Most promising digital health startups in 2020

Good startups arise where there are challenges to be solved, and the healthcare industry’s unsustainability, talent shortage, and silos — especially in America — seems to be a perfect soil for entrepreneurs. There are, of course, rather lots of roadblocks: sceptical healthcare stakeholders, long sales cycles adoption issues, regulations to be considered and, in general, a vibe of hesitancy and risk-aversion. But, according to multiple research, new circumstances of health end-customers and immersive burden providers and life sciences organizations are experiencing due to legacy administrative software cannot be overlooked anymore: the digital health market, being a helper, is forecasted to reach $509.2 billion by 2025. Startups will take a significant part in this growth.

Now, 2019 ends, and we’re looking at what is to expect of them next year. What are the most promising digital health startups in 2020 — and what technologies do they use? In this article, we’ll briefly try to answer this question.

Consumer-facing startups focused on health management & patient empowerment

Mental health. We are finally treating mental health issues seriously: at least, we’re trying to. Surely, the rise of mHealth apps that helps people deal with them partly due to stigma around the topic: you’re ashamed to talk about it, so you’re installing the Replica. But the awareness and education campaigns largely supported by World Health Organizations work as well.

Now, in July of 2019 Uplift Health — a company that treats depression through the employment of cognitive-behavioural therapy in a personalized way, helping users with gamification and coaching, landed $1 million. Way of treating depression, used in an app, is confirmed to be effective by multiple sources. Meru Health is another good example of mental-health focused apps: backed by Y Combinator, it’s supported by therapists, and a lot of tests and clinical studies to prove the efficiency of its 12-week program, directed on dealing with burnout, depression, and anxiety. It has 89% of engagement (in the 12-week program. Imagine that!) and two peer-reviewed papers.

DynamiCare Health, on the other hand, deals with other issue: recovering from addiction. Behavioural changes are hard to reach, and this startup automates Contingency Management techniques (positive rewards — financial, in DynamicCare’s case — to change behaviours) and provides users with substance tests, ability to schedule appointments, telemedicine, and communication platform for chats with the community.

These are a perfect example of new digital health consumer-facing startups that will lead the way to better population health — despite the fact the funding wasn’t a lot. Early times of “revolution 4.0” were — and still are, sadly, — flooded with fraud and Silicon Valley move fast thinking, but in 2019 and further it becomes obvious there will be no improvement without proof-based innovation.

Another big trend in aliment-specific platforms in digital health of 2020 will be apps and other solutions for people with chronic pain and seniors (these often correlate). Chronic pain management has a tight connection with mental health issues, as the latter follows the former, — so similar tools as gamification apps, community support, telemedicine and CBT might be employed. Other approaches exist, too: for instance, startup Karuna Labs, that recently raised $3M in seed, utilizes “virtual embodiment training” in VR program for users to break the connection between different body movements and pain. Basically, Karuna’s VR allows them to move without knowing they are in their body, and if it’s not their body — therefore, there could be a possibility they might not feel pain. We stan. Very cool.

Digital health startups that combine AI and biomarkers

Data-driven technologies’ efficiency hugely depends on the quality and quantity of data and its interpretation, and there is often no easy way to employ existing scientific evidence in there. Machine learning models are also extremely sensitive to changes in training sets: when a model performs perfectly on a distilled set of training data and starts to give wrong predictions on messy actual data. It’s called overfitting — when you repeat your question to Siri for the third time, — and it has no place in healthcare. Simply technology is not enough—and human experience-based analytical engines are needed. Startups who recognize this fact get recognized by investors.

Biomarkers, though, are indicators of the presence or absence of disease; a parameter, used for measure. So startups that combine AI and biomarker are those who use different devices (phones’ mics and cameras, sensors, etc.) as a tracker of certain parameters: wearables are most obvious here. But tech isn’t limited to them.

For instance, using voice as a biomarker, Aural Analytics landed its $4.3 million in seed funding. The idea behind their product is to track changes in users’ brain health through how they talk (like how migraines change the way people talk). They build their solution with a basis on NIH and NSF funded research that has been running for 25 years (another word for evidence-based products, yeah?). Another startup gaining funding (though on A stage, still worth mentioning) is Winterlight Labs: they’re creating speech-based AI product as well, to figure out the chances of cognitive or functional decline before they appear — and allow users to act on it.

Feebris, on the other hand, uses AI engine and sensors like stethoscopes and pulse oximeters to track body movements — in particular, the startup focuses on respiratory health. Feebris’ CEO, Elina Naydenova, pioneers for equity in healthcare, saying Feebris will help those who treat illness at home — due to any reason — detect signs of deteriorating and go to the hospital or receive the support of physicians’ community while things are manageable. Feebris also concentrates on kids and seniors’ health, and it’s been chosen for Google for Startups’ AI for Good program.

Figur8, a platform that got $7.5M in seed in August (and launched back then, too), also uses body movement as biomarkers. Figure8’ sensor technology tracks movements and visualizes them in 3D through light, portable sensors; no camera is needed — which is a novelty for visualization-involved tech. CEO of the company, Nan-Wei Gong, aimed at giving physicians and patients a tool that will allow them to grasp an accurate understanding the latter move — and build personalized recovery/improvement program on the data basis.

Startups to optimize clinician workflow & increase accuracy and value of care

This year, we heard (and wrote) a lot about legacy systems providers are working with and how to make them better. Poor EHR experience is linked with burnout and depression, those lead to mistakes in diagnosis and low patients satisfaction and bad health outcomes and… You got the idea. So, where challenge lives, startups arise.

AI and automation to optimize. There is Vital among new digital health startups to follow in 2020. Basically, they build an alternative for EHR, but for the emergency department, both patient-facing app where they can check-in and get an estimation on how long they should wait for admission; and ED-clinician-facing app, that is designed for the emergency room, specifically. The latter also uses AI that analyzes symptoms patients put in the app and evaluates if admission is needed, helps them choose and coordinate diagnostic tools and tests, and quicken data entry.

Robots are also there for clinicians. Diligent Robotics and its robot, Moxi, has received $3M in seed funding. Moxi helps nurses with non-patient facing tasks. Moxi can learn from humans: it’s programmed to constantly analyze and adjust to changing environments through auditory, visual, and haptic inputs. Being in continuous testing/improvement since 2018, Moxi already gained recognition by many: Moxy does logistics job like lab sample transportation and saves nurses up to 30% of their time.

Interoperability & API solutions. Another platform for care coordination is Olio; they received seed funding in March of 2019. Olio connects hospitals and post-acute providers bridging the gap between those two and improving both communications between them and value their combined effort can provide to patients.

This year was also pretty prominent for API developers — and, as the tendency towards more interoperability continues, we expect API startups to continue growing as well. In February, 1upHealth got $2.38 million in seed. They build data aggregation and centralization platform that allows patients, clinicians, and IT healthcare professionals share data over API; including patient data from different EHRs, that are very siloed and disconnected. 1upHealth’s team integrated more than 280 health systems into one place—with these data, software developers that build consumer-facing apps can focus on designing interactions and building useful features, not on “how to get access to X’s records.”

Startups for non-invasive diagnostics and treatment kits

As healthcare is moving towards better accessibility and availability, more and more kits, tools, and apps for self-diagnosics appear. As an example, we love Tivic Health Systems’ ClearUP for allergy: recently, it gained $8 million in seed. It stimulates nerves with a low current which provides relief for the sinus pain. Despite the fact this device isn’t about prevention, we still admire the idea (considering the fact that a tremendous amount of people struggle with allergies and are obligated to go outside in spring, you know?).

Final word

As a conclusion, we want to mention two things.

First: we choose the best digital health startups of 2020 among those who received seed funding in 2019’s first three quarters (one Series A exception, guilty as charged). Seed stage is telling due to high risks: when investors are willing to fund your startups at the seed stage, you’ve presented solid evidence on the value and efficiency of Your Thing; strong leadership, team, and knowledge of the industry.

We’ll be watching these startups in the future. Although, we need to mention that there was a bias involved; we like what these people do and wish them all the luck.

Two: one startup we’ve chosen is Elektra Labs. We delayed mentioning Elektra because we’ll use it to make a point right here. Gaining 2.9$ million in seed funding, Electra Labs creates a platform — Atlas — that will help different participants of healthcare process to choose among different connected health technologies — wearables — on the basis of their security, accuracy, bias, and other parameters. As we’ve mentioned before, there has to be clinical proof for your product to be successful, and it’s only logical that 2019 ends (well, almost ends) with the appearance of the platform. Too many frauds in the field where too much is at stake.

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