’ Program Impact
WPI’s PracticePoint is aimed at “improving healthcare and patient wellness through the development of medical cyber-physical systems,” delivering a unique focus on the reliability, but also the security of digital health technologies. This emphasis will help establish Massachusetts as a leader in cybersecurity for digital health, while increasing the ability of startups to stress-test new devices, software, and systems to better guard against emerging threats. Located in WPI’s Gateway Park, PracticePoint shares floor space with new labs being developed under a separate advanced manufacturing award from the Commonwealth, an investment that will advance research in photonics.
“Two years ago, when we launched PracticePoint with the administration’s support, we had a vision of bridging the gap between medical device R&D and clinical applications by providing a place where we and our partners could test, evaluate, refine, and test again,” said WPI President Dr. Laurie Leshin. “WPI is focused on impact, on the application of innovation to quickly benefit real people and real patients who need help now, and it is so rewarding to stand here today in the nearly completed suites and know that WPI will have a multiplied impact by partnering with Sandbox startups that have their own visions of developments that can help patients, as well.”
Membership Benefits for Startups
As a membership alliance, PracticePoint is open to all companies interested in joining their research network, both companies already located in Massachusetts or those looking to establish an R&D site in the state. PracticePoint members gain access to state of the art equipment, clinical partners within the university’s ecosystem, and WPI’s own in-house experts, including PracticePoint’s director, Dr. Greg Fischer, an expert in the area of medical robotics and computer-integrated surgery.
Startups involved in the Sandbox program will have access to PracticePoint’s benefits, including:
· Point-of-practice clinical care suites embedded in an engineering setting to accelerate the development of medical devices and cyber-physical systems;
· A home, rehabilitation, and assistive care environment comprising a state-of-the-art motion capture suite, and a highly instrumented residential care suite;
· A hospital environment including a hybrid operating suite, magnetic resonance imaging suite, and a critical care suite;
· Flexible testing and workspaces to allow for a multitude of experiments;
· Manufacturing spaces co-located with the testing facilities, including CNC manufacturing, laser cutting, electronics assembly and testing equipment, and 3D printers;
· Access to research-grade equipment to obtain ground-truth measurements;
· An existing Institutional Review Board (IRB) for user studies and focus groups;
· A flexible wireless networking infrastructure in a realistic setting;
· Ability to conduct cybersecurity development and testing at device, networking, and data storage levels;
· Collaborative research opportunities with WPI faculty experts in areas including user design/user interface; assessing cognitive load; medical robotics; biomechanics; sensor design and medical IOT; image-guided robotic interventions; smart prosthetics;
· Clinical partners within the WPI ecosystem, including hospital administrators, doctors, surgeons, and nursing care staff; and
· Multi-modality cross-validation of new designs with industry standards.
“The ability to test products outside of a busy hospital or active healthcare setting, yet in a facility that fully mimics these settings, is a game-changer for growing digital health companies looking to efficiently test their product and get to market quickly,” said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Kennealy, co-chair of the Digital Health Council. “Worcester has grown its footprint in the life sciences sector and this new program, built around the top R&D facilities offered by PracticePoint, means the region can become a driver for growth of digital health startups as well.”