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Watertown's Athenahealth wants to promote more disruptive innovation in e-healthcare

Posted by Scott Kirsner  June 6, 2012 08:00 AM

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A new initiative at Athenahealth, "More Disruption Please," wants to support fresh ideas in networked healthcare — and ideally create a spot for the Watertown company as a central node. Reps from the company are down in D.C. this week promoting the initiative at the Health Datapalooza conference.

Publicly-traded Athenahealth helps physicians manage their patients' electronic medical records, communicate with patients, and also get paid by insurance companies — all with cloud-based software and services. Spearheading the "More Disruption Please" program is Kyle Armbrester, a recent Harvard Business School grad. "We're trying to create new relationships with entrepreneurs and innovators and developers who are doing out-of-the-box thinking around healthcare," he says. "That could be a new scheduling tool for doctors, business intelligence software, or ways for different doctors who may use Athenahealth or other networks to share images or charts when they refer patients back and forth."

The initiative will entail sponsoring hackathons and holding a big annual conference in Maine each September (last year's inaugural edition attracted more than 200 people). But it'll also involve creating APIs so that startups can easily plug in to the Athenahealth system — while protecting patient data, of course — and also doing some seed investing in early-stage businesses. "We'd host the startups at Athena, pilot their technology, and help them roll out through our provider base," Armbrester says, adding that a few million dollars have been set aside for that purpose. And the company's search for and support of disruptive ideas in e-healthcare, he adds, "will drive our acquisition strategy." (Armbrester, incidentally, first met Athenahealth chief executive Jonathan Bush while Armbrester was serving as the chief information officer for Charlie Baker's unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 2010.)

One key focus of "More Disruption Please" will be creating value for the doctors in Athenahealth's network, Armbrester says: "We want to make their lives better, not sell them out to pharmaceutical companies." He says that two models Athenahealth looks at, in terms of companies that have created successful ecosystems around them, are Salesforce.com and Apple. "They've created huge value by supporting developers and startups that want to plug in to their businesses."

I have just one question about the new Athenahealth initiative, which sounds great: do real disruptors say "please"?

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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