Digital Health is Underfunded

digital health is underfundedOverall venture capital funding made a sharp decline in the last two quarters amid worries (justifiable or not) of a bear market and a funding bubble in technology investments. In contrast to the tech market, however, digital health funding continues to grow at a record pace. According to Rock Health, $4.5B was invested in digital health in 2015 (an increase from $4.3B from 2014) and $981 million has already been invested in the first quarter of this year. It seems on pace to be another stellar year, which is remarkable considering what is going on in other sectors.

Many are skeptical about the investment potential of healthcare technology investments and have been wary to enter the market (perhaps especially so with all the negative media that companies like Theranos and Zenefits have attracted). Additionally, regulatory barriers and the longer timeline needed with healthcare innovations tend to scare potential investors away.  But anyone familiar with the sad state of technology in healthcare can see, even with the record-breaking investments thus far, that there continues to be an enormous untapped opportunity in healthcare–greater, I believe, than in any other sector.

Digital health is vastly underfunded.

Technology is taking over most of our personal and professional lives with indispensable apps, wearables, and other connected devices and software. At home, we have smart appliances, lighting, thermostats, security systems, media systems, and even smart cars. And we have Siri, Cortana, and Alexa doing our bidding. But in healthcare, we’re still in the Stone Ages in terms of technology. Communication via faxes, for example, is still common between hospitals and doctors offices. There are small glimmers of hope, such as patient portals, higher-functionality EMR systems, and telehealth services, but the fact is that we are still a far cry from the ideal vision for healthcare, which includes a seamless cloud-based network of devices and software that can track and record a vast spectrum of patient information, the ultimate goal being the use of computational technology to help prevent, predict, diagnose, and yes, even treat disease. Ultimately, collecting information on large populations of patients could have profound impact through public health measures that can prevent disease and thereby reduce healthcare costs. This can only be accomplished with a wide-spread network of software and devices, that includes electronic health records, wearables, devices based in the hospital, office, and at-home, and with telehealth capabilities. In addition, there are too few companies working to collect, store, manage, and interpret health data.

There is still a lot that needs to be done.

According to MarketResearch.com, the healthcare “internet of things” (IoT) is expected to reach $117B by the year 2020. The fact is, the full potential of digital health won’t be seen until every hospital and doctor’s office and home is connected via cloud-based devices and software and with the development of machine learning platforms that can make sense of the reams of health information.

It is a little challenging to think of all of this in the abstract, so here are a few examples of the potential of the healthcare IoT. Imagine that a spike in certain population health data (like temperature) is detected in a region of the country that alerts public health officials to early to a disease outbreak that can then be contained to prevent an epidemic. Imagine that a change in an individual’s biometric data alerts that person to seek medical care, detecting a life-threatening disease, like cancer, early and improving the chances of cure. Imagine chronic health conditions like diabetes are monitored routinely and continuously with real-time blood glucose levels, with immediate adjustment by doctors of insulin dosages, thereby preventing hospitalizations due to uncontrolled diabetes, and also preventing long-term diabetic complications, such as kidney disease.

These are only a few examples.  There are countless other opportunities in healthcare.

In addition to the opportunity to improve healthcare delivery, there is the opportunity to improve the quality of care through tools that provide greater communication and transparency of information with patients and improve care coordination between the providers of those patients. And by changing the focus of medical care to prevention and early diagnosis of disease, there is the opportunity to decrease the outrageous cost of healthcare as well, by decreasing the need for excessive medication, surgery, unnecessary visits, and hospitalizations. According to the Commonwealth Fund, in the US we spend an outsized proportion of our GDP on healthcare versus other countries. Other developed countries spend between 8.8%-11.6% to our 17% of GDP, related in part to better-connected health IT networks.

It’s hard to fathom how much digital health tech is needed to serve a US population of 318 million and a global population of 7 billion, but one thing is certain: the market is huge.  We should stay bullish on health tech investments now, and probably for a long while to come.

 

The Billionaire Doctor Who Plans to Cure Cancer

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Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to billionaire surgeon-inventor Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong about his plans, both private and through the Cancer Moonshot 2020, to cure cancer.

Soon-Shiong, who made his fortune by founding and selling two pharmaceutical companies, has gathered a group of pharmaceutical companies, academic institutions, and insurers to spur cancer research and to attempt to make breakthrough gains by the year 2020. This effort dovetails with the Obama administration’s $1B plan to fund cancer research led by Vice President Joe Biden, whose son, Beau, recently died after a long struggle with brain cancer.

Soon-Shiong’s path to cancer research began while doing research for NASA that involved harnessing stem cells to make insulin. He stumbled upon a paper that reported that the binding of zinc to the blood protein albumin is what transposes it into pancreatic islet cells, enabling the production of insulin.  This discovery led to an “aha” moment.   “A light bulb went on. In fact you should feed the tumor, not stop the tumor.  And if you could take a nanoparticle of albumin and attach Taxol [a common cancer drug] at the core, then it [the tumor] would take up the albumin and kill itself, like rat poison.”  This revelation led to his creation of the cancer drug Abraxane, or albumin-bound paclitaxel (Taxol).  Abraxane is used currently in a wide variety of cancers, including breast, lung and pancreatic cancer. “To this day, oncologists don’t understand the mechanism of action of Abraxane,” he said,  “They think of it as another form of Taxol.”  According to Soon-Shiong, Abraxane works so well is because the binding to the blood protein albumin allows it to penetrate cancer tissues better.

Abraxane has had huge clinical and commercial success, but he says the path to getting there wasn’t easy.  Initially, after developing Abraxane, he approached large pharmaceutical companies but was unable to gain support despite showing that it had remarkable results in animal models.  He was forced to make the painful decision to leave a secure academic career to risk launching his own company.  His risk paid off.  He ultimately founded both APP Pharma and Abraxis BioScience to support his work.  In the end, APP Pharma was sold to Fresenius SE for $4.6B and Abraxis BioScience was sold to Celgene for $4.5B.  Then, in 2011, he founded NantWorks, a holding company with a portfolio of firms to pursue his diverse entrepreneurial interests.  One of these is NantHealth, a company that has developed a fully integrated digital health platform to collect and analyze genomics and proteomics data on cancer research patients.

Soon-Shiong, a bit of an heretic in the world of oncology, has ideas that veer from the traditional approach to cancer treatment.  One example is how he wants to harness patients’ natural immune abilities to treat their cancers.  “As we sit here speaking, we are creating 10,000 cancer cells a day.  And the natural killer cells in your body are monitoring it and killing it,” he said, “Cancer is a normal evolutionary process.  And guess how we’re trained as oncologists?  To give you the maximal tolerated dose of drugs to kill those natural killer cells that are protecting you, which makes no sense.  This is the dogma in oncology and even in drug development.”

He’d like to see drugs given at lower doses to cause what he calls “cytostress” instead of “cytotoxicity”.  The natural killer cells of our bodies look for cells that are under stress (by detecting distinct proteins and enzymes that are released) and then destroy those cells.  He suggests that chemotherapy should be administered at what he calls the “lowest effective dose” instead of the much higher “maximal therapeutic dose” typically given in clinical trials for cancer.  The lowest effective dose, he argues, won’t completely wipe out patients’ immune systems, and thereby allow patients’ natural killer cells to target “cytostressed” cancer cells.  He argues that this approach will revolutionize cancer treatment and lead to more cures and cites numerous personal anecdotes when this approach has worked for his patients.

Unfortunately, for the time being, he’s had a difficult time convincing oncologists and drug companies to move away from what he calls the “schizophrenic dichotomy” of treating with the maximal therapeutic dose that destroys natural immune function.

Another challenge to finding a cure for cancer, according to Soon-Shiong, is developing health IT systems to support cancer research.  “Cancer is really a rare disease,” he said, “Because of the molecular signature, because of the heterogeneity, no single institution will have enough data about any [single] cancer.  So you actually need to create a collaborative overarching global connected system.”  He continued, “The problem is now you have the other obstacle to the advance of medicine and the cure of cancer…it is going to be bombastic, dogmatic IT.”  In order to solve this problem, Soon-Shiong is collaborating with other health IT experts in the Commonwell Alliance to facilitate the development of the digital architecture needed to support the interoperability of electronic medical records.

His critics question the sheer breadth of the projects he’s begun under his NantWorks empire, but Soon-Shiong seems too consumed with making his ideas a reality to worry about critics.  At a time when one might expect him to retire, he seems to be only just beginning. “At this point in my career, it’s just:  let’s show that there are patients that are alive.  Let’s show we’ve created less suffering in cancer patients and then expand it globally.”

Featured Startup: Blondin Bioscience

blondinCancer treatment is a frustrating waiting game at the present time.  Patients with solid tumors often undergo brutal chemotherapy cycles for weeks to months before they can get an idea (through radiologic examination) of whether their therapy has been working to shrink their tumor.  At times, the studies show the therapy is working , but at other times, the studies may show that in fact, treatment may be failing, allowing the cancer to grow.  This delay in diagnosis in cancer treatment is what the life sciences startup Blondin Bioscience hopes to correct.

Blondin Bioscience is a company that is currently developing a point-of-care molecular diagnostic assay which they hope will disrupt the traditional current model of care for cancer patients.  Their test, which is called FACT (fluorescent analysis of cell-free telomeres), has the ability to detect a nucleic acid biomarker (telomeres) in the blood that is released from dying cancer cells.  Blondin Bioscience proposes that this test can be used as an adjunct to cancer treatment, allowing oncologists to monitor the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatment in real-time–days, not weeks or months–and thereby, be able to quickly direct treatments and improve outcomes for patients.  Additional benefits are the cheaper cost versus radiologic studies and cost savings from potentially avoiding ineffective treatments, as well as easier access, as this test could be made available in doctors’ offices versus having to make patients travel to centralized, larger hospitals and centers in order to have radiologic studies.  Patients would also know sooner whether their treatment is working, thereby decreasing the emotional toll of cancer treatment.

Blondin Bioscience is based in Birmingham, Alabama, and is lead by Chief Executive Officer Brad Spencer, and founders Dr. Katri Selander and Dr. Kevin Harris, who are both Assistant Professors of Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and are members of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center.  Their leadership team also includes Director of Research Dr. Kate Hayden and Director of Operations Kathleen Hamrick.

Thus far, Blondin Bio has raised $750,000 from an NIH SBIR grant and has been studying their testing method in a clinical trial for prostate cancer, but hopes to scale in order to test other cancer types.

For more information, please visit their website here:  Blondin Bioscience.

(Disclosure:  Blondin Bioscience is a client of my consulting practice.)

It’s Time For ‘Gender Lens Investing’ in Healthcare

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Today I had the opportunity to speak very briefly at a White House-sponsored roundtable called the “Impact of Gender/Sex on Innovation and Novel Technologies (iGIANT)” in Cambridge, MA.  Other partners for this event were the American Medical Women’s Association, Boston Scientific, and Medstro.  This is what I shared.

What I’ve found while working in the digital health space is that there is a significant lack of women in the healthcare investment industry. Though women make 80% of healthcare decisions in families, and despite women making up 78% of the healthcare workforce, we are sorely underrepresented among investment and corporate leadership. In the digital health space, only 6% of CEOs of startups are women. That, I believe, reflects the fact that only 6% of venture capitalists are women. While we don’t like to admit it, money is power. And if women don’t have access to the purse strings that fund innovations, then of course, innovations that concern women and that can impact women’s health are going to be underfunded and underrepresented.

What I’d like to see is more healthcare and academic institutions, in the public and private sectors, committing to what’s called “gender lens investing”, making it a criteria to invest with gender equity in mind. This may mean making an effort to engage with only those investment and venture capital firms that commit to diversity, have adequate female representation, and make a commitment to try to invest in projects that interest and can benefit women.

I believe that more diverse teams will translate to improved health innovations that can benefit more diverse groups of people. Diverse investors lead to diverse founders and companies; diverse companies lead to diverse innovations; diverse innovations are what serve diverse stakeholders.  And that is what will ultimately lead to equity, not just in terms of gender equity, but also racial/ethnic equity.

This cultural change could be facilitated through a policy recommendation, perhaps through a white paper study or policy brief on the matter, and also by all of us here urging individuals and organizations at every level to invest their funds more conscientiously and in a mission-driven manner with gender equity in mind.  Thank you.

Ref:

  1. “The State of Women in Healthcare”, Rock Health, March 2015
  2. “Venture Capital’s Next Venture? Women”, Tech Crunch, June 2015
  3. “Investing for Positive Impact on Women”, Croatan Institute, Nov 2015

 

GV’s Approach to Healthcare Investing: An Interview with Dr. Krishna Yeshwant

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Please note:  This article was originally published on TechCrunch.com.

Healthcare investments — in particular, investments in digital health — are booming, and don’t seem to be slowing down. According to CB Insights, digital health funding hit nearly $5.8 billion in venture funding last year, surpassing the previous record of $4.3 billion in 2014.

One of the top venture firms, GV (previously known as Google Ventures), recently came out with their year in review, revealing that more than one-third of their investments are in the life sciences and healthcare. (They currently have $2.4 billion under management.) “I can think of no more important mission than to improve human health and global quality of life,” CEO Bill Maris said in a recent announcement.

One of the strengths of the GV life science and health investment team is having a diverse mix of PhDs and MDs as investors, including general partner Dr. Krishna Yeshwant. Yeshwant continues to practice internal medicine part-time at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and credits that with helping to keep him in touch with the challenges facing healthcare.

I recently sat down with Yeshwant to talk about GV’s investment strategy.

Yeshwant started his career, interestingly, studying computer science at Stanford. From there, he helped found two tech companies, which were eventually acquired by Hewlett-Packard and Symantec. He could have successfully continued on his path in tech, but decided instead to go to medical school after his father became ill and needed a cardiac bypass. “I remember just being in the hospital thinking this is just messed up. There are so many areas for improvement,” he said.

He went on to pursue an MD-MBA at Harvard. During this time, he became involved in a lot of medical-device work, and even started a diagnostics company. This work eventually led him to work with Bill Maris at Google Ventures.

Thus far, one of GV’s largest investments has been with Flatiron Health, an oncology-focused technology company based in New York City. According to Yeshwant, the concept was developed by two former Google employees who received support from GV. “Flatiron is basically integrating EMR’s (electronic medical records) in the outpatient and hospital setting,“ said Yeshwant, “and it provides data back to physicians as well as aggregating data to aid with discovery and help with regulatory processes.”

Others have also recognized Flatiron’s enormous potential. Flatiron recently announced they received $175 million in Series C funding from Roche Pharmaceuticals. In addition to the funding, Roche plans to be a subscriber to Flatiron’s software platform. Their hope is to use the platform to identify and bring innovative treatments to market faster.

Yeshwant strongly believes in the need for more tech solutions in healthcare like Flatiron Health. “There’s a fundamental need for infrastructure. A single disease type of lung cancer is actually lots of diseases. Other more complex diseases are going to need more data sets, multisite trials, and we need to create infrastructure for that,” he said.

It’s hard to argue with him on that point. Massive amounts of biometric data are being collected in healthcare right now, but there aren’t nearly enough tools for storage, communication and analysis of that data. There’s a great deal of opportunity for healthcare startups that can specialize in data management and analysis.

Three such companies in which GV has invested in this space are Metabiota, which provides risk analytics to prevent and reduce epidemics; Zephyr Health, which uses global health data and machine learning to provide treatment insights to pharma and medical device companies; and DNAnexus, a company that helps companies store their genetic information.

“Once you’re in a world where you can scale up and down your computational analysis, you can ask lots of simultaneous questions of your aggregated data sets and that’s well suited to the cloud environment,” said Yeshwant. “We invest heavily in those spaces.”

Besides software-based companies, GV is investing in a diverse range of other types of companies in healthcare and the life sciences. One such area is the genomics space. Thus far, GV has made major investments in Editas, a CRISPR gene-editing company; 23andMe, which offers chromosomal analysis to consumers; and Foundation Medicine, a company that offers genomic analysis of various cancers.

Yeshwant also feels one of the biggest challenges (and opportunities) in healthcare is helping healthcare organizations shift from fee-for-service to fee-for-value. “That’s the direction we’re going,” he said. “How do we migrate big systems in that direction? That’s the fundamental question.”

GV therefore has made some significant investments in companies that are shaking up the traditional provider model, including the telemedicine company Doctor on Demand and the innovative primary care provider, One Medical Group. “Anything you can do to move healthcare from a high cost setting to a low cost setting is generally going to be successful in that model,” said Yeshwant. “Telemedicine is a good example of that. We have a company called Spruce Health which is essentially asynchronous care. Value based care is a big area for us.” (Spruce Health is a platform for dermatologic care.)

Yeshwant hinted that future projects may be in the areas of population health and chronic disease management, investment in companies that engage consumers directly and possibly even some work in women’s health. One thing’s for sure: We can expect more exciting things to come in 2016 and beyond for GV.

 

 

Walgreens: Investing in the Power of the Patient

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Thanks in part to Affordable Care Act reforms and the rise of digital health, patients now have more skin in the game, more health care tools at their disposal, and more information than ever before to take charge of their own health.

Dr. Harry Leider, CMO and Group VP of Walgreens, speaking on a panel at last week’s Digital Healthcare Innovation Summit in Boston, said health care providers must find a way to adapt to the schedules and demands of patients, who have more say over how their health care dollars – and their time – are spent.

“Traditional providers are learning that they [patients] are not willing to take a half-day off from work, figure out what to do with their kids, to get routine care,” he told the panelists. “People are busier, the information technology has made it easier to get solutions without having to spend a half-day somewhere.”

It’s no surprise, then, that pharmacy retailers are placing big bets on consumer-facing health care opportunities.

In the past few years, the pharmacy-services giant CVS Health has made big investments in this area, dropping tobacco sales, expanding its MinuteClinics, and also establishing a drug ad-herence program. Now with Walgreens’ recent announcement of its $9.4 billion acquisition of Rite Aid Pharmacies, it has effectively overtaken CVS to become the leader with 46.5% of the market to CVS’ 30.9% share.

But Walgreens is looking to get bigger on the back end as well. Also, just this week it announced an upgrade to their mobile app which improves its functionality and also expands their telehealth services to 25 states (previously available in only 5 states). Walgreens’ other health care investments hint at its level of commitment, including its partnership with controversial laboratory services company Theranos and a recent announcement that it has partnered with health information tech giant Epic to install that firm’s electronic health record software across all of its health care clinics.

Walgreens is banking on its huge presence to provide easy and convenient access to the next generation of health care consumers. “Everybody knows Walgreens,” Leider said. “We have 8,300 stores, 25,000 pharmacies, and over 1,000 nurse practitioners in our clinics.” He also emphasized that half of Walgreens are located in ethnically diverse areas, with a large number of especially high-risk populations, which gives them a unique opportunity to influence health care outcomes. “Take the average diabetic patient. Diabetes is an epidemic in our country, but especially among diverse populations. First of all, a diabetic, if they’re lucky, sees a primary care doctor two to three times a year. The average diabetic comes to our pharmacy counter 20 times a year. So the opportunity to provide systems that can solve problems is greater because of this.”

Walgreens has started a digitally supported Healthy Choices Program, which rewards consum-ers for walking, weighing themselves, logging blood pressure and blood glucose levels, commit-ting to smoking cessation, and setting other health goals. In addition, it offers digital health coaching, pharmacy checks, and even virtual doctor visits.

Roughly 800,000 people have signed up, Leider said. About 500,000, of those patients are sharing their personal health data with Walgreens. What the company has found thus far from its collection of these data is that engaged users (who are actively tracking their weight) lost an average of 3.3 pounds more than non-engaged users and 1 out of 6 lost more than 10 lbs. In addition, Walgreens found that its engaged users have overall healthier behaviors and better drug adherence.

Still, he’s not a blind advocate of digital health: “I don’t think digital health alone can solve the problems you’re talking about.” Leider insists that Walgreens is not trying to usurp the tradition-al establishment but rather be a resource to providers. “We really see ourselves as supporting traditional providers and adding value to the ecosystem. We’re not gearing ourselves up to do primary care,” he said. “So our strategy really is to provide a low-cost option for care and to partner with health systems and providers.”

Going forward, Dr. Leider would like to see a greater transition to value-based care. “Despite what everybody’s saying, most providers are still trying to keep the beds full and have the most number of visits. So, for all this tech to be funded and sustainable, it’s got to be the right envi-ronment to really reward people for staying well.”

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This article was originally published at www.digitalhealthcaresummit.com.  

Don’t Count Out Theranos

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The past few weeks haven’t been easy for Theranos, the pioneer hoping to make blood diagnostics a whole lot easier.

A scathing account by The Wall Street Journal, followed by some troubling documents released by the FDA, armed critics of the upstart start-up. The company clearly needs to counter these charges and demonstrate efficacy of its tests and the soundness of its business model.

However, change isn’t easy even in an industry like blood testing, which must be disrupted. We are literally still drawing vials and vials of blood for laboratory tests. This procedure seems only a shade better than the days of medical bloodletting with leeches. Also, these tests are notoriously expensive and have slow turnaround times.

What if Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes is on to something here?

What if her vision of easier, faster and cheaper blood testing is really possible? Wouldn’t we all like to see that? Blood testing is a very fundamental aspect of medicine and improving the current antiquated process has the potential to truly transform health care in a big way. Imagine how many more people might be compliant with their blood tests with this type of testing. Imagine how much faster we’d get results in critical situations, and how many lives might be saved. Imagine how much we could save our very wasteful and expensive health care system by making this process cheaper.

Before you say it’s impossible, let’s remember that the FDA did approve one of Theranos’ tests via its nanotainer technology, a test for the herpes simplex virus (HSV). That is an impressive feat, and quite frankly, I’d really like to see what other tests Theranos has been able to do via its tiny nanotainers. According to Holmes, the firm has something on the order of 120 tests submitted for approval with the FDA. Squash them now and the world may never know.

The media frenzy circling Theranos is unfortunate, and we should all hope it won’t kill off something that could really transform health care for the better. We shouldn’t be trying to protect the status quo in our dysfunctional health care system. Instead, we should be less hasty to judge Theranos.

Let’s keep in mind when we read media reports that there are a lot of stakeholders embedded in the health care industry – from equipment makers to laboratories to walk-in clinics and pharmacies – that might like to see Elizabeth Holmes fail. Some of these players currently own the market. That means they dictate the availability, the turnaround times, and yes, the price of these tests. Sure, maybe they could innovate also, but there’s inherently less motivation when you’re already a market leader. How about we introduce some competition to drive prices down and introduce more motivation to innovate?

Theranos, admittedly, has a lot of work to do. It is trying to disrupt the entire laboratory industry, while currently having just one FDA-approved test. I’m hoping more of its technology will meet FDA approval. In the meantime, it makes business sense to offer venous blood draws. If the company wants to capture enough of the market, it needs to offer the full spectrum of services to customers, be it using its proprietary technology or the industry standard.

As for Holmes, I can’t blame her for being protective of her nascent company. Unfortunately, people tend to be suspicious of things they don’t know much about, so that approach is not going to work anymore. Her challenge in the coming months will be how to effectively share more information with the media and increase transparency, now that she and Theranos are much more in the public eye.

There’s reason for optimism, not paranoia, about Theranos. Let’s allow some room for its visionary leader to carry out her ambitions. Maybe, just maybe, she’s on to something that can change health care, and the world, for the better.

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Conflict-of-interest disclosure:

I have no financial or other ties to Theranos or Elizabeth Holmes. My biases include wanting to see positive health care change and more women leaders. The opinions I’ve expressed here are my own and not those of any of my employers or affiliates.

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This article was originally published at www.digitalhealthcaresummit.com.

Investing in Problem-Solving, Not Product: PureTech’s “Proactive” Approach

PureTech Health (PRNewsFoto/PureTech Health)

Step into the sixth floor offices of PureTech Health in downtown Boston and you may feel that you’ve dropped into a rabbit hole and right into a lush wonderland of wall-to-wall greenery. It’s a surprising interior for the otherwise nondescript office building on the heavily trafficked Boylston Street.

But the unique décor might provide a clue about how this innovative company, run by CEO Daphne Zohar, operates. Referred to as an intellectual property (IP) commercialization company, one of a rare breed seen in the U.S., it licenses and develops health tech and life sciences patents from academic and independently-run labs. The model is common in the U.K.–PureTech Health went public on the London Stock Exchange this past May, raising nearly $200 million—but is radically different from how typical biopharma or venture capital firms operate.

“We start with the problem–take obesity or other disorders, like schizophrenia, ADHD–where we feel like there really isn’t a very good way to address it, and we bring together a network of 50 plus experts from around the globe, people who have really thought deeply about this problem and others who may be in slightly different disciplines,” explains Julie DiCarlo, PureTech’s SVP of Communciations and Investor Relations. “They look at the problem from different perspectives and start vetting potential technologies or science to address it. So it’s really different than a company that might say, ‘Here’s a really cool technology that we want to invest in.’”

After the think tank identifies potentially useful innovations, PureTech tests the concepts to see if previously reported results are reproducible. DiCarlo adds, “From there, we might find that there’s one that really stands out as a really potentially exciting and game-changing opportunity and if it passes all of our rigorous tests, we’ll start a company around it.”

This process of search and discovery has lead to the founding of some of the most innovative healthcare-focused companies, with diverse treatments ranging from drugs and biologics, to devices and digital health.

Akili Interactive Labs develops video game therapies for treating cognitive disorders, which have been found to improve cognitive ability and executive function among the elderly. In the future, Akili hopes to also develop treatments for those suffering from disorders like ADHD, autism and depression.

Vedanta Biosciences hopes to treat autoimmune and infectious diseases by modulating a patient’s microbiome. At this stage, Vedanta is isolating specific strains of organisms in order to learn which combinations result in particular, desired phenotypic expressions and outcomes.

Gelesis has developed an oral hydrogel capsule for the treatment of obesity (and related disorders, such as diabetes) which works mechanically, causing early satiety and decreased appetite, before dissolving and being eliminated by the body.

Tal Medical is working on a tabletop medical device (modeled like a much smaller MRI machine) that has been shown to rapidly reverse depression through neurostimulation. A single treatment with the device has been found to have an effect equal to four to six weeks of traditional pharmacologic treatment.

PureTech has 12 companies currently in their portfolio with a goal to add an additional one to two each year. Although each is independently-run, they are all majority-owned by PureTech, sometimes for the long-term. This approach allows for more flexibility than at a typical life sciences or VC firm. These companies have the potential to become completely independent, be sold to larger biopharmas, develop partnerships with other healthcare organizations, or may be retained by PureTech to continue growing the company’s product lines.

Executive Vice President of Science and Technology Erik Elenko calls PureTech’s approach “100 percent proactive.” “Think about a typical entrepreneur who has one technology and they [sic] get really excited about it but there could be 10 others out there. We’re reaching out to people, we’re not having companies come and pitch us…The key is that you start with a problem and come up with a solution, rather than investing in a technology which may or not be useful.”

The company also draws on a large, interdisciplinary panel of experts—including outside experts in addition to members of its own scientific advisory board—who look at complex healthcare problems from a multitude of angles. Among the most valuable and in-demand consultants are those working in digital health. According to Elenko, healthcare and IT have radically different cultures and “different ways of approaching the world,” so finding individuals that have connections in both worlds is invaluable in solving today’s complex healthcare challenges.

PureTech has ambitious plans for the future.

“If you look at our fundamental goal, it’s to solve the most difficult healthcare problems that exist through interdisciplinary and unexpected solutions,” shared Elenko. “Success is getting therapies to market for patients, reaching more patients through partners and helping patients by looking at their toughest problems.”

This article was originally published on MedTech Boston.


A Peek Inside the Harvard Forum on Health Care Innovation

Prof. John Quelch discussing the Bloodbuy case study.

The Harvard Forum on Health Care Innovation, a joint collaboration between Harvard Business School and Harvard Medical School, was recently held in Cambridge, Mass, on April 15-16, 2015. This private, invitation-only event assembled an elite group that included HBS and HMS alumni and faculty, as well as other key opinion leaders in healthcare. Cara Sterling, Director of HBS’s Health Care Initiative, who organized the event, shared that the goal for the event was to provide an opportunity for “people from different sectors to come together and talk freely” in order to “spur innovation in healthcare.”

One key aspect of the event was the introduction of the finalists of the HBS-HMS Health Acceleration Challenge, a contest that was launched to seek innovative, early-stage healthcare ventures that have great potential for transforming healthcare.

Out of a total of 478 applicants, 18 were selected as semi-finalists; from those, four of the brightest were chosen as finalists to share a $150,000 Cox Prize. They’ve also had an HBS case study written about them, and each team presented and received feedback at this year’s Forum. The final winner will be decided in a year’s time, by identifying the startup venture that is most successful in disseminating and scaling their healthcare solution.

Look out for the great work of these four finalists in the coming year:

  • Bloodbuy is a startup that aims to improve the efficiency and price transparency of the blood supply market by matching blood centers and hospitals through an online, cloud-based platform. In a pilot program, this system was found to decrease hospital costs by 23% while also decreasing the risk of blood shortages and the waste of blood products.
  • The I-Pass Patient Handoff Program is a training curriculum developed by six clinicians to improve the exchange of patient information between providers that occurs at the change of a shift. A research study of this intervention, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that use of I-Pass led to an impressive 30% reduction in medical errors.
  • Medalogix is a predictive analytics company that has created a product to that can assist those in the post-acute care sector to better identify hospice-eligible patients. Through working with Medalogix, clients have been able to successfully increase transfers to hospice from home health care and decrease the number of live discharges from hospice.
  • Twine Health is a startup that has created a cloud-based, collaborative care platform of the same name that enables providers to partner with their patients through coaches to provide seamless care and support for the management of chronic disease. In a recent clinical trial, Twine more efficiently helped patients achieve blood pressure control, which resulted in cost-savings (versus the traditional model of care).

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In addition to the Health Acceleration Challenge finalists, there was also an impressive line-up of healthcare experts that shared their thoughts throughout the two days in keynotes and panel discussions. Below are some of the highlights:

Value in Healthcare

Speaker Peter Orszag, Vice Chairman of Corporate and Investment Banking and Chairman of the Financial Strategy and Solutions Group at Citigroup, discussed three major structural forces that he feels will have a major affect on healthcare quality and spending, including the shift to value based payments, digitization of healthcare, and the increased role of the consumer in healthcare spending. He also discussed three big unknowns and their future impact on the heathcare cost curve, namely: future policy changes, increasing consolidation of the healthcare market, and emerging healthcare innovation.

A Blueprint for the Future

Mark Bertolini, Chairman and CEO of Aetna, gave a keynote speech entitled “A Blueprint for a 21st Century Health Care System” in which he highlighted five key measures that hold promise to improve healthcare:

  • System re-design that enables lower cost, higher quality care with increased access
  • Sophisticated health IT systems
  • Care optimization, especially to coordinate care for the 5 percent for whom most healthcare dollars are spent
  • Aligning economic incentives with healthcare goals
  • Increasing patient engagement.

Employers as Innovators

In an engaging panel discussion, moderator Bryan Roberts, Partner at Venrock, discussed the growing role of “employers as innovators” with expert panel members Ellen Exum, Director of Benefits/Global Design and Strategy at IBM; Adam Jackson, CEO and Cofounder of Doctor on Demand; Brian Marcotte, CEO and President of the National Business Group on Health; and Derek Newell, CEO of Jiff.

There was a robust discussion regarding the use of wearables and other tools as part of wellness programs to increase engagement and compliance, and to hopefully improve outcomes. One example was Adam Jackson’s Doctor on Demand which, for $40 per telehealth visit, has been found to decrease costs, decrease absenteeism, and increase productivity and morale.

Focus on Neurologic Disease

In a discussion with William Sahlman, Professor of Business Administration at HBS, Deborah Dunsire, MD, President and CEO of FORUM Pharmaceuticals shared her company’s mission of tackling neurological disease. Costs to society due to neurologic disease are great, she argued, not just in terms of direct costs, but also indirect costs – and there should be increased focus in developing treatments for these disorders. One significant challenge is the lack of mental health advocacy, which is an obstacle to obtaining funding for research.

The “Retail-ization” of Healthcare

Speaker Helena Foulkes, President of CVS/Pharmacy and Executive VP of CVS Health, shared the key factors that she feels are driving the “retail-ization” of healthcare:

  • Excessive spending on chronic disease
  • Increasing number of baby boomers on Medicare
  • Rising use of the internet to research health information online
  • Growing numbers of employers with high deductible plans.

She also shared the initiatives that CVS has begun to help tackle these problems, which include drug adherence programs, a focus on patients with the greatest needs, and integrating digital tools.

Dr. Watson Will See You Now

Speaker Mark Megerian, Senior Tech Staff Member at IBM Watson Solutions, shared the exciting (and for some, frightening) prospect of using machine learning and predictive analytics to make clinical recommendations via IBM’s Watson program.

Trained at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK), Watson has been shown to be capable of making recommendations similar to MSK oncologists, with 97 percent accuracy, for breast, colon, rectal, and lung cancers. They are now scaling to include other types of cancers and also to involve other organizations.

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Closing remarks were given by Dr. Jeffrey Flier, Dean of HMS, who shared that he feels healthcare delivery innovation has been sorely lacking, and that HMS and HBS are now deeply committed to medicine and entrepreneurship. Harvard hopes to lead healthcare innovation in the future. From the look of this year’s very promising Health Acceleration Challenge finalists, it seems his wish is likely to come true.

This article was originally published on MedTechBoston.com.