Highmark partners with Grove City College students for innovation course

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They were dressed in business blazers and pant suits; they were polished and studied; they were sure of themselves and the products they were pitching to a battery of skeptical health insurance executives.

And they were college kids.

Last week, business students from Grove City College made the 60-mile trip to Highmark Inc.'s Downtown headquarters to take the "final exam" for their semester-long course, offered through a joint venture of the school's Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and Highmark's newly branded Business Innovation Team.

The three-credit course, taught by entrepreneurship professor George Howley with weekly seminars from Highmark's director of business innovation, Eric Starr, is meant to roughly mirror Highmark's own internal 90-day business case development process for new products, services and technologies.

It is not what you'd call a fluff course, Mr. Howley said. In fact, it's more like a master's thesis.

"We didn't do much" else in the week leading up to the final presentations, said Grove City junior Michael Trombly, of Bloomsburg. He and fellow students estimated they spent 15 hours a week, outside of class, on their projects.

It's the insurer's first such partnership with a university. Though Highmark has invited researchers from local schools, such as Carnegie Mellon University, to work on projects from time to time, this is the first time a university collaboration has been formalized into actual recurring coursework.

This semester about a dozen Grove City students signed up for the course (called "A Study in Healthcare Business Innovation," Entrepreneurship 488), enough to split into three groups and work on three different business case studies. Next semester, the course will have enough students to work on five projects.

It goes like this: Highmark gives the students a menu of concept-stage projects. The students select a project, study it inside and out for three or so months, and present findings to members of Highmark's provider, marketing, consumer experience and retail teams.

And if Highmark likes what it sees, it could turn the students' business analysis into an actual product a year or two down the road.

"They may not work," explained Anthony Porretta, Highmark's director of business innovation and development. But if they do, "We'll just take it and run with it," with the insurer doing its own research and development, and building off the students' homework.

Highmark is hoping for a 20 percent adoption rate, meaning if the students complete 20 business case studies over the next two years, perhaps four of them might make it to market.

The projects and products selected for further analysis will be developed by Highmark personnel or contractors, but if the idea seems like a better fit for a start-up, the project could be jointly studied by Highmark and by Grove City via a business incubator space that Highmark's innovation team is also launching at the college.

What sort of projects are the students looking at? The details will vary by semester, but most of them involve deploying web technologies into patients' homes.

"The home will be the center of health in the future," said Paul Puopolo, Highmark's vice president of business innovation and development.

That's why Highmark -- and all health insurers and care providers -- are looking at new product lines and revenue streams outside of the companies' traditional footprints, many of them retail products aimed directly at the at-home consumer.

It's the raison d'etre for Highmark's new innovation team. In the last few years, the team (and its predecessors) has invested in, launched or "partnered" with a variety of companies and products: online dermatology services, tablet computers in doctors' offices, diabetes self-management plans, and others.

The team supports Highmark's insurance arm, its for-profit retail subsidiaries and its under-construction hospital and provider wing.

"We're well known on both sides of the aisle," Mr. Porretta said.

Last week, the students pitched a weight loss program, a back pain management system, and an at-home physical therapy program. All of them tread in the realm of what might be called virtual care, or telemedecine, and all of them deal directly with cost-of-care challenges, since all three, particularly obesity, are expensive to treat and can lead to other health problems.

After reviewing their product -- its place in the market, its price point, its start-up costs -- students fielded questions from more than dozen Highmark employees, a few of whom were Grove City alumni themselves.

"It's just a tremendous opportunity," Mr. Porretta said, "for Highmark and the students."

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Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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