CVS’s new digital innovation lab aims to engage local startups

CVS Health Corp. is expanding its already big footprint this week. On Monday, the drugstore behemoth said it would acquire Target’s 1,600 in-store pharmacies for $1.9 billion. And on Thursday, the Rhode Island company is cutting the ribbon on a satellite office in Boston’s Back Bay that’s focused on digital innovation.

Overseeing the new outpost is Brian Tilzer, a former Staples e-commerce exec who has been chief digital officer at CVS since 2013. (Tilzer first filled me in on the plans last November.)


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Tilzer said CVS has two objectives: bringing in designers and software developers who might not leap at the opportunity to work at the company’s sprawling campus in Woonsocket, R.I., and spurring new collaborations with Boston startups, hospitals, universities, and insurers.

“Part of what we’re doing here is access to talent,” Tilzer said, “but the bigger idea is having a way we can engage with the startup community in digital health care to solve things that we can’t solve alone, and become a partner of choice to emerging companies.”

Employees began moving in last month, and already about 40 work in the newly renovated space on Huntington Avenue, across from the Prudential Center.

Tilzer said about 15 of them were already CVS Health employees who are helping to open the Boston facility and will be “integrating things back into the mother ship.” The lab will eventually employ about 100, Tilzer said. He lives in Boston’s western suburbs and plans to spend a chunk of his time there.

The lab focuses on what Tilzer calls “connected health innovations,” like exploring ways that intelligent pill bottles could remind us to take our daily meds, Internet-linked blood pressure monitors might track data for hypertensives, and cellphone-linked otoscopes could diagnose ear infections in infants more quickly.

One wall of the lab displays a collection of devices — both prototypes and some already on the market.

A big question for the Boston team, said Andrew Macey, vice president of digital strategy and innovation, is “once all the data comes in from these devices — then what?” He said the lab is interested in exploring how all that biometric data could be combined with the right incentives to help people stay healthy, especially if they’re managing chronic conditions like diabetes or multiple sclerosis.

“All the projects here will be prototyped and put on market in one year,” Macey said. Some may show up in a small pilot at first — perhaps one store per region — and others may use willing CVS Health employees as testers.

Tilzer said that staffers at the new lab have already begun conversations with organizations like MassChallenge, the entrepreneurship program; Harvard University; MIT; and several hospitals.

And CVS Health has been building application protocol interfaces, or APIs, to enable others to easily connect with its systems. “Getting the first meeting with us has always been possible,” Tilzer said. “But we think we’re making it easier to start partnerships and get tests started more easily.”

A ribbon-cutting takes place on Thursday evening, and the City of Boston’s chief information officer, Jascha Franklin-Hodge, is expected to attend.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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