Biz Exclusive: New Orleans Health Innovators Challenge Benefits Startups and the Local Health Tech Sector



NEW ORLEANS – Last Wednesday, Louisiana’s most prominent healthcare institutions awarded an entrepreneur nearly $36,000 in project funding, and bolstered her efforts to create digital solutions for social determinants of health issues.

Elnaz Sarabchian, the founder of MedAux, was the winner of the New Orleans Health Innovators Challenge Finale, hosted by New Orleans Business Alliance, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana and Ochsner Health System. 

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It took place at the Louisiana Cancer Research Center during New Orleans Entrepreneur Week and concluded a day of activities, including a tour of Ochsner’s interactive O Bar and The New Orleans BioInnovation Center, along with a discussion with the New Orleans Health Department.

“It was a great networking event,” said Sarabchian. “I'm very impressed with how healthcare is improving and moving forward with innovation, and with the healthcare system’s openness to work with startups.”

MedAux helps healthcare systems standardize their outpatient follow-up by delivering bite-size instructions, surveys, and reminders through automated text-messages, and as a result, helps patients prepare and recover from their surgery.

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“Winning will open new doors for us to work with New Orleans’ and Louisiana’s healthcare system,” said Sarabchian.

The New Orleans Health Innovators Challenge Finale is the largest bioinnovation event associated with New Orleans Entrepreneur Week. It connects local healthcare businesses and stakeholders with high-growth startups from around the nation, to accelerate investment in New Orleans’ growing health tech sector.


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Attendees gather for the local bio health showcase and networking hour.


“This challenge really is about business attraction,” said Quentin Messer, Jr., explaining the importance of the Innovators Challenge, which was launched in 2017. “We are trying to tell the most promising digital health companies in the world that New Orleans is a place you might want to consider for – if not your headquarters – a site for software development or product development.”

Messer, the president and CEO of the New Orleans Business Alliance, believes that one of the biggest impediments to people successfully pursuing their dreams of employment or business ownership are preventable health conditions that can be better monitored through digital health. 

“We want to grow the economy, but we also want to make sure that the citizens of New Orleans are healthy,” he said. 


Quentin Messer, Jr., president and CEO of the New Orleans Business Alliance


Phreesia, a full-service patient intake platform, was the other Challenge finalist.

With Phreesia, patients preparing for an appointment with a doctor receive a text message or an email ahead of time, allowing them to make a co-pay and fill out forms that would typically be tacked to a clipboard in the waiting room, from the comfort of their home.

“We facilitate the (intake) process, so when you get to your visit, you can really spend that time focused on your health concerns with your care team,” said Hilary Hatch, the founder of Phreesia. “Patients are really thoughtful about their health when they’re visiting the doctor.” 

Phreesia, which was launched in 2005, checks in nearly 70 million visits a year. 

“We realized that we had an incredible opportunity to engage patients in that moment, to ask them questions about their social needs, and to use our expertise in patient activation to get patients the resources they need,” said Hatch, explaining how Phreesia began.

“The benefit (of the finale) is to work with such innovative partners as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana and Ochsner Health System,” she said. “They're really on the leading edge of what's happening in healthcare.”

Before selecting the two finalists, Blue Cross and Blue Shield and Ochsner submitted a joint problem statement about social determinants in healthcare. Phreesia and MedAux were chosen based strength of their digital technology and the proposed solutions they presented for that problem statement, said Messer.

“The social determinants of health are almost as important as genetics in overall health and longevity,” he said. “What payors and health systems are trying to do is reduce re-admittance based upon preventable conditions. The two finalists and the other competitors were addressing ways to reduce preventable re-admissions, through digital health innovations.”

The panel of judges included Somesh Nigam, Ph.D., and Vindell Washington, M.D., from Blue Cross; Richard Milani, M.D., from Ochsner; and Jonathan Wilt and Scott Whittacker from Stone Pigman law firm.


Judges asked questions during the pitch competition. L to R: Dr. Richard V. Milani (Ochsner Health System), Scott Whittaker (Stone Pigman), Jonathan Wilt (innovationOchsner), Somesh Nigam (Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana), and Dr. Vindell Washington* (Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana).  *not pictured


In addition to receiving $36,000 in funding for MedAux, Sarabchian gained access to major health systems in the state, and in-kind prizes, such as co-working spaces and legal services, among other benefits.

Marc Rippen, the founder of Alertgy and the winner of the 2018 Innovators Challenge, also attended the finale.

Thanks to Alertgy’s technology, diabetics monitor their blood sugar levels by wearing a wristband that connects to a smartphone app and alerts the patient, and emergency contacts, when their blood sugar level is too low or too high. 

Rippen felt compelled to create the product after witnessing his wife experience a low blood sugar attack. She lost her cognitive abilities and was unable to take care of herself, recalled Rippen.

“When I was traveling, I needed to have some type of a monitor that would let me know what her status was,” he said. 

Rippen is diabetic as well.

“I think we were able to win because people understood that our business is based on something that's really needed,” he said, adding that there are more than 22 million diabetics in the country. “We were very aggressive in trying to find out how to bring technology from startup to commercialization.”

Winning the competition has given his company “credibility” and an opportunity to form a partnership with Ochsner Health System.

“It has given us clear paths to the various key leaders in the marketplace. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana is very interested in what we're doing and working with us,” said Rippen. “That’s going to help a lot, because we'll have the insurance side covered, as well as the healthcare providers, and then the research organizations behind it to do the trial. It's really a win-win all the way around.”


Suzanne Pfefferle Tafur is the associate news editor of Follow her on Twitter @suzpfefferle

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