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Improving diversity in the med tech industry

by Gus Iversen, Editor in Chief | May 04, 2021
Business Affairs
Kwame Ulmer
MedTech Color is on a mission to improve representation of leaders of color in the medical technology industry. It all began at the 2016 AdvaMed Conference, when Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, CEO of BIO, and medtech veteran Kwame Ulmer started talking about potential ways of building a community that would foster change in the industry and combat the underrepresentation of leaders of color.

Since then, MedTech Color has grown into a much larger effort with stakeholders from big and small companies across the industry. The focus on ensuring people of color enter, remain and flourish within the medtech industry has given rise to a Pitch Competition that offers support to innovators. To learn more, HealthCare Business News checked in with Kwame Ulmer.

HCB News: What roadblocks are preventing people of color from having leadership roles in the industry, and what will it take to change this?
Kwame Ulmer: I spent 12 years at the FDA and participated in countless meetings with MedTech C-Suite executives across the nation. Over the years I’ve met with over 1,000 leaders, and only one was an African American. I joined a $3 billion medical device business and as part of a meeting of the 100 top leaders, I was the sole African American. I’ve religiously attended the world’s largest industry conference each year, where it’s been made apparent our industry lacks the insights of people of color. As a former student at Lincoln University, the oldest of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), I knew there wasn’t a pipeline problem. The accumulation of over a decade of experiences like these, paired with encouragement from a mentor, motivated me to start MedTech Color.

We’re building a community of African Americans, Latinx people and others who sponsor and mentor people of color who are thinking of entering or leaving the industry. I believe we are already seeing an uptick that will make this industry a place where more Black and brown leaders thrive (over time). Companies need to commit to programs and industry-wide efforts of significant scope and scale over years to more directly support the next generation of diverse company founders and executives. As MedTech Color continues to grow, our hope is that intelligent and impactful people of color can mentor and encourage others to assume executive positions in the medtech industry, and we hope that organizations continue to accept and include diverse perspectives. That means hiring, supporting and promoting people of color.

Click here to see Kwame Ulmer chat with Philip Jacobus in a segment from Five Minutes in Healthcare

HCB News: MedTech Color cites "driving clinical trial enrollment of 10,000 patients from under-represented ethnic groups" as one of its top strategic imperatives. Why is this important to the organization, and how does this goal relate to the executive leadership initiatives?
KU: Underrepresentation goes far beyond professional inclusion at medtech companies. Too often, participants in clinical trials do not accurately represent the potential patient population. By increasing diversity in clinical trial enrollment, we help ensure medtech innovation benefits everyone.

We are launching a collaborative community with the FDA that will bring together public and private stakeholders to develop strategies to address factors like unconscious bias, the social determinants of health and lack of inclusion or consideration of racial and ethnic minorities in critical aspects of the product development lifecycle. Through this collaborative community, we look at ways to advance the representation of people of color throughout the full product lifecycle – from early stage R&D through clinical trials and beyond.

HCB News: Before we get into the Pitch Competition, can you tell us about any other initiatives or events MedTech Color is working on?
KU: We want to be known as an organization that elevates, guides and encourages people of color to enter and remain in the medtech industry, because this industry is where life-saving decisions are made, and people of color need to be making more of those decisions.

More broadly, we are building community, driving thought leadership and increasing the number of people of color in the ecosystem through sponsored speaking opportunities at industry events, sharing hard-to-fill job roles with our nearly 1,000-member network, and hosting events like the Networking Breakfast in partnership with AdvaMed, our long-time supporter. Many of our efforts focus on connecting emerging leaders and talent with professionals at industry-leading companies for mentorship and collaboration.

HCB News: How did the idea for the Pitch Competition come about, and how did you connect with the aspiring med tech innovators and start-ups who applied?
KU: As a medtech investor, I saw few companies solving problems for Black people or being led by Black people. MedTech Color has a strategic imperative to invest in 100 Black and Latinx CEOs by 2030. By funding and supporting the success of Black and brown CEOs through efforts like the pitch competition, we can encourage more diverse MedTech investors, corporate board members and executives. Since investing at this seed stage produces the largest proportionate ROI, the competition was a needle mover and a way to invest in companies that could reach more patients.

We were encouraged by the success of our pitch competition and the high caliber founders and leaders who applied. MedTech Color’s founding members include early-stage CEOs and people who have been in the industry for decades, and they played a huge role in the success of the competition. They, along with our sponsors and judges, helped us spread the word about the Inaugural pitch competition focused on people of color in the medtech industry. We had nearly 100 innovators apply, and I can’t wait to see what kind of response we see next year.

HCB News: What factors did you look at in selecting the finalists?
KU: The judges for our competition were seasoned leaders from the organizations sponsoring the competition: California Health Care Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, Olympus, ResMed, and Ximedica. Criteria for scoring the competition was based on several factors: a compelling elevator pitch, the unmet need their innovation is meeting, the size of their target market, management team, plan to finance their business, approach to validation, and their competitive advantage.

HCB News: What ultimately led to choosing Kristina Jones' Guardian Lane, Inc. as the first-place winner?
KU: Kristina Jones showcased a strong business plan poised for growth and demonstrated how her innovation is meeting a critical need that is felt acutely in our world today. Her pitch received the top score in several categories of the judges’ criteria.

Guardian Lane is a children's mental health platform that is innovating how children access grief counseling. Children watch, create, and share creative grief projects, creating their own network for social healing. Counselors are also available for 1:1 tele-counseling sessions. Since launching its beta platform in late January, Guardian Lane has already partnered with over 1,000 schools. Starting with bereavement counseling, Guardian Lane will soon introduce video projects for children affected by divorce, bullying, military separation and foster care.

Kristina Jones, Guardian Lane’s founder and CEO is a 2x tech founder who has successful past fundraising experience, having previously built a successful marketplace and AI solution to help solve access to justice for 125 million Americans. Kristina is also the 14th African-American woman to ever raise over $1M for a tech startup and was named Tech Entrepreneur of the Year by Black Enterprise.

HCB News: Through the Pitch Competition, did you learn anything unexpected or surprising about the ways African Americans are approaching innovation in med tech?
KU: Many of the founders in our competition had a personal experience that shaped their desire to innovate. For example, Kristina lost her father at a young age, driving her desire to help grieving children work through their trauma. Several companies were targeting conditions that disproportionately affect communities of color, like diabetes. It was inspiring to see that many of our pitch competition finalists are using their personal hardships to help ensure others have an easier road to recovery or access to care.

The pitch competition reminded me how MedTech Color’s impact can be much larger than I would have ever fathomed three years ago when I had that first conversation with Dr. McMurry-Heath. Our work to advance the representation of people of color in the medtech industry will benefit people beyond the industry itself – and we’re just getting started.

To learn more about MedTech Color, the Pitch Competition, and the organization's other initiatives, visit their website.

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