At the recent mHealth Summit in DC, reps from Aetna and Pfizer said they're concentrating less on venture investment and more on direct collaboration with innovative new tech companies.

At this year’s mHealth Summit in DC, there were as many entrepreneurs swarming the halls as there were conference attendees—and many of the attendees had a foot in both worlds. So it’s not surprising that the Summit’s session on how tech startups can work better with health plans and pharmas was standing-room only.

Speakers at the panel session, which included representatives from Aetna and Pfizer, said that in recent times, they had begun to change how they worked with startups, moving from venture investment to direct collaboration with innovative new tech companies.

“It’s been very valuable to work with tech startups,” said Wendy Mayer, vice president of worldwide innovation for Pfizer. “They bring in ideas and have their finger on the pulse of the market. Connecting with those companies has helped us accelerate our offerings.”

Tech startups don’t necessarily have to come up with completely original ideas to contribute something valuable, suggested Jess Jacobs, director of innovation with Aetna.

“We’re also looking for ideas we haven’t thought of, or an old idea applied in a new way,” Jacobs said.

In the past, Mayer said, it was more common for Pfizer to invest directly in startups, but the pharma giant wasn’t getting what it wanted out of the relationship.

“We were giving money, but we weren’t getting value,” Mayer recalled. “Our ability to learn about a space depended on just one company, and if we didn’t learn anything new we wouldn’t get what we wanted out of our investment.”

A different direction

These days, Pfizer has gone in a different direction when it comes to tech startup involvement, Mayer said. 

“We’ve moved away from investment fund via financing to investment via collaboration.”

As it turns out, this is good news for tech startups, as Pfizer is taking a more flexible approach to investment than it has in the past.

“If your business has customers and is sort of humming, there’s a chance for direct connection,” Mayer said. “Smaller businesses don’t have to scale to demonstrate this before clicking directly to our business.”

Because it’s hunting for emerging opportunities, Pfizer is participating in digital health accelerators such as the Partnership for New York City, where it’s kicked in towards the $100,000 capital investments in the top seven digital health companies for this year.

For her part, Aetna’s Jess Jacobs said that the health plan’s approach to working with startups includes acquiring them outright—as it did with app maker iTriage a few years ago—and doing joint pilots with young companies in the tech space.

Those opportunities most certainly include digital health concepts, a subject in which Aetna has shown an official interest. (Those who were on their toes would also note that The Aetna Foundation has announced more than $1.2 million in grants to support the use of digital health technology, including mobile health, among vulnerable and minority populations.)

When it comes to pilots, Aetna has done some significant mobile experimenting, including its recent relationship with NeoCare, a tablet-based program for parents with babies in the NICU. The health plan works hard to see that the startups get something out of the arrangement whether the product launches with them or not.

“There’s a give-and-take,” Jacobs says. “If nothing else, you might get a case study or additional VC credibility out of it.”

Harvesting new ideas

The key takeaway from all of this seems to be that large healthcare companies like Aetna and Pfizer are willing and eager to harvest new ideas at an increasingly early stage. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that companies the size of Pfizer are actually going to startups or participating in accelerators to address their own internal challenges, Mayer says.

This should offer a big hint to tech startups that are hoping to link up with big corporate players like these.

“Remember who you are approaching and present the opportunity in terms of value,” Mayer warns. “You’ve got to follow the opportunity and not the money.”

Anne Zieger is a veteran journalist who’s been covering the U.S. healthcare scene for over 25 years. She provides “News with a Twist,” combining solid reporting with expert insights and analysis. Her opinions are her own. You can follow Anne on Twitter @annezieger.