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The Pulse of the Pharmaceutical Industry

Icons.Health is coaxing bright ideas out of health care industry thought leaders

Written by: | | Dated: Friday, November 2nd, 2018

It began with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) “hackathons” and a billion-dollar inspiration.

Mitch Apley

“We as an agency began engaging with MIT’s hackathons about four years ago,” Mitch E. Apley, executive producer of Chicago-based AbelsonTaylor’s Icons.Health™, said during an interview. “While we were there, we were introduced to some pretty incredible folks who were really on the edge of where health care is going.”

It was the germ of an idea that became Icons.Health™, off-script conversations between leaders in the health care industry about the future of that industry, generating ideas for the benefit of all.

“It was a global discussion that transcends borders,” Apley said.


Icons.Health™ appeals to a multilayered audience.

“It’s anybody who cares about the future of health care,” Apley said.

The MIT hackathons were a logical starting point for what became Icons.Health™, Apley said.

“What they are is a weekend of a diverse group of people coming together to talk about some very specific problems, and using design thinking to get at what those problems are and what the solutions might be,” he said. “It’s hundreds and hundreds of people who break up into small groups of five or six people.”

PillPack is one idea that emerged from the hackathons.

“It was devised by half-a-dozen strangers,” Apley recalled. “PillPack went on to be financed for about $100 million through venture capital, and it was bought by Amazon for $1 billion.”

“Even before we knew all of that success was going to happen, we knew there was an interesting story to be told about this amazing community of health-tech startups that was growing and expanding every day, transforming the edges of healthcare as we understand it”,” Apley said. Which is also why we went with .health for our domain, because it instantly let our audience know what category Icons.Health™ is focused upon. And we’ve been grateful for their partnership as they have gone out of their way to help make the site a success.

“We’d talked about making a documentary about what’s going on in health care, we’d talked about making a web series. But then my cinematographer and editor, Joel Witmer, and I were sitting at a conference and having a conversation about how best to capture this thing that’s happening. He was the one who said it was like this, this format, two people talking at a conference about what they’re seeing. He said, ‘This is where all the real ideas come from, this would be an interesting format for a show.’”’

From there, Icons.Health™ presented itself in its own form, “smart people” in the health care field, talking to each other about where that field is and where it’s going, Apley said. The idea of Icons.Health™ was presented to AbelsonTaylor colleagues who got on board and everyone “spearheaded taking this idea and getting it into a pilot mode,” he said.

And when it came time to find those smart people to put on camera, the idea of Icons.Health™ was presented to Shwen Gwee, General Manager, Head of Open Innovation at Novartis’ Biome. “Shwen has deep connections in the healthcare startup community and was instrumental in helping us identify potential icons at SXSW and Lions Health,” Apley said.


An Unscripted Conversation

The pilot soon attracted quite a bit of attention, including “everything from Google’s Airlie to Amazon to big startups,” Apley said.

“The format is unique because there’s no moderator present in the video. It’s two industry peers talking about what’s important to them, about what scares them about health care, about what they want to see happen in the future. It’s very similar to what would happen if you were to survey a bar and happened to come upon two smart people talking about what they’ve been seeing lately. The format has turned out to be pretty interesting. Participants really enjoy it because they don’t feel pressured. They’re just having a conversation.”

The conversation has no script, little moderation, and the barest amount of direction.

“The value of the conversation is directly related to the importance of the speakers,” Apley said.

Icons.Health™ made a big splash on the health track at the 2018 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity where Icons.Health™ filmed internationally for the first time, garnering interviews with thought leaders from IBM, Microsoft, Ogilvy, and other organizations. Icons.Health™ now is gearing up for at least nine releases in the next few weeks, and more conferences and conversations are anticipated this winter, Apley said.


Icons.Health™ isn’t about competition.

“This isn’t really a competitive format; it’s a discussion tool,” he said. “And I’ll tell you, I’ve shown this to people who are outside of the health care industry and they’ve said they found it pretty interesting. This is for anybody who can see the value in smart people talking.”

What Icons.Health™ isn’t is TED Talks.

“We are appealing to a TEDx type of audience,” Apley said. “However, we find that what they are presenting are canned, rehearsed speeches and what we’re presenting is unrehearsed conversation.”

And Icons.Health™ wants to keep those conversations going.

“We’re always looking for new and potential icons,” Apley said. “We’re open to partnership with other interested parties.”


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