Israeli startups pitch products at St. Louis health summit

Eran Orr, founder and CEO of the Israeli firm VRHealth, talks with potential clients at the GlobalSTL Health Innovation Summit on June 27 at Washington University. Out of 14 startups making presentations at the summit, 10 were Israeli.  Photo: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Eran Orr stands before a group of administrators from St. Louis University Hospital wearing black leather sneakers, a black blazer, black jeans and a gray shirt. A few feet away on a table is the virtual reality equipment he pitches to the hospital for use in helping to treat patients. 

His garb and product appear like something out of Silicon Valley, but he is from the equivalent of that area in the Middle East: Tel Aviv, a hotbed of technology startups. 

He seems confident in his product and offers local groups the opportunity to test it for free for three months. 

“The reason why we are doing that is because I know what the reaction will be,” Orr said at the second annual GlobalSTL Health Innovation Summit on June 27 at Washington University. 

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VRHealth is one of 10 Israeli startups attending the summit; four startups from other nations participated as well. GlobalSTL, an initiative of the nonprofit BioSTL, originally focused on bringing agricultural technology companies from Israel to St. Louis. The group has since expanded its reach to also connect with companies in countries such as Ireland and the Netherlands, but Israel still had the largest representation at the summit. 

That’s not because organizers favored Israeli companies in deciding which ones could pitch local health care entities such as Express Scripts and Centene, according to BioSTL president and CEO Donn Rubin.

More than 30 companies applied to participate.

“Our St. Louis partners scored the companies, and the Israeli companies rated very high,” Rubin said.

Despite that positive response, hurdles still remain for Israeli companies trying to sell their products and services abroad.

Dr. Thomas Maddox, a cardiologist and director of the Health Systems Innovation Lab at BJC HealthCare, said: “I’m finding that with our Israeli partners, I’m spending a fair amount of time explaining to them how we insure our patients, what we are obligated to do from a regulatory point of view, the constraints we have from a health care point of view that they have not faced in Israel. 

“As they are coming into our market, relatively new to these ideas, they are needing a fair amount of education, so they can think about, ‘How do I tackle that or operate within those constraints?’ ”

For example, Israel has universal health care. In the private U.S. insurance market, patients switch between jobs and insurers.

“If their [pitch] is that if you do this intervention that our technology [provides] for a 30 year old, then you will reduce their events when they are 70, well that kind of argument doesn’t work for a U.S. patient who is being employed likely for a short period of time,” Maddox explained. “That insurer will never be taking care of them when they are 70.”

Orr, the founder and CEO of the virtual reality company, started developing his product after suffering a cervical disc herniation related to his time as an F-16 pilot in the Israeli Air Force. While rehabbing from the injury, he said he saw people playing with VR headsets, and “the idea came up to combine virtual reality and rehab.”

The company’s headsets could, for example, help guide patients through the rehabilitation process — that way they can do it at home rather than in a center — and help clinicians measure motor skills and cognition, Orr said.

“Stanford [University] is using it to evaluate athletes after concussions,” Orr told the SLU team. “We are starting with Cleveland Clinic to do VR during chemotherapy with cancer patients.”

Dr. Jennifer Schmidt, an internist, estimates that in five to 10 years, such virtual reality technology will be everywhere. 

“I think there is a huge opportunity for us to use technology like that, especially somewhere like St. Louis where we have a lot of people who struggle with getting into the doctor. Transportation is a huge issue,” she said. 

The SLU hospital staff also spent a significant amount of time talking with representatives from Odoro, an Israeli startup, that could help the hospital with patient scheduling, she said.

Her team will spend the next few weeks evaluating information from the companies and then decide “what opportunities would be a good fit for us right now.”

Orr said after the summit that he has been traveling to similar events and that the GlobalSTL gathering was “one of the best events I have ever attended.”

“They were able to put all the key players in one room,” he said.  “If I tried to reach all those people on my own, it would take like a year and a half.”