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By Wayne Hanson: What makes an ideal community, and how can civic leaders help their cities, counties and regions evolve to better meet old necessities and new opportunities?

"Federal Government" and "Entrepreneur" in the Same Sentence?

June 18, 2012 By

When I was given the assignment of writing a story about Frank Baitman, newly appointed CIO of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, I didn't expect much. In the past, federal executives have been difficult to reach, much less schedule for an interview. And since he had only been on the job for a few weeks he could justifiably say, "Talk to me in six months, when I figure out what's going on here." I  put in a call, sent an email to his office, and moved on to other things.

So I was surprised when I got a call back, an interview was scheduled, and I scrambled to do my homework. When I reached him by phone, he sounded friendly and open. So far so good. We started with his experience in the Social Security Administration and then his work as "entrepreneur in residence" at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). I thought "entrepreneur" at a federal agency sounded incongruous enough it might give me a hook for the story, kind of a joke — like a few weeks ago in California's Central Valley, when I introduced a nice guy from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to a farmer with the line, "He's from the government and he's here to help you."

But Baitman did not sound like a "typical" federal government official. He was enthusiastic, not guarded and fussy when talking to the media, as are some high-level folks with a lot to lose. He did sidestep my question about the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and how Health and Human Services IT initiatives would be affected if it were struck down. Baitman instead told me that the ACA is the law of the land and that health exchanges rely heavily on IT, and HHS was moving forward to build them. Fair enough.

Where Baitman hit his stride was in discussing his work as an entrepreneur. “What I did at the FDA was a lot of fun,” he said. “The charge before us was, ‘What can you do to streamline the process for getting innovative medical devices to market?’” Baitman said that medical devices are becoming increasingly important but are somewhat under the radar, overshadowed by pharmaceuticals. To speed up the process of getting the devices approved, Baitman and four others ramped up "Innovation Pathway 2.0,” a sort of express lane to move deserving projects through federal hurdles.

“One of the things that we did,” said Baitman, “was stress test this Innovation Pathway 2.0. So we put out a challenge to a particular ‘disease state,’ which is something novel for the FDA. We said there is a disease called ‘end-stage renal disease’ that is a huge and growing public health problem. … More and more people are on dialysis and the prognosis is not good. Fifty percent of Americans with end-stage renal die within five years. … So we put out a challenge and we said, ‘Are there any innovations out there that you would like to put on the Innovation Pathway? If you’re selected, there’s no money, no prize — you get to collaborate with the FDA to get your device to market more quickly.' We had our fingers crossed that we would get more than one company coming forward, and we ended up getting 32. The FDA selected three inventions that are now on the Innovation Pathway, moving to market. Things like a wearable kidney — really fascinating stuff."

Judging from the brief interaction I had with Baitman, he seems like a guy who loves his work. Good luck to him and his initiatives.

For the complete Baitman story, check out the May/June issue of Public CIO.


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What Went Right?

Wayne Hanson is editorial director of Digital Communities. His interest is in the future of communities and the elements necessary to create those places in which we would most want to live and work. What makes an ideal community, and how can civic leaders help their cities, counties and regions evolve to better meet old necessities and new opportunities?