Hyping a digital health startup

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image via NY Times digital blog

HealthTap is a digital health app and website. It’s a useful way to get health and fitness information that is tailored to your interests. You can even get your specific questions answered by medical experts. I use it myself. In an effort to attract attention and even more users, however, HealthTap appears to have hyped or at least exaggerated its success.

HealthTap works by recruiting physicians (more than 50,000 participate) to answer questions posed by subscribers for free. The subscribers do not pay for the service. I’m not quite sure what their business model is, actually. The rationale for doctors to participate is that the physicians will be recognized (“thanked” in HealthTap parlance), their online reputation will be enhanced, and real life patients will come to them as a result.

After an interaction where a user asks a question and receives a response from a doctor, HealthTap asks the user to thank the doctor or HealthTap and prompts the user for more information. The extra information apparently includes responding with a click to a question like, “This answer saved my life.”

HealthTap keeps a record of all of the positive responses to the “saved my life” prompt and issued a press release when the tally got to 10,000. Nothing wrong with any of that, except there is no way to prove if the app/website/reply really did save a particular life.

As one physician commenter in the New York times article said, “after my third “This saved my life,” I investigated. It was for recommending antifungals for jock itch. Nice pat on the back, but lifesaving? Not!”

Although some of the the lifesaving claims may be legitimate, the touting of “10,000 lives saved so far” on HealthTap’s website seems vaguely desperate and hyped – not what I expect from a serious medical app.

HealthTap also provides a disclaimer on its website and app: “HealthTap does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.” The disclaimer is obviously there to avoid being treated as an FDA-regulated medical application. Of course, the FDA (and malpractice attorneys) will have the final say on that status. I don’t know how asking a specific medical question and having an answer provided by a physician avoids becoming medical advice.

HealthTap is competing with big players in the health information field. WebMD is the 800 pound gorilla and granddaddy of health information sites. I suppose the executives at HealthTap feel they have to be aggressive in order to create awareness and get users and doctors to take notice. Unfortunately, their real utility and service has been tainted by excessive marketing, in my opinion.

HealthTap appears to be a well-funded Silicon Valley startup. Its investors include luminaries like Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, Vinod Khosla, Esther Dyson, and more.

Postscript:  I removed the HealthTap app from my mobile phone because I thought the notifications it provided were too frequent and intrusive. I still receive an email every few days on the subjects I told HealthTap were important to me.

Takeaways: Yes, you need to be aggressive in marketing your startup. There is a lot of competition for mind share among similar startups all over the world, no matter how unique you believe your company/product/service to be.

No, you should not make up or exaggerate claims about your product. Perhaps it can be excused as puffery or marketing hype but healthcare companies are held to a higher standard than consumer products like beer or body wash.

Read more:

An App That Saved 10,000 Lives – NYTimes.com.

HealthTap.com

High tech medical device maker focuses on…China?

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image via axialexchange.com

High blood pressure is a significant societal health problem all over the world. Kona Medical is trying to address the huge hypertension population with a noninvasive ultrasound device that might eliminate the need to take daily blood pressure medication. In a somewhat unorthodox move, the company is focusing initially on China.

 

Last year, Medtronic acquired Ardian, another startup that is focused on the same clinical condition. Ardian, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, was purchased for $800 million.

From axialexchange.com:

The statistics for hypertension are stunning. 30% of US adults have hypertension (high blood pressure). Another 30% of Americans are pre-hypertensive. Less than half of those people with hypertension have their condition under control.  A fifth don’t know they have it. The annual price tag for direct medical expenses related to high blood pressure is $131 billion. This is driven in part by the 55 million doctor visits that are prompted by high blood pressure. High blood pressure is present in most first heart attacks (69%), first strokes (77%), and in people with congestive heart failure (74%). High blood pressure was listed as a primary or contributing cause of death for about 348,000 Americans in 2008.

Recent medical research has shown that ablation (destruction) of the nerves around the renal arteries can reduce blood pressure in patients with hypertension. A number of medical device companies are racing to commercialize products based on their proprietary technologies in order to take a lead in this evolving market.

Ardian uses radio frequency ablation delivered via catheter to the area of the renal arteries. Kona is using focused external ultrasound to deliver the therapeutic energy – they are calling it “surround sound.” In a superficial assessment, it appears that Kona has the edge since their technology is completely noninvasive while the Ardian technology could at best be described as minimally invasive.

Of course, what should really matter is which technology works best with the fewest side effect, not how the therapy is delivered. The “best” technology doesn’t always prevail in the medical device industry, however. Sometimes first to market gets and keeps the largest share while in other situations the best marketing prevails.

Kona has previously raised $40 million in venture capital earlier this year and in 2012.

Kona’s latest announcement, to use a new investment of $10 million to launch their product in China, is somewhat confusing. Yes, there are vast numbers of people in China and untold numbers with hypertension. Most, however, probably do not have the type of health insurance that would pay for a high tech solution. In its press release, the company said that their therapy has the promise of being delivered in an outpatient setting. Outpatient hypertension therapy clinics – now that’s a disruptive concept!

China is not a traditional launch market for new medical devices. The company says that the latest investment, from a fund with deep ties to China, will be used exclusively to address the many clinical, regulatory, and intellectual property issues unique to China as a medical device market for Kona’s new therapy.

It will be interesting to see if Kona can successfully launch their product into the Chinese market while simultaneously commercializing for the traditional U.S. or E.U. markets without losing focus or depleting key resources.

Takeaways: Most companies commercializing novel medical devices pick a launch market and stick with it. There are any number of reasons to launch in the U.S. first. Other companies pick the European Union countries and some look to large, less regulated countries in South America.

While many development and commercialization tasks are the same no matter which initial market is selected, there are important differences. It’s usually best to choose the first, second, and perhaps third initial markets so that the launch components are not uniquely different and the company can use scarce resources for other commercialization tasks.

 Read more: Kona Medical raises $10M to reduce high blood pressure for people in China – GeekWire.

Kona Medical

Teeny Tiny Pacemaker Fits Inside the Heart | IEEE Spectrum

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image via IEEE Spectrum

This leadless pacemaker is incredible technology. Not only did the company, Nanostim, reduce the size of the pacemaker by about 90% but it eliminated the often troublesome leads that are required in traditional pacemakers.

 

 

The stealthy company, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, was recently acquired by St. Jude Medical for $123-200 million (depending on milestones).

The new pacemaker has received European regulatory clearance but not FDA approval yet although it has received an FDA Investigational Device Exemption (IDE). A pivotal clinical trial is expected to begin soon in the U.S. while sales will begin in selected European countries very soon.

The device, about as big as a AAA battery, is implanted directly into the interior of the right ventricle of the heart. Electrodes on the exterior of the pacemaker provide electrical stimulation to the heart muscle. The device is implanted via a catheter inserted in the femoral artery. Removal occurs via the same route, only in reverse. Battery life is 9-13 years. The device has wireless communication capability so it can be programmed remotely.

Given the negative publicity and adverse events involving pacemaker lead fractures over the past years, leadless pacemakers appear to be an idea whose time has arrived. Of course, the idea has occurred to more than one inventor.

Here’s Medtronic’s take on the concept:

http://www.qmed.com/files/ck_images/large_Medtronic_leadless%20pacemaker.jpgMedtronic’s product concept is much smaller than a penny. Medtronic announced the device three years ago and said it would take 3-5 years before beginning human implants. They also said that the product concept included the ability to be programmed via a smartphone application.

 

image via qmed.com

 

 

Critics have pointed out that the Nanostim product and Medtronic device concept provide only single chamber pacing and are not rate-responsive – the most basic form of pacemaker.

It seems to me that the Nanostim device is classic disruptive technology. It provides a single function compared to the elaborate features of traditional pacemakers. It’s probably priced at a fraction of the price of complex pacemakers. As with other disruptive technologies, competitors ignore new entrants with low cost/performance at their peril. Given sufficient demand, I’m sure clinicians and engineers will figure out ways to make these “simple” devices perform all the functions of their bigger, older “brothers”.

On the positive side, no surgery is needed for implantation – a big plus with patients. And there are no potentially problematic leads to route. Other benefits from the patient’s standpoint are no activity restrictions, no surgical “pocket” for potential infections and no telltale bulge of the device under the collarbone. This could be one of those disruptive technologies where patient demand changes market dynamics.

The implantable pacemaker/defibrillator market is large, with 4 million active implants and 700,000 new implants occurring each year worldwide.

Takeaways: A leadless pacemaker is an obvious innovation to anyone who has worked in the cardiac stimulation field. Nanostim took the concept and ran with it while Medtronic took its time with what might be a technically superior solution.

While achieving lasting market share is more important than being first to market, Nanostim may be able to achieve both. Because they negotiated a strategic partnership with St. Jude Medical while the device was still in development, the company gained access to substantial resources, enhanced its credibility, and was able to reduce risk for investors by showing a clear path to exit. Nanostim also pursued the faster CE marking before FDA approval so that it could start selling the device sooner.

Read more:

Teeny Tiny Pacemaker Fits Inside the Heart – IEEE Spectrum.

News Release | Investor Relations | St. Jude Medical.

Weighing the Benefits of Medtronic’s Leadless Pacemaker | Qmed.

Medical Device Startup Fundraising: 5 keys for your pitch

Woman presentingIf you are leading a medical device startup, fundraising is your top priority. Here are five key points that you must address in every pitch that you make, no matter if it’s for a grant, seed investment from friends and family, angel investment, venture capital funding, or strategic partnerships with multinational medical device companies.

From the article:

  • Be clear on what your product is, right up front
  • Articulate the important problem you are solving
  • Define your customers
  • Spell out how you will create value with the $$ you are raising
  • Instill confidence in you and your team

Another way to look at the pitch is to think of it in terms of risk reduction. Most experienced investors talk about three main areas of risk in startup investing:

  • Technical Risk
  • Market Risk
  • Execution Risk

Investors will not move forward with an opportunity unless they believe that these key risks have been addressed and are below their personal threshold. Of course, you will never know that threshold so you must work to convince the investor that you have mitigated the three risks to the maximum extent possible.

Technical risk is all about the product or solution. Does your product solve the customer’s problem? Have you built a working prototype? Do you have an animal model? Have you performed animal testing? Are there important technical issues yet to be resolved? Do you have any intellectual property protection? Have you conducted a freedom to operate analysis? Does your product or solution depend on products or IP owned by other companies? Have you conducted beta testing? What’s your regulatory classification and plan? Are there more products in the pipeline?

Market risk is about the customer(s). Have you identified the problem? Is the problem a large one? Is the market opportunity big enough to justify the investment? Who are the customers? Why will they buy from you? What’s the competition (and don’t make the rookie mistake of saying that there is no competition)? Do you have evidence of demand? Do you have testimonials or at least interest from Key Opinion Leader customers? How do you plan to distribute and sell your product? How does your product or solution fit in today’s environment of managed care, healthcare reform, and evidence-based medicine? What’s your reimbursement strategy and plan?

Execution risk is about you and your team’s ability to convince investors that you can use their money to execute your plan. Does your team have the talent and experience to successfully commercialize your product? Do you have experienced and knowledgeable advisors, both business and clinical? Do you have a credible business model? What are your key milestones? What’s your exit strategy? Do you have a detailed pro forma income statement, especially for the period up to launch and for the two years after launch? Will you execute it exactly as conceived? Of course not, but you should be confident in your plan and your ability to execute. You should also have detailed contingency plans for the inevitable crisis when things go awry. 

Takeaways: Like many things, being successful at medical device fundraising requires being a great salesperson. Whether it’s a surgeon or an investor you’re selling to, put yourself in the place of that person. Be sure to address the five key points with details, evidence, and background information: product, problem, customer, milestones, team. Also keep in mind the risk tolerance of the investor. Your ability to communicate mitigation of technical risk, market risk, and execution risk will determine your success in fundraising.

Read more: Medical Device Startups: 5 essentials for your pitch deck | MassDevice.

Costliest 1 Percent Of Patients Account For 21 Percent Of U.S. Health Spending | Kaiser Health News

http://mhealthwatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Infographic-Inside-Healthcare-Spending-in-America-300x231.jpgA recent U.S. government study revealed 1% of patients in the U.S. are responsible for a whopping 21% of healthcare spending. Wow, talk about a “target-rich environment.” We’re all familiar with the 80/20 rule where, in a given population, 20% of the group is typically responsible for 80% of costs, resources consumed or produced, etc. This news takes the 80/20 concept to a new level.

According to Kaiser Health News, the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality report also said that just 5% of patients are responsible for 50% of all healthcare costs. On the other side of the ledger, the healthiest 5% of the population accounts for just 2.8% of spending.

The story behind the horrifying numbers: people with progressive, sometimes multiple chronic diseases such as kidney failure, diabetes, and COPD account for huge costs to the healthcare system. The patients in these groups even have a name: “super utilizers.” A different, not so flattering name is used in ERs everywhere: “frequent fliers.” On average, each super utilizer cost the healthcare system $88,000 in 2010.

In addition to overusing hospital emergency departments for their care, Kaiser said super utilizers suffer from a phenomenon called “extreme uncoordinated care” whereby they go to multiple, unrelated hospitals, (and all too often to the hospitals’ expensive ERs) for their care rather than a single outpatient clinic. The hospitals have no easy way to access patient records from other institutions to determine coexistent conditions and treatments. So they take the most direct path. They treat the immediate symptoms and discharge the patient.

In the past, hospitals could get away with just treating the patients’ symptoms and sending them on their way. With the advent of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), however, the incentives to the hospital are changing. Instead of a flat fee for service, the ACA provides penalties for high readmission rates and incentives for lowering readmissions within 30 days of treatment. From the article: “Hospitals have traditionally made more money readmitting patients than trying to prevent them from bouncing back.”

The ACA creates accountable care organizations (ACOs), groups of doctors, hospitals and clinics. The ACOs pool resources to treat Medicare and Medicaid patients more effectively and share in the savings. The ACOs work by creating and using coordinated care plans. The plans and their case managers have broad authority to do whatever it takes to help patients. By helping patients under the new ACA rules, the case managers help the hospitals increase their profitability.

The extra assistance to patients enabled by the coordinated care plans can include accompanying them to doctors’ appointments, paying for cab fare, buying food or furniture, phone calls and home visits to follow-up on prescription medication compliance, and more. These often simple interventions can have a significant effect on super utilizers. It is to be hoped that there will be a beneficial effect to the U.S. healthcare system as a result.

Takeaways: Healthcare financing is being reformed. That means healthcare delivery reform is coming as well. Hospitals are businesses, whether for profit or nonprofit. If their business models are threatened, they will respond to incentives and penalties to change. For medical device companies trying to introduce new products into this rapidly changing environment, realize that the traditional sales methods may work for a while longer. Realize also that the changes will affect purchasing decisions and procurement methods.

 

Read more: Costliest 1 Percent Of Patients Account For 21 Percent Of U.S. Health Spending – Kaiser Health News.

Mobile Health: Red Hot Market Opportunity

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Image from Business Week

Call it mobile health, digital health, eHealth, or”Consumer Health Technology” as Forbes does. By any name the emerging market sector is expanding rapidly and attracting lots of attention, entrepreneurs, and investors.

As I’ve previously written, the time for mobile health has arrived. We carry in our pockets mobile devices with more computing power than the Apollo 11 astronauts had when they landed on the moon. The devices themselves are bristling with sensors and wireless radios. Typical smartphones have temperature sensors, accelerometers, gyros, GPS sensors, ambient light sensors, microphones, touch sensors, and high resolution still and video cameras. They can communicate via Bluetooth, NFC, WiFi, and a number of cellular communications protocols. On-board storage can hold thousands of books and dozens of movies. Connected cloud storage provides effectively infinite storage capacity.

Innovative engineers are responsible for an ongoing explosion of single and multi-purpose external, wearable sensors that communicate wirelessly with smartphones. Smartphone manufacturers are increasingly integrating fitness tracking capabilities into their devices. For example, Apple’s latest iPhone included the M7 chip that can track user activities while minimally affecting battery life.

Application developers are creating sophisticated fitness and health tracking software using the aforementioned technologies. Applications are increasingly passive rather than active, meaning the user does not need to enter data. The apps and sensors detect activities and are able to collect activity data in the background. Others are working to connect the consumer devices and sensors with electronic medical and health records “in the cloud” for a variety of purposes.

There are two main segments in mobile health, regulated and unregulated applications. In the near term, there is tremendous growth and potential in the unregulated space because it’s a quick way to get to market. The consumer markets are very large but price-sensitive.

Of course, your mobile health startup will not be alone when you get there. Big players are either already in the market or they are entering rapidly. Nike, Weight Watchers, Aetna, Garmin, Apple, Samsung, and others are already battling to be the mobile health brand of choice. There are new entrants as well. Jawbone, BodyMedia, FitLinxx, and Fitbit are relatively new companies with trendy, stylish wearable devices.

Huffington Post reported that Berg Insight said 8.3 million wearables were sold last year, up from only 3.1 million in 2011. By 2017, that number is set to reach 64 million. mobihealthnews projects 13 million fitness-related wearables will be purchased just for corporate wellness plans by 2018.

For FDA-regulated devices and applications, the initial market is smaller but the potential is just as great. Regulatory clearances and approvals provide some barriers to entry but will ultimately serve to give early market entrants a head start and not much more. These devices promise to do much more than fitness tracking. They have the potential to monitor chronic diseases and overall health, to provide alerts for significant health-related events, to collect data for clinician use, and to provide specific health-related guidance using user-specific data.

In addition to FDA scrutiny, another significant issue is compliance with HIPAA laws regarding patient privacy. With what amounts to 24×7 data collection and connectivity, there will be enormous amounts of user-specific data in devices and in cloud databases. Companies will have to address data security preemptively or risk losing user trust.

I believe the benefits to the user and to the healthcare system far outweigh the risks and costs associated with these devices and applications.

For healthy individuals, mobile health can provide real time feedback into activities, fitness levels, sleep patterns, even diet information like nutrient balance and calorie consumption.

For aging individuals or those with chronic diseases, mobile health can monitor vital signs, check disease-specific conditions, provide reminders to take medications or perform physical therapy exercises, and send updates and alerts to family members and physicians.

For physicians, mobile health can provide another way to communicate with patients and can also check compliance with recommendations and prescriptions.

For the healthcare system, mobile health can contribute to healthcare Big Data, making it easier for researchers, drug and device companies, and policy makers to track, measure, and assess the health and activities of large populations.

Takeaways: Mobile health is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for entrepreneurs. If you have an idea, now is the time to commercialize it. If you are a software developer, find hardware partners. Likewise, if you have developed a sensor, team up with app developers to make a complete package. If you have an unformed idea, try to shape it around mobile health. Investors have taken notice. Rock Health is soliciting applications for funding at a variety of levels.

Read more:

Thinking of Starting a Business? Check Out Consumer Health Technology | Inc.com.

13M wearables to be used in corporate wellness plans by 2018 | mobihealthnews.

How highly sensitive, wearable thermometers could change digital health | mobihealthnews.

What health startups think of Apple’s new motion tracking chip | mobihealthnews.

Moves comes to Android, not afraid of Apple’s M7 | mobihealthnews.

Healthcare Startups Can Save Lives — And Rake in Big Money | Wired Business | Wired.com.

Health care and health insurance reforms are happening…at Walmart!?

Walmart logoHere’s an refreshing departure from all of the federal government gloom and doom news. Four hospitals around the U.S. including Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle have negotiated deals with large retailers Walmart and Lowe’s to provide comprehensive surgical care for knee and hip replacements to 1.4 million of the companies’ employees.

The kicker? Zero out-of-pocket costs, co-payments, deductibles, etc. But wait, there’s more. The arrangement, completely voluntary for employees by the way, provides travel, lodging, and living expenses for the patient and a caregiver.

The announcement expands a deal struck by the hospitals with Walmart in 2012 for heart and spinal surgeries along with organ transplants. The world-renowned Cleveland Clinic has been conducting a similar program, offering fixed-price cardiac procedures for a number of major corporations including Boeing.

The programs are attractive to the hospitals and corporations for a number of reasons. The corporations are self-insured. Reducing variability and uncertainty in healthcare costs is vitally important to the businesses. The corporations are large enough to be able to offer large volumes of patients for the high volume procedures.

The hospitals, already leading in terms of low complications and readmission rates, can use the guaranteed volumes to standardize procedures and improve quality even further. In exchange, I’m sure the partners agreed on large discounts to standard prices for the expensive procedures. And the patients, although not required to participate, get the sweeteners of no out of pocket cost and free travel. Sounds like a win for everyone.

In a separate development, Walmart announced that it was converting 35,000 part-time employees back to full-time status. Although that is a tiny fraction of Walmart’s 1.4 million employees, the latest action will result in those workers qualifying for employee-provided healthcare. Late in 2012, Walmart moved many full-time employees to part-time status in an action that was criticized as offloading their healthcare expenses on to taxpayers. Critics complained the workers earned so little that they would qualify for Medicaid health insurance through the new provisions of Obamacare.

Takeaways: While hardly novel, the agreements between the corporations and the hospitals are important because they have the potential to rein in out of control and spiraling healthcare costs. The hospitals will also be able to show exactly how they achieved their cost controls and quality improvements, giving them a competitive advantage and setting a great example for the rest of the country.

If you are developing a new device or technology, this should be a wake-up call. A key to cost control will be standardization. These hospitals will be highly resistant to adopt new technologies or purchase new medical devices unless you can show proof of positive effects on procedure costs, outcomes, and quality.

If you are in the healthcare insurance business, this disintermediation may not be a significant threat in the short term but be assured that other large corporations are watching or perhaps even conducting their own negotiations with high quality, high volume providers. The trend may prove to be a disruptive innovation in the long term.

Read more:

Walmart, Lowe’s strike deal with Virginia Mason on hip, knee surgeries | Local News | The Seattle Times.

Wal-Mart Returning To Full-Time Workers-Obamacare Not Such A Job Killer After All? – Forbes.