In describing his vision for Validic, CEO Drew Schiller quotes the famous UX designer Jared Spool, “Good design, when done well, is invisible. It’s only when it’s done poorly that you see it.”

Schiller believes the healthcare industry’s challenges are inherently due to bad design. And while there’s no silver bullet to solving that, he’s rethinking Validic to move the entire industry closer to a solution.

Just this week, the Durham company announced an enhancement to its software platform that collects and transfers data from disparate wearable devices, apps and other sources to doctors and healthcare organizations.

Now, patient data is available to doctors and healthcare providers in near real-time, allowing interventions to happen more quickly. It’s about as invisible a process as there’s ever been in healthcare, Schiller says.

Already, Validic is considered a top innovator in its field with accolades like “50 most promising healthcare solution providers” by CIO Review and the 2016 North America Award for Visionary Innovative Leadership by research firm Frost and Sullivan.

But the new platform combined with moves to increase capacity to lead are bets on the company’s future. Validic has moved from startup to “scaleup” with a team of senior healthcare leadership and a staff of 50. The customer count is in the hundreds and the platform now connects 400 devices.

The co-founders also switched roles to suit the scale-up stage. Schiller moved from CTO to CEO and former CEO Ryan Beckland is now president.

Validic Co-Founders Drew Schiller (Left), and Ryan Beckland (Right). Credit: Validic

On the change-up, Schiller says, “different skill sets are needed at different stages,” and “… we’re in a really strong position as we enter our next stage of growth”

Validic has become a leader of the digital health movement locally too. Between hosting webinars on digital health trends to watch in 2018, publishing white papers on topics like using data to deliver better care, and Schiller’s frequent appearances at local and national conferences, the startup represents the region’s progress and potential.

Schiller says the future his team is working toward is a “new paradigm for healthcare” where the company’s mission to “improve the quality of life by building technology that makes personal data actionable,” isn’t just possible, but standard.

How Inform applies design thinking to healthcare

A designer and technologist by training, Schiller was always drawn to the challenge of applying design thinking to big problems. While observing his wife obtain her PhD in clinical psychology, he realized there was no industry with bigger challenges and such “desperate need for simplicity” than the healthcare industry. This observation coupled with a long-time desire to start a company with Beckland led to what is now Validic.

But before Validic became a 50-person, venture-backed company, the men went through a few pivots. The first focus was helping consumers make better health choices by using data from emerging technologies like Fitbit. After about two years, the product wasn’t scalable, but they believed they were on to something by aggregating data from disparate sources. They heard from healthcare providers that the real problem in healthcare was getting data generated by patients’ Apple Watches, Garmins and MyFitnessPal apps in an understandable, usable format so they could better understand patients’ health outside of the doctor’s office.

Since then, Validic has focused on two major things: accessing or retrieving the data produced through clinical and consumer digital health devices, and standardizing it into a dashboard for providers. Data now comes from 375 clinical and consumer sources—everything from glucose monitoring systems to Apple watches.

Validic’s software is used by a wide variety of organizations operating within the healthcare industry, from pharmaceutical companies like Metadata to hospitals like Duke to wellness groups like SimplyWell. It has raised $18.4 million in venture capital from an interesting mix of investors that includes Mark Cuban and Durham-based social impact investment firm SJF Ventures. The latest round totaled $12.5 million in 2015 and was led by Kaiser Permanente Ventures, a corporate venture fund affiliated with the California-based healthcare provider.

Inform is a major improvement to the platform—giving it a near real-time streaming capability. It means that a doctor who monitors a patient’s blood pressure through a digital cuff is alerted when that person’s blood pressure rises to dangerous levels. The doctor can quickly intervene before hospitalization is required.

Or, a nurse can be notified if a patient fails to follow a prescribed medication regimen for too many days in a row and can check in with the patient to address their lapse.

The change also positions Validic to lead in areas that other digital health companies are just starting to address—like chronic disease management. Managing chronic disease outside of the doctor’s office requires constant and reliable data to monitor the efficacy of treatment over time or change it up quickly. Validic’s updated platform can provide that.

In 2016, 7.1 million patients— a 44 percent growth from 2015—were monitored remotely worldwide according to one estimate from Berg Insight. The same report estimates by 2021, 50 million home-based medical devices will connect patients to their healthcare providers worldwide. As the number of patients and devices rises, so too will the demand for platforms like Validic’s that compile and standardize the incoming data.

Validic’s and the region’s digital health future

So far, Validic has focused solely on accessing patient data produced by devices, and standardizing and normalizing it so providers can use it to make decisions. In the future, the company may explore ways to make the data more actionable for users. This could mean analyzing the data so providers don’t have to. Or analyzing it and providing data-based options for providers so they can make faster, more informed decisions. Schiller says his team is still exploring these options but it’s something they’ve “been thinking hard about” for the future.

In the meantime, Validic continues digging into the local healthcare community where partners already include Duke, UNC and RTI. The company is involved in a new group working to coalesce the region’s digital health activities called Digital Health Impact + Transformation (DHIT) and soon it’ll move to the renovated Chesterfield building, adjacent a new life-science and biotech co-working space called BioLabsNC.

“We’re building a strong regional brand around health that just will continue to grow,” Schiller says. “We’re honored that we [Validic] are an early success story for the digital health space in this region.”

He also credits a big portion of Validic’s success to the region’s array of strong research and healthcare organizations and strong talent pool. He predicts these same supporting factors will buttress future digital health companies as they are born and grown in the region.

Schiller also highlighted the strong venture capital network in the Triangle, citing two of Validic’s investors SJF Ventures (Series A) and David Gardner (seed) as examples.

Schiller also thinks the Triangle is just a great place to start a business. Between the low-cost of living and high quality of life and what he calls the “really strong entrepreneurial ecosystem”, he believes all the necessary pieces to start a business are here.

Challenges exist though—for both Validic and the region’s digital health ecosystem. The federal debate over the Affordable Care Act’s repeal, for example, has a paralyzing effect on the industry, according to Schiller. Not knowing which way the “healthcare winds are going to be shifting” makes an entrepreneur wonder whether the technology he’s building today will be useful in the market tomorrow. Digital health tools like Validic’s platform were created under the assumption that the industry’s shift in 2010 from a fee-for-service model to one that reimburses doctors for the quality of their care rather than quantity is permanent.

Schiller believes the shift will continue, but that it could slow down as a result of the healthcare debate or actions by the federal government.

Regardless of what happens at the federal level, Schiller is hopeful for the future of digital health in the Triangle and nationwide. He describes a future where digital health tools aren’t invasive in people’s lives but rather enable them to “live our lives and enjoy the things we enjoy.”