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The Future Of Digital Health Is Lurking In San Francisco's Chinatown

Building apps and devices that can save lives isn’t what you normally expect from a startup incubator, but at Rock Health, they’re reimagining what health care can be.

All of a sudden, health care has catapulted itself into the digital age, with hospital-quality EKGs for smartphones, electronic medical records, and personal telehealth systems for the elderly. Even Apple’s former CEO thinks that health care is the next big technological frontier.

Granted, much of today’s health tech hasn’t yet made it your doctor’s office. But if you want a preview of the future of digital health—and more specifically, mobile health—you don’t need to look to the Apples of the world. Just take a trip to San Francisco’s Chinatown—where Rock Health, the first seed accelerator for mobile and web health startups, has its headquarters. I recently visited Rock Health HQ to learn more about how startups are changing the mobile health industry.

Rock Health cofounder Halle Tecco is no stranger to the health-care space. She founded Yoga Bear, a nonprofit that connects cancer patients and survivors with yoga classes, and yes, even worked for a time at Apple on health and medical apps for the iTunes App Store. "It was an absolutely phenomenal opportunity and job," she says. But the health-app section wasn’t nearly as robust and creative as, say, the games section. Tecco decided to tackle the problem at its root—by understanding how innovation in mobile health-care technology happens and then nurturing it.

Tecco and cofounder Nate Gross (a doctor) unveiled their first class of incubator participants in June 2011. You may have heard of some of the participants. CellScope, a device that turns a cell phone into a high-quality microscope, has attracted plenty of attention. Skimble, a health and fitness coaching app, recently passed 2 million downloads. "I think we really helped spur a new conversation around digital health, around what a health-care entrepreneur looks like. You don’t have to be a doctor to work in this space," says Tecco. Members of the first class came everywhere from Google to Ideo.

Last month, Rock Health announced its second class, selected from hundreds of applicants. The startups will get a traditional tech incubator experience, but with a health-care twist: a $20,000 grant, medical support from hospital partners like the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation and Harvard Medical School, mentorship from digital health experts like Linda Avey (cofounder of 23andMe), office space at Rock Health headquarters, workshops multiple times a week, and more.

Tecco won’t pick favorites out of the new class, but there are plenty that Co.Exist will be watching out for, including Sano Intelligence, a startup that’s working on what Tecco calls "an API for the bloodstream"; GetMyCare, which is like an AirBnB for caregivers; and Senstore, a Singularity University spinoff that’s aiming to build a medical tricorder (more on them here).

Health care isn’t an easy space for entrepreneurs, and the hurdle of getting FDA approval is enough to turn many people off. But the space is ripe for innovation; because of its barriers to entry, there isn’t as much competition as in, say, the social networking space. And building an app that can save people countless hours at the doctor’s office—or save a life—is a lot more rewarding than building another Facebook clone. That is, at least, what Rock Health is hoping.