PennHealthX is a student group where future doctors can explore their interests in business and technology. After 10 years, it has surpassed the standard for traditional extracurricular clubs. It has grown, like an entrepreneurial startup in miniature itself, to become an influential student-driven creative hub for projects and programs at the intersection of medicine with other disciplines.
By Christina Hernandez Sherwood
After anatomy lab on a December evening in 2012, first-year medical students Jacqueline Soegaard Ballester and Dan O’Connor helped their classmate Diane Dao to a nearby Starbucks on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Dao, who earlier in the day had fallen and slammed her kneecap on cement stairs, was hobbling on crutches. Gathered around a cafe table with their drinks, just across Locust Walk from the Wharton School, their conversation turned to their shared interest in the business side of health care.
Dao had completed her undergraduate degree at Penn the previous year. “Being at Penn, I’ve always had friends at Wharton and the nursing school and engineering,” she says. “That cross-pollination shaped me so much. That was something I wanted to keep in my medical school education.”
All three students had chosen to attend the Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) because they were attracted to Penn’s ecosystem of business and innovation. To them, medical education was about more than becoming a top-notch physician — though that was a key aim. It was also about finding a place in a rapidly evolving health care ecosystem, where fitness trackers and connected apps were flourishing, doctors were launching health-focused startups and medical providers were preparing for the mandatory shift to electronic health records.
The three classmates already had ideas they were eager to explore. O’Connor hoped to develop his own health care startups. Soegaard Ballester wanted to hone her skills in health informatics — the combination of health care and information technologies to improve patient outcomes. And Dao was intrigued by health care leadership and operations management. But without a structured avenue for early medical school students to access Penn’s business community, the trio felt they were still on the outside looking in.
When they went their separate ways for winter break, Dao, Soegaard Ballester and O’Connor fleshed out their ideas in a shared Google document. They drafted a proposal for a new medical student group — initially called the Business and Technology of Healthcare — and an accompanying area of concentration in the medical school curriculum dubbed Healthcare Management, Entrepreneurship, and Technology (H-MET), which was modeled on other medical school concentrations, such as those in women’s health and global health.
“By having these [business and technology] skills early on,” O’Connor says, “we thought as we entered the wards and saw the world around us, we’d be able to get more out of medical school.”
Ten years later, the program now known as PennHealthX has exceeded the expectations of its founders — and far surpassed the accomplishments of a traditional student club. HealthX has grown into an influential student-driven creative hub within the Perelman School of Medicine, a place where future doctors can experiment with new ideas at the crossroads of medicine and other disciplines, discover alternate career paths and even launch their own businesses. PennHealthX includes a popular lecture series, internship funding, an annual conference and a venture arm, as well as a revolving host of projects based on the interests of its student participants.
PennHealthX, as more than one alumnus notes, is essentially itself a startup business in miniature. “It’s a very entrepreneurial program in which the students really do drive it,” says J.C. Lopez, MD’18, MBA’18, who after Dao became the second president of HealthX and is now a principal on the health care team of a venture capital firm. “You run it like a startup.”
PSOM graduates with ties to HealthX are now innovating in every sector of health care. Some are practicing physicians, like Dao, who graduated from PSOM in 2017 with MD and MPH degrees, now a pediatric anesthesiologist, and O’Connor, a skin cancer surgeon in New Hampshire. Others, like Lopez, eschewed residencies to enter the world of health care investment. Some are continuing their study of the intersection of health care and business, like Soegaard Ballester, MD’17, MBMI’22, who is working toward her goal of building a career that includes both thoracic surgery and informatics. Others are developing their own startups.
And the ranks of PennHealthX alumni will only grow, as a $6 million gift from health care investor Roderick Wong, MD’03, has endowed the program, ensuring it can continue in perpetuity. “You have leaders in clinical medicine and leaders in academic medicine, but [HealthX students] are going to be the leaders in medical innovation,” Wong says. “It’s great that Penn is attracting those people because they’re going to change the future.”
The success of PennHealthX was not assured from the start-up phase.
In early 2013, when Dao, Soegaard Ballester and O’Connor pitched their proposal to the medical school administration, the H-MET area of concentration was met with skepticism. Why, school leaders asked, would a medical student interested in business choose this concentration over the university’s prestigious dual MD/MBA degree?
To Soegaard Ballester, the answer was clear. After the expense and time commitment of medical school, she says, adding another degree isn’t an option for everyone. Plus, the area of concentration would provide a broad scope of business content geared specifically toward future physicians on subjects such as funding and pricing new clinical therapies, health care system quality improvement, and making the leap from bedside to business.
The students approached David Asch, MD, MBA’89, and Shivan Mehta, MD’06, MBA’06, MSHP’12, leaders of Penn Medicine’s then-newly established Center for Health Care Innovation, for guidance. Asch, now senior vice dean for strategic initiatives at the medical school, was struck by the suite of initiatives dreamed up by the trio to advance the concept and deployment of “a new lane in academic medicine.”
“It was the students who saw both the need and the opportunity,” Asch says. “In every way, this was created by the students and for the students and reflects the students advancing the Perelman School forward.”
While most people who earn a medical degree go on to become practicing physicians, Asch says, the variety of careers for those who don’t go into practice is immense. “I don’t think a medical degree is any less versatile than a law degree,” he says. “There are many ways to get medical training and use it to advance health and health care. [HealthX] is an illustration of that.”
The trio of co-founders reshaped and strengthened their proposal, and on the second try, PennHealthX and the H-MET area of concentration (dubbed a “certificate” at that time) were approved.
But by that time, Dao, Soegaard Ballester, and O’Connor only had six months until they were to begin their clerkship year of intensive hands-on clinical training, when they knew they couldn’t continue leading the group effectively. So as they were building their new program from the ground up, they were also preparing for it to go on without them.
They began recruiting newly admitted medical school students to join HealthX and established a six-month board, as well as the next board to lead the group when the founders were on rotations. “We made sustainable leadership structures and mentorship cornerstones of the program,” Soegaard Ballester says, “because without that it would just fall apart in a year.”
At the same time, PennHealthX began hosting lunchtime lectures on the intersection of health care and business, drawing speakers from Penn’s faculty and the medical school’s alumni pool. (Attendance at these lectures was — and still is — a core requirement of the H-MET area of concentration, along with certain required courses and an internship or research experience.) Asch was an early and frequent HealthX speaker, along with Wong, who traveled from New York to talk about his work as a biotechnology investor and founder of the firm RTW Investments.
Egen Atkinson, MD’16, MBA’16, remembers attending Wong’s talk. Although Atkinson had worked at a biotechnology company before enrolling in medical school, he was rapt hearing Wong describe his work. As an investor, he uses his medical knowledge to evaluate which drugs are most worthy of investment, and to select the projects that have the greatest chance of offering significant help to the greatest number of people. “I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever heard,” Atkinson says.
Today, Atkinson and fellow alumnus Michael Kramarz, MD’15, MBA’15, draw on their medical science backgrounds to run Commodore Capital, a biotechnology investment firm that specializes in funding small companies developing therapeutics in oncology, neurology, autoimmune diseases, and other clinical areas. “In medical school, most of your peers will go on to be clinicians and researchers, which is how it should be,” Atkinson says. “But the world does need people with medical and business training to do other things. It was wonderful to have a program that opened the door and showed what was possible.”
Along with attending PennHealthX lectures, students interested in earning their degree with the H-MET area of concentration are required to complete an internship or research experience. For B.A. Sillah, MD’17, MBA’17, that internship turned out to be his first direct involvement in the world of health care investing. Sillah spent the summer of 2015 at the Nairobi health care investment firm of a Wharton alumnus studying how investors supported health care innovation.
But the internship likely wouldn’t have happened without HealthX. Sillah says he got the gig by keeping in touch with the alumnus, who had been a guest speaker for a class on global health. He credits HealthX with instilling in him the importance of networking and relationship building. “HealthX taught the importance of structuring and maintaining a community in this space,” Sillah says. “So much of venture capital, so much of biotech, is driven by the community you create and maintain.”
When he learned the opportunity was unpaid, Sillah again turned to HealthX, which used some of its modest budget to help medical school students fund business-related internships. Sillah applied for funding, and HealthX offered him a stipend, plus additional support for expenses.
That internship set the trajectory for his career since. “It put me over the edge to decide that I wanted to go the non-clinical route and go into health care investing,” says Sillah, who today is chief operating officer of Avesta76 Therapeutics, a biotechnology company that develops cancer medicines, and is helping a New York bank establish a venture capital arm.
Within a year of the establishment of a HealthX board structure, the group had developed an ambitious vision for what their program could become and sought to boost their $5,000 budget to turn their “pie in the sky” dreams into reality.
They had applied for internal funding at Penn and other grants, and they didn’t stop there.
On an August day 2014, J.C. Lopez boarded an Amtrak train to New York City with Lisa Katz, director of leadership gifts at the Perelman School of Medicine. Lopez was then beginning his second year of medical school and was six months into his term as president of HealthX after the founders began clerkship rotations that January. He and Katz were headed to Wong’s Manhattan office to “pitch” PennHealthX as a potential investment opportunity.
Toting a business plan, printed slide deck and budget, Lopez told Wong, who was already familiar with the HealthX lecture series as a speaker, about the program’s other offerings, including a healthcare-focused hackathon the group was planning for the following month to attract Penn students interested in creativity and entrepreneurship.
Lopez was happy with his pitch, though he didn’t expect anything to come of it. “It was a fun day,” he says. “I really enjoyed meeting alumni who were doing things that, at the time, I didn’t even realize I wanted to do in my future career.”
Less than a month after Lopez and Katz’s visit, Wong signed a $300,000 gift agreement to fund PennHealthX for three academic years. “It’s attracting those visionary types of students,” he says. “They want to help each patient today, but they also want to make medicine for patients in the future better.”
Wong became an involved benefactor to HealthX. He helped solidify the group’s institutional memory by suggesting a structure that encouraged previous HealthX board members to return to as advisers after their clerkship year. Now, the HealthX board is most often composed of fourth-year medical students in co-president positions, along with a group of first- and second-years as vice presidents of strategy, curriculum, entrepreneurship and other areas.
Lopez, for instance, rejoined the board in 2017 when he had completed his clerkship and entered Wharton’s MBA program. Along with overseeing junior board members, Lopez returned to HealthX with a new program idea. “What I was learning in business school was very useful and some of it could be distilled down,” he says. “That’s when HealthX started a seminar series with more structured programming around accounting, or finance or marketing — aspects that are relevant if you were to go into hospital administration or other areas.”
In 2017, Wong decided to fund HealthX for three additional years. He also established a scholarship fund to support PSOM students who want to pursue a Wharton MBA.
PennHealthX held its inaugural conference, now a marquee annual occurrence, in 2016.
Leaders in medical entrepreneurship and innovation came from all over the Philadelphia area to be part of the daylong event titled “MD as a Passport.” Moderna’s then-chief financial officer Lorence Kim, MD’00, MBA’00, and former Christiana Care Health System chief executive Robert Laskowski, BA’74, MD’78, MBA’83, gave keynotes. Wong traveled from New York to present an investment case pitch, walking a group of about 20 students through his thought process on an example investment.
The conference, like PennHealthX programming lineup overall, was increasingly providing an accessible avenue for medical students interested in the business side of health care to get exposure to the players, internships, alumni and opportunities in the industry, Lopez says. (Lopez himself was hired at the firm New Enterprise Associates by a HealthX speaker, Ali Behbahani MD’08, MBA’08, after they forged a relationship over their shared interests.) “Our philosophy was that every doctor should be aware of these skills and, at a high level, understand how they operate and how they affect their lives and the lives of their patients,” Lopez explains. “We’re trying to increase the catchment area.”
It worked. PennHealthX was getting noticed, especially within the medical school. In a 2017 survey of 351 PSOM students by the HealthX team, 79 percent of respondents said they’d attended at least one HealthX event. More than one in five said the existence of HealthX — a rarity among medical schools — influenced their decision to attend PSOM. And a full 11 percent of respondents changed their career paths because of their participation in HealthX.
In addition to receiving funding for unpaid internships through HealthX, medical students could by then take advantage of the HealthX venture fund. The fund, which continues today, has provided non-dilutive seed funding to more than a dozen student-run businesses.
PennHealthX also nurtured new ideas for its own programs. Ryan O’Keefe joined PennHealthX as a first-year medical student in 2016 in the way typical for new participants: He began attending the group’s popular lunchtime lectures. But O’Keefe, who also had an interest in audio communication, quickly noticed a missed opportunity. “We have these amazing speakers coming to our campus — doctors or business people within the Philadelphia and Penn community, and outside of it,” he says. “Even though we would have an excellent turnout of 60 or 80 people sometimes, I felt it was a shame it was limited to the students who could be there in person.”
O’Keefe proposed a PennHealthX podcast featuring interviews with the speakers who came to campus sharing their insights and career takeaways. The HealthX board saw the podcast as an opportunity to “think big” (one of their marching orders from Wong) and further extend the group’s growing reach from the medical school to the rest of the Penn campus and beyond. Guests included David Fajgenbaum, MD’13, MBA’15, an assistant professor of Medicine at PSOM whose remarkable story of becoming a rare disease specialist to save his own life had recently been covered in the New York Times and former medical school dean Arthur Rubenstein, MBBCh, who was instrumental in reshaping the culture of Penn Medicine. “You just don’t get the opportunity to have those one-on-one conversations naturally,” O’Keefe says.
All told, the podcast garnered more than 40,000 listens before it ended after 78 episodes. (One of those listeners was Jonathan Wakim, who discovered the HealthX podcast as a college junior and decided he wanted to go to medical school at Penn. Once enrolled, he immediately joined HealthX and is now a co-president.)
Though O’Keefe, who graduated with an MD and MBA in 2021 and is now an internal medicine resident at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, would have liked the podcast to continue, he acknowledged that, unlike the core programs of PennHealthX, side projects such as the hackathon and podcast eventually run their course. That’s what’s so great about a program like [HealthX],” he says. “People have their pet projects they bring to life. [They become] different products, just like you’d find at an innovative company like Google. You see what works. You put it out there and if there’s a desire to keep it going, then it will keep going.”
In 2019, as Wong’s second three-year round of funding was nearing its end, PennHealthX reached an inflection point.
It was time for Wong to decide how he might continue to support the program. Just as he does with his business investments, Wong pored over the numbers, looking at statistics on overall interest in HealthX, conference attendance, H-MET concentration sign-ups, podcast listens and more.
“All those things looked great,” Wong says. “But what I didn’t anticipate, the icing on the cake, was that [HealthX] had these butterfly effects as a model.” Since PennHealthX was formed, other medicine-plus groups and efforts have launched to connect PSOM students with their other shared interests outside medicine. Examples include the Penn Med Symphony Orchestra, which formed in 2016 and is open to medical students, and the Arts and Medicine student group, which held its first show of student art in 2018.
That’s a trend in keeping with what Suzanne Rose, MD, MSEd, senior vice dean for medical education at PSOM, says she wants to see — helping students to individualize their medical education based on their interests. “My goal is to create leaders and do-gooders,” Rose says. “Whether the students want to be clinician-scientists, work in advocacy, in politics or in business, they should always be thinking about the patients and the communities served by what they do.”
In November 2019, Wong signed a $6 million endowment gift to fund PennHealthX in perpetuity. The endowment was one of the largest single gifts to support medical education at PSOM. “We ran the experiment. The students proved its value,” Wong says. “We wanted to make sure HealthX didn’t have to worry about permanence.”
Four months later came COVID-19.
As medical students adjusted to a new world — and did their best to help during the unprecedented health emergency — Alex Beschloss, MD’22, MBA’22, then HealthX co-president with Elana Meer, MD’22, MBA’22, says he realized the pandemic was the next inflection point for the student group. “We saw how COVID-19 ravaged the world, disproportionately affecting those who have poor access to many structural and social determinants of health,” he says. “I realized HealthX had a unique opportunity to make an impact while also helping expose Penn Med students to the business strategy world.”
Beschloss designed the PennHealthX “social determinants of health accelerator,” an initiative that pairs HealthX students with startup businesses geared toward solving public health problems. In its initial iteration, the accelerator connected three startups — one focused on maternal health disparities and the other two on food insecurity — with six medical student interns who could offer support at no cost to the startup. “While HealthX absolutely still explores areas of innovation around health tech, business, management and biotechnology,” Beschloss says, “the accelerator added increased focus on how these topics can be applied toward equity and access to health care.”
Some social determinants of health accelerator participants are now interning with Tiffany Yeh, MD’22, who recently completed her term as HealthX co-president. Yeh, who has a background in materials engineering, opted not to pursue a medical residency in favor of founding her own health care startup business. Inspired by Yeh’s own chronic health condition, Eztia is a company that designs discreet and convenient cold therapy wearables for athletics, women’s health, and other consumer health applications. “As a solo founder, building a talented and dedicated team is all the more crucial,” she says. “Penn medical students have been working with me on translating clinical knowledge into educational content around the mind-body connection, pain and women’s health.”
A key part of Yeh’s recent tenure as PennHealthX co-president along with fifth-year MD/MBA student David Mui was building interconnectedness between HealthX and similar groups at other institutions. Last year, a group of HealthX students pioneered the inaugural “Boston Biotech Trek,” traveling to New England’s medical hub to meet with industry leaders from Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other institutions. “[HealthX] will continue to push forward new, innovative ideas that are relevant to the health care system today,” Mui says.
Despite graduating from medical school last May, Yeh says she was happy to stay on for another few months as HealthX co-president. “In medical school, you’ve got this [classroom learning] period and then you go into the hospital and you drop off the face of the Earth,” she says. “But what I find so interesting about HealthX — and the Penn community in general — is that people come back. You don’t lose those parts of your identity. You come back to nurture that and keep the thread going.”
Lamin Sonko, MD’22 MBA’22, is one of those who have continued to expand his view thanks to his time in HealthX, which included serving as vice president for innovation. Now a Penn Emergency Medicine resident, Sonko is passionate about using his skills to help build health care infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Being on the MD track forces you in some ways to be somewhat narrow-minded in terms of not only career opportunities, but opportunities in health care,” he says. “Clubs like HealthX really help shift that paradigm and show there are lots of different innovative ways to improve health care outside of seeing patients.”
“We’re already seeing this, but it’s only going to be more obvious,” Yeh says, “that you will have Penn Medicine alumni, literally in all of the different facets of business and tech and medicine that you can possibly think of.”
Read more about the PennHealthX Social Determinants of Health Accelerator at Service in Action.