How can a regional health care organization with operations in three states and some 32,000 employees become more innovative?

Iowa-based UnityPoint Health — the 13th-largest nonprofit health system in the country — decided it would build a mechanism to empower its employees to think like entrepreneurs, by developing a center to rapidly evaluate ideas submitted by its employees and test new product concepts.

Kent Lehr, vice president of strategy and business development for the West Des Moines-based health system, is leading the effort to launch the UnityPoint Health Innovation Center this year.

“The emphasis behind creating this innovation center is culture, so to me it’s an investment in our people,” he said. “And we’ve got 32,000 team members across three states — I guarantee you every one of them in their career has had a great idea, and they just don’t quite know where to go with it.”

The innovation center concept is gaining traction nationwide as health care systems recognize that they aren’t keeping up with the pace of innovation, said Lehr, who joined UnityPoint Health through its administrative fellowship program in 2010. “We didn’t have the luxury of operating in the same way if we’re going to try to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace going forward.”

To formulate ideas on how to tap the innovative spirit of a large organization, Lehr spent much of the past year traveling across the country visiting other health systems to observe mature, well-run innovation programs.

Lehr boiled down the lessons learned from some of the top innovation programs:
They invest in innovation. They make a purposeful effort to invest in people and processes that drive innovation and that ultimately drive the organization forward.

They engage their staff across the organization in being a part of the solution, but they’re also open to outside partnerships to help drive that transformation as well.

“We’re launching it with three criteria: Grow the organization, improve experience or cut waste,” Lehr said. “If your idea relates to any or all of those, we want to hear it. Our thought there is, let’s start small. But those are impactful areas for us.”

The innovation program will use a web-based intake process modeled after successful programs at two separate health systems, along with concepts used by Ford Motor Co. The process — which UnityPoint Health has already tested on a small scale — rapidly runs ideas through a 90-day track in which they’re evaluated by a succession of research “gates” staffed by acceleration teams from within the company. Those teams will hear pitches on each idea and score them to determine which ideas will float to the top and advance.

“We want to provide a pathway for ideas that maybe normally wouldn’t have a typical home with the way the organization operates,” Lehr said. Large organizations tend to be weighed down by inertia in their planning and budgeting processes that make it harder for new projects to move forward, he noted. “This is a place to sort of break that mold and that cycle. And we’re investing in it, so we’re saying innovation is important.”

Using the process, three projects with significant organizationwide impact might rise to the top from 100 ideas submitted. But the 97 ideas that are filtered out won’t just disappear, Lehr said. They’ll be shared with UnityPoint Health’s process improvement division, as well as the operational teams in the regions where they originated.

“My thought is, the more we try to centralize innovation, the less innovation we’re going to get,” he said. “All we’re trying to do is provide a platform and a science to the process and ensure that the ideas get to the place where they can be acted on the quickest.”

A business path
Lehr, a doctor’s son who earned a dual undergraduate degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from Cornell College, was on track to enter medical school at the University of Iowa but at the last minute opted for another program he had also been accepted into — UI’s Master of Health Administration/Master of Business Administration program.

“I decided that business school was the right route for what I ultimately wanted to accomplish and what I thought I’d be good at, and I’ve never looked back,” he said.
While he was still an administrative fellow with UnityPoint Health, he devised a growth strategy for the health system that he presented to the board of directors, which led to his beginning a full-time role in January 2011 leading that growth effort.

Over the next several years, UnityPoint Health completed affiliations with Methodist Health System in Peoria, Ill., its first major affiliation in a decade. UnityPoint Health subsequently partnered with Quincy Health Group in Quincy, Ill., and then began exploring opportunities in Wisconsin, which led to UnityPoint Health’s affiliation with Meriter Health System.

To begin dipping its toe into the innovation pool, UnityPoint Health made a financial investment in the Heritage Innovation Fund in 2015, followed by a subsequent investment last year.

“It’s been an outstanding investment for us,” Lehr said. “It’s allowed us to invest in companies that are having a big impact in the delivery of health care and help create better outcomes for the populations we serve.” In addition to helping some companies get off the ground and grow, the investments have provided opportunities to build relationships with those companies, he said.
Ideally, the external partnership with the Heritage fund will provide a platform for identifying potential technology partners who can help implement projects identified through the innovation center process.

“I’m hoping to use that intake process to identify gaps as ideas come in,” Lehr said, “and then the first place we would go to fill those gaps through partnerships would be those funds that we’re invested in.”

The launch of an external accelerator program to work with outside organizations will follow closely on the heels of this year’s launch of the innovation center, Lehr said.

“Our interest then will be engaging with organizations and consumers in new ways to help advance their ideas,” he said. “The more effective innovation centers I’ve seen are those that engage everyone in the ecosystem for solutions.”