South by Southwest, the 10-day event that takes over downtown Austin, Texas, every March, launched in 1987 as a music festival. Since then, it’s built out its presence with speakers and showcases related to film, technology and—most recently—healthcare.
SXSW added its Health & MedTech track in 2014. Hugh Forrest, SXSW’s chief programming officer, recalls 2017 as a “watershed” year for the festival’s health work, when it snagged two healthcare heavyweights as speakers: Jennifer Doudna, who many experts credit with creating the CRISPR gene-editing technique, and former Vice President Joe Biden, who discussed his cancer initiative.
Forrest spoke with Modern Healthcare IT reporter Jessica Kim Cohen about SXSW’s growing healthcare activities. The following is an edited transcript.
MH: What led SXSW to add its Health & MedTech track?
Forrest: There’s at least two reasons. One, there’s an ongoing convergence between technology and health, with more and more of the tech companies pushing into the industry. The Apple Watch now has increased health functionality, and Google’s getting involved in health. There’s more innovations with a health element to them, whether next-generation clothing, new appliances, new interfaces in the home. These industries grow closer together with every passing year.
But more than that, I always think of SXSW as a reflection of what Austin is doing, and what’s hot and trendy in the city. SXSW started with music, because we have such a strong music scene. We added film and multimedia in 1994, because that’s when the Austin film scene was bubbling up. Flash forward 20-some years to Dell Medical School opening in the city. Austin’s becoming more of a health-tech, medtech, biotech town, and SXSW wants to reflect that.
MH: How are you seeing the healthcare and technology sectors converge in Austin?
Forrest: We’re still at the very tip of the spear, but one of the neat things about an event like SXSW is that it brings people from the health sphere together with startups, entrepreneurs, tech folks, sports people, food people—people who work in numerous other industries. That’s the value add that we can bring, and what can and will continue to happen in Austin. Austin’s certainly not as big a health center as Houston or Boston, but we can offer a convergence of a lot of different entities that can create some powerful new ideas.
MH: What’s the target audience for the Health & MedTech track?
Forrest: We skew a little more toward the startup end of things, since startups have been such a big part of SXSW’s growth over the last 10 years. We also see a lot of people coming in who are investors in health technology and doctors and other health professionals who are doing more entrepreneurial projects, as well as some pretty established players. This year the track sponsor was Kaiser Permanente. It’s indicative that there’s a growing amount of respect for what we’re doing.
MH: What Health & MedTech additions were you most excited about this year?
Forrest: I was really excited that we had (immunologist and Nobel Prize winner) James Allison speaking. We also had a documentary on CRISPR that (journalist) Dan Rather was involved with. We had numerous sessions on CRISPR, but the session focused on the documentary was full to capacity, which was neat. Of course, a lot of the startups seemed really interesting, and it was neat to see quite a few health companies within the very large SXSW trade show.