BETHESDA, MD. JULY, 2, 2014: At GetWell Network, a Bethesda-based health tech firm, VP of User Experience, Shannon O'Neil stands where each screen displays various interfaces that clinicians and patients use throughout all stages of using the product. ( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan )

As he battled non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at Johns Hopkins’ medical system in Baltimore, Michael O’Neil — then a 28-year-old MBA student at Georgetown University — noticed a business opportunity: selling technology to help hospitals better communicate with patients.

Fifteen years later, O’Neil has grown his business, GetWellNetwork, to a 248-person tech company based in Bethesda. It supplies software to more than 200 hospitals in the United States, including 35 Veterans Affairs medical centers. Accessible through bedside monitors or tablets, GetWellNetwork’s applications can pull information from electronic medical records, display care regimens and offer entertainment, such as games or videos, among other features.

Today, the company is looking to younger, nimbler tech start-ups for new ways to change patient engagement.

Last week, the company started GetWell Labs, which it says is a business incubator intended to help fledgling health technology companies develop their software. GetWellNetwork plans to offer participants office space at its headquarters in Bethesda, as well as mentoring, development talent and potential financial investments.

“One of our thoughts was, ‘Hey, we’ve slogged along in this area kind of as a small start-up business, and [grew] significantly over the past few years. Lots of [other] companies could probably use some help,’” GetWellNetwork’s Chief Operating Officer David Bennett said.

It’s more than altruism, Bennett said. Working with these start-ups gives GetWellNetwork a window into fresh ideas, and could even lead to collaboration on new products, he said.

“We notice outside-the box-thinking from people who traditionally haven’t grown up with, or been in, the health-care IT space.”

So far, GetWell Labs has selected two companies: ViiMed, a video technology company based in the District, and Marbella Technologies, a patient satisfaction assessment software company based in Encinitas, Calif. GetWell Labs is still on the lookout for more participants, and the program is open-ended, Bennett said.

Though it officially opened the incubator last week, GetWell Labs has been working with ViiMed and Marbella for a few months, said Shannon O’Neil, vice president of user experience and Michael O’Neil’s sister. The company is currently evaluating whether to integrate software from those two companies into its application, and is examining prototypes with patients and clinicians, she said.

“[We’re] actually putting them in clinicians’ hands and families’ hands to ... understand if they feel the same way we do” about the technology’s usefulness in practice, she said.

The company will likely subject each participant’s product to a similar testing process, she said.

Working with GetWellNetwork could give ViiMed a leg-up into its existing distribution channel, according to ViiMed founder and chief executive Phil Newman. Though the company’s product was originally designed to let sports coaches and athletes train virtually using video chats, today, the company uses the software to help physicians and patients communicate.

GetWellNetwork’s software already reaches physicians and patients, Newman said — it could take years for ViiMed to break into the health-care market on its own, especially in hospital systems whose sales cycles are historically slow.

Even if GetWellNetwork decides not to acquire software from incubator participants, “I have the sense that we’ll either share the information to tweak [the software] to make them applicable in our setting ... or I think we’ll have some ongoing partnership where we’ll continue to work alongside them,” O’Neil said.