The tabletops were barely visible beneath notebooks, laptops and Post-it notes. The white dry-erase boards were covered with slapdash flow charts and lengthy idea lists. Energy drinks and Starbucks cups left rings of condensation between piles of paperwork.
The scene resembled countless other “hackathons” bringing together tech hopefuls to hammer out their business ideas. This, however, was a special health edition of the 54-hour brainstorming session known as Startup Weekend Sacramento, held at the downtown Urban Hive coworking space.
Over the past weekend, 40 participants from around the Sacramento region wracked their brains for the next big breakthrough in health technology. The event brought together medical workers, consultants, hobbyists and budding entrepreneurs looking to help fledgling ideas find their feet - and maybe their funding.
Health has been a core piece of global tech growth in recent years, driven by aging baby boomers and health-obsessed millennials, as well as hospital systems and insurers struggling to cope with major health care reform. The number of venture funding deals for health care startups grew roughly 200 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to Fortune magazine.
That trend has come to Sacramento as well, where the health industry employs thousands.
“Health and health care are strong verticals here with major health providers like Kaiser and Sutter and UC Davis - we wanted to focus on that,” said Jeff Bennett, the event’s organizer and a freelance web content developer. “The biggest hope a lot of (the participants) have is that they’ll launch a startup. The reality is, that may not happen. But we guarantee they will learn about starting their own business and they will learn some new skills.”
Participants in startup weekends usually show up on Fridays to pitch their most innovative ideas at the microphone. From there, attendees vote on their favorite proposals and form teams based on their areas of interest. They have the weekend to flesh out their products, apps and platforms before making a formal presentation for the Sunday night competition.
This past Saturday, the leading ideas at the Startup Weekend covered the gamut of the health consumer market. There was a wearable fitness device that tracks physical therapy exercises; a concierge fitness consulting application; a search platform for alternative medicine; a program that helps doctors check in with patients post-treatment; and a mobile game to teach children with chronic diseases about their conditions. On Sunday night, a panel of investors and business tycoons selected the physical therapy tool, PT Tracker, as the winner.
The top three teams receive perks such as free legal and marketing advice from the event’s local sponsors, which this weekend included mobile development company Apptology and law firm DLA Piper. They also win three free months of workspace at the Urban Hive at 19th and H streets.
“The idea is to give them the tools they need to succeed,” said organizer Maria Navas-Moreno. “They’re going to need to put a lot of work into it. Giving them money won’t really help - they need advice.”
Startup Weekend is a small nonprofit group with big ideas for Sacramento. Coworking spaces occupy most corners of the downtown grid, while accelerators such as Velocity Venture Capital in Folsom push local inventors toward next-level success.
This January, Bay Area seed fund 500 Startups said it would focus more investments in Sacramento, and Mayor Kevin Johnson announced the arrival of two major tech companies in his state of the city address.
“The city is in sync about where it wants to go,” Navas-Moreno said . “Now it’s a matter of people taking advantage of the resources and the energy.”
Since its launch in 2013, the Sacramento competition has produced thriving businesses such as Make My Quince, an app that helps teenage girls plan and raise funds for quinceanera parties. The app has since received investment from an accelerator in the San Jose area, Navas-Moreno said.
The weekend featured workshops teaching entrepreneurs how to gauge audience interest in their products and pitch ideas to both the customer and user. During mentoring sessions, participants got advice on how to fine-tune their services and present them to investors.
Donald Hayes-Ranns, a California State University, Sacramento student, showed up Friday with a box of business cards and a dream for a personal training application that tailors exercise routines and diet regimens to the user. He calls it “415Fitology,” a nod to the zip code by the bay.
“If this idea doesn’t work, I’m going to keep going and going and keep trying,” Hayes-Ranns said. “I want something I can hang a hat on. This was just a thought, and for it to become a working company - to take something abstract and make it a reality - would be great.”
Sharon Conner, a nurse at UC Davis Medical Center, said she often notices a gap in communication between families and doctors. She was part of the group Saturday working on the mobile game Kids Dx, which teaches children about complex illnesses.
“When I heard about startup weekend, I thought it could be a way for me to make a difference in health care - a new avenue,” Conner said. “I want to make the patient experience better.”
Cinde Dolphin, a participant in the women’s edition of Startup Weekend Sacramento in 2014, created convenient medical drain carriers for post-surgical fluids, which are now used at local hospitals including UC Davis and Dignity Health. She came up with the idea during her own battle with breast cancer.
She said it was a huge help to "have the thinking of five other people who had good input in financial analysis, data collection and medical distribution systems” during the weekend event.
“As a team they gave me a lot of new information I hadn't even thought of considering,” she said, “so it really helped me develop my business plan.”