How To Kill A Unicorn: The cautionary tale of Theranos

A unicorn in startup jargon is an early stage tech company with a $1 billion+ valuation. Theranos is (was?) a Silicon Valley startup and a unicorn, focused on disrupting the enormous market of diagnostic blood testing.

Valuations are funny things. They are critically important to startup CEOs and investors but ultimately, they are subjective shared opinions based on complex models of present and future events. Startup CEOs and venture capital investors try very hard to keep their company’s’ valuations ever-increasing. Negative news or events can start a cascading cycle resulting in the dreaded “down round” of investment and even ejection from the unicorn club.

Theranos was a unicon, but no longer
Killing the unicorn, British Library

Background

CEO Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos in 2004. As a 19-year old college student, Holmes pitched an idea to her Stanford professor and was advised to start a company. Through family and personal connections, venture capital money poured in, Holmes dropped out of Stanford and Theranos began its mission to change health care.

Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes
Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes – Inc. cover photo Oct. 2015

“…it doesn’t work…”

Alas, “mistakes were made” and the company and its executive team found itself in hot water with the FDA and the subject of a number of unflattering stories in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. The Theranos head of R&D committed suicide and left a note saying “it [the technology] doesn’t work.” Also, the company president recently resigned and CEO Holmes is banned from owning or operating a lab for two years. In addition, Theranos’s commercial partners, Safeway and Walgreen’s, terminated their agreements with the company.

That’s about as bleak a series of events as you can imagine, right? Well as the infomercial goes, wait, there’s more…

Negative reactions continued over the year since the WSJ story broke. In May 2016, Theranos announced that it had voided two years of results from its Edison device. Patients filed a class action lawsuit alleging they were adversely affected by Theranos’s business practices (specifically, faulty blood tests). Recently, the company announced layoffs of 40% of its labor force and closure of testing labs around the country. In October, 2016 Holmes announced that Theranos would shift its strategy toward development and manufacture of small, robotic diagnostic test equipment – a very crowded market.

In June, 2016, Forbes assessed the valuation of Theranos as $800 million and revised the estimated net worth of CEO Holmes from $4.5 billion at the company’s peak valuation (she has a 50% stake in Theranos but it’s all common stock) to zero.

Theranos valuation history
Theranos valuation history (based on public estimates)

What killed the unicorn? There are a number of bad decisions made by Theranos management and its Board of Directors. Here are 10 of the worst that I identified.

Bad Decisions

  1. Stack the Board of Directors with old, politically connected white guys (Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Bill Frist, Sam Nunn) with little or no startup, technology, or diagnostics savvy.
  2. Create a cult of personality around the CEO. Make sure she appears on popular magazine covers and is interviewed frequently on TV shows.
  3. Create a not-so-subtle emphasis on the similarities between your attractive, young CEO and Steve Jobs: both are college dropouts, both wear a uniform of black turtlenecks, both are “visionary” leaders, both are/were young billionaires (only on paper in the case of Elizabeth Holmes)..
  4. Keep the founder as CEO, no matter if she has zero prior business or medical industry experience. Do not bring in a strong executive team with relevant industry experience to complement the CEO’s energy, vision, and talent.
  5. Hype your technology but shroud its technical details in secrecy. Worse, secretly use competitor’s technology for the vast majority of the tests performed.
  6. Do not conduct randomized clinical studies to demonstrate efficacy vs. industry “gold standard” technologies. Definitely  do not publish in peer-reviewed journals.
  7. Sign agreements with major commercial partners (Walgreens, Safeway) and conduct major PR campaigns announcing the deals before the technology is mature and proven.
  8. Pay no attention to FDA, CLIA, and GLP requirements. Refuse to learn from what happened to other startups that defied or ignored the FDA (see 23andme).
  9. Aggressively promote your muddled, multi-pronged, “disruptive” business model.
  10. Deny and deflect all bad news. Accuse The Wall Street Journal of conducting a witch hunt.

Takeaways

  1. The medical device/diagnostics industry is not the technology industry. Patients’ health and lives are affected by poor management, decisions, and/or business practices. Consequently, medical technology companies are heavily regulated and conservative regarding innovation. 
  2. If you must have an inexperienced person at the helm of the startup, compensate with a seasoned, accomplished Board of Directors with relevant experience and networks.
  3. Aim to solve one problem at a time. Prioritize. Theranos touted its “Nanotainer” finger stick technology, Edison diagnostic technology, and plans to disrupt healthcare by bringing diagnostic testing directly to patients through grocery and drug stores. That’s a lot of moving parts.
  4. Expect swift and deadly reactions from entrenched competitors (including complaints to the FDA and leaks to the media). Your disruptive business model is their existential threat.
  5. As the saying goes, sunlight is a powerful disinfectant. The first step to success in the medical technology industry is a strong intellectual property portfolio and properly maintained trade secrets that create solutions to real healthcare problems. But that strategy must coexist with a culture of regulatory compliance, stringent adherence to quality standards, and sponsorship/disclosure of peer reviewed randomized clinical studies. It’s a business model that has worked for many successful companies in the industry.

Will Theranos pull out of its nose dive, emerge as a disruptive company in the ultra-competitive medical diagnostics market, and regain its unicorn status? Maybe, but given its track record and penchant for acting more like a Silicon Valley tech startup than a medical technology company, I would not bet on it.

Postscript 12.15.16 The shareholder lawsuits have begun.

References

  1. From $4.5 Billion To Nothing: Forbes Revises Estimated Net Worth Of Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes [Forbes]
  2. The wildly hyped $9 billion blood test company that no one really understands [The Washington Post]
  3. An Open Letter From Elizabeth Holmes [Theranos company website]
  4. Theranos Attacks Wall Street Journal (Again) in a Rebuttal You’ll Need a Medical Degree to Understand [recode]
  5. Expecting Data From Theranos, Lab Experts Get New Product [Bloomberg]
  6. At Theranos, Many Strategies and Snags [The Wall Street Journal]
  7. Why the Next Steve Jobs Will Be a Woman [Inc.]
  8. Theranos throws in the towel on clinical labs, officially pivots to devices [Ars Technica]
  9. How Playing the Long Game Made Elizabeth Holmes a Billionaire [Inc.]
  10. Theranos’ Scandal Exposes the Problem With Tech’s Hype Cycle [Wired]
  11. Will Shareholder Lawsuit Trigger Theranos To Return Capital To Shareholders? [Forbes]

  12. Theranos Just Got Slammed With Another Lawsuit [Fortune]

Eko Core, A Digital Upgrade For The Centuries-Old Stethoscope | TechCrunch

Eko Core Digital Stethoscope - product picture
Eko Core Digital Stethoscope

The Eko Core digital stethoscope is a “why didn’t I think of that?” invention.

In a few months, the stethoscope will celebrate its 200th birthday. A medical breakthrough in 1816, it’s still a part of nearly every doctor’s visit today and a symbol of medicine itself.…

Digital Stethoscope

Stripped to its essentials, the Eko Core digital stethoscope is a highly engineered Bluetooth microphone designed to fit medical stethoscopes. The device wirelessly transmits patients’ heart sounds (not EKG) to a smart phone or tablet app.

The Eko Core was invented and commercialized by a team of UC Berkeley engineering graduates (claimed to be the youngest team to secure FDA clearance for a Class II medical device).

What Eko Core did well

In developing and executing its strategy, the Eko Core team did a number of things right:

  • Targeted a huge existing market. Most doctors and many nurses carry and use stethoscopes every day.
  • Recognized and addressed a  nagging clinical problem: It can take years (even decades) to become adept at using a stethoscope to recognize heart sounds.
  • Improved the functionality of the stethoscope by enabling visualization and amplification. Benefit to the user is improved confidence in identification of heart sounds.
  • Made their device a simple, affordable ($199) add-on to the user’s existing stethoscope.
  • Employed a Bluetooth wireless connection to the user’s smart phone or tablet . Data  from the stethoscope is displayed in a custom app.
  • Enabled data sharing via “the cloud” so that users can share typical and atypical heart sounds and learn from each other.
  • Partnered with major EHR suppliers to enable the digital stethoscope data to be entered into the patient’s electronic medical record.
  • Identified the potential for use of the Eko Core to lower healthcare costs by reducing costly referrals to cardiologists for unusual heart sounds.

What Eko Core hasn’t done yet

  • Showed they can be financially successful over time. Medical device sales and marketing is expensive. Manufacturing under FDA, GMP, ISO, etc. regulations can increase costs. Maintaining healthy profit margins on low-priced medical devices can be a challenge.
  • Exhibited a competitive advantage over similar products, Thinklabs for example.
  • Fully protected their intellectual property, although the company did recently file a patent application.
  • Leveraged their technology beyond one-hit wonder status.

Takeaways

The number of medical stethoscope users in the developed world is on the order of several million. Growth rates are slow, with new graduates replacing retirees, etc.  That puts the potential market at around $500-600 million.

Not bad, but once you “pick the low-hanging fruit” and sell to the early adopters and early majority customers, selling more units gets progressively tougher and more costly. And given competition, it’s a race for market share to capture and keep customers.

I think this will be a fun and profitable business for a while. Longer term, I hope Eko Core has a big medical device company lined up as a distribution partner and has an encore product that leverages the same technology and customer base.

Source: The Eko Core Is A Digital Upgrade For The Centuries-Old Stethoscope | TechCrunch

Eko Devices website

Free Medical Device Launch Checklist – Protect Your Investment

free Medical Device Launch Checklist

So you (or your company) has developed a new medical device. You have invested millions of dollars and substantial time in engineering, obtained regulatory clearances, and set up manufacturing. It’s time to go to market, right? Turn it over to Marketing and Sales and wait for the orders to pour in. Are you sure that all relevant launch activities are being planned and accounted for? Perhaps you should protect your investment in your medical device product with this simple, easy to use, free Medical Device Launch Checklist.

Easy to use, downloadable PDF file: free Medical Device Launch Checklist

The Medical Device Launch Checklist from sanko::strategic consulting is free and easy to use. It contains 64 checkable launch items. Launch items include traditional marketing activities like pricing as well as easy to overlook issues such as expiration dating and localization. The Checklist gives you a brief description of the purpose of each item. It also shows you the department/corporate function with primary responsibility for the item. The file can be saved to monitor launch progress.

Anyone can use the Medical Device Launch Checklist. It is primarily intended for small and medium-size companies that may not have institutional systems and processes to control launch activities. It can also be used by anyone (Product Manager, Marketing Manager, Project Manager, startup CEO, et al) who wants to assure that nothing has been omitted from their launch plan.

You can use the Checklist to guide the development of a launch or marketing plan. The Checklist can also be used as a gateway document to assure that all activities are accounted for and either completed or in progress before authorizing product launch.

To obtain your personal copy of the free Medical Device Launch Checklist, click here and select the link for the free Medical Device Launch Checklist.

Think of it as cheap insurance to protect your multi-million dollar baby.

Image courtesy of arztsamui / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Smaller, faster, lighter, cheaper medical devices

http://3278as3udzze1hdk0f2th5nf18c1.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/drop-theranos.jpg
image via singularityhub.com

Is it just me or does it seem that most interesting medical device innovations are coming from startups and not from established companies? Here are a few medical devices being developed that are smaller, faster, lighter, and cheaper than established technologies and products.

The point of care diagnostic system being developed by startup Theranos relies heavily on microfluidic and automation technologies. The technology, while impressive, is not revolutionary. Theranos is using readily accessible technology to develop a point-of-care diagnostic test device that can be operated by virtually anyone. The test uses a pinprick to collect a drop of blood to perform all of its tests. No need for a nurse or technician. The test is completely automated so there is no need for a diagnostic technician.

Time is saved because the sample is processed onsite instead of being transported to a central lab and there is negligible wait time compared with large diagnostic equipment. One of the biggest drawbacks to present diagnostic testing is the wait: patients are anxious and physicians often can’t administer medicine or therapy until and unless an initial diagnosis is confirmed.

Tribogenics is developing the next generation of x-ray imaging technology. From the company website:

Tribogenics technology enables portable, compact X-ray solutions for applications in industrial testing, medical diagnosis, security screening and other industries. By miniaturizing X-ray sources and eliminating the need for high voltage, we can create products and solutions unattainable using existing X-ray technology.

While I’m not sure how big the opportunity is for pocket-sized x-ray machines in medicine, there are plenty of industrial and commercial uses. Plus, the potential for portability, low cost, and simplicity may make the Tribogenics device well-suited for deployment in developing countries with little or no medical infrastructure.

The third technology I’m writing about isn’t a product but a concept. The Smartphone Physical is being termed “the physician’s bag of the 21st century.” In a recent TED Talk, Shiv Gaglani showed that a complete physical exam could be conducted with a smartphone and what are essentially smart attachments. For example, companies have developed or are developing ECG leads, a stethoscope, otoscope, ultrasound wand, and even a spiromoter. Gaglani and his colleagues are creating a database of connected devices and apps and hope to start a company to commercialize the Smartphone Physical.

One concern about the Smartphone Physical is a condition that is described by a new word, cyberchondria. Yes, it means hypochondria that is facilitated (or exacerbated) by the ready availability of digital and connected devices and apps. Don’t think it could happen? Ask any doctor about how many patients self-diagnose on the Internet before their office visit. Cyberchondria is real.

Takeaways: If you can take an existing medical device or technology and improve it by making it smaller, faster, lighter, and/or cheaper, you have the makings of a company. Your new device doesn’t have to be better than what it replaces but it would make it easier to sell if it had the same quality, accuracy, etc.

There are plenty of examples of medical devices that are big, bulky, slow and costly. Give customers two or more benefits based on eliminating or minimizing these undesirable features and you will create a market niche for your products.

Read more:

Small, Fast and Cheap, Theranos Is the Poster Child of Med Tech — and It’s in Walgreen’s | Singularity Hub.

http://www.theranos.com/

California Startup, Tribogenics, Develops Smart Phone Sized Portable X-ray Machines | Singularity Hub.

http://tribogenics.com/

Smartphone Physicals Are Taking Off With Explosion of Apps, Attachments | Singularity Hub.

http://www.smartphonephysical.com/

 

The Clever Bottle vs. the Smart Pill

http://www.clevercap.org/images/about_image.png
image via clevercaprx.com

Patients are terrible at taking prescription medications. A couple of startups have developed devices that aim to solve the problem, but with wildly different solutions: The Clever Bottle vs. the Smart Pill.

A recent study by WHO estimated that 50% of patients with chronic illnesses don’t take their drugs as prescribed. This behavior increases deaths and complications. Further, it costs about $100 billion per year in avoidable healthcare costs.

 

 

Medication compliance is a problem that has been around for thousands of years. In fact, a paper in The Mayo Clinic Proceedings included a quote from Hippocrates who lived and practiced medicine more than two thousand years ago:

Keep a watch…on the faults of the patients, which often make them lie about the taking of things prescribed. For through not taking disagreeable drinks, purgative or other, they sometimes die.

Hippocrates, Decorum

Ensuring that patients take their medications seems to be an unglamorous approach to a big and costly healthcare problem. It’s also a potentially lucrative market. While neither of the solutions would be considered simple or low tech by most people, they are direct in how they address the issue.

The Clever Cap pill bottle is something most of us might say, “hey, I thought of that!” The people at Compliance Meds Technologies in south Florida took the next step and developed their idea. The Clever Cap fits on standard pill bottles, dispenses only the prescribed amount of medication, keeps track of medications dispensed, and communicates wirelessly with mobile devices or with a special hub. The hub is a device made by Qualcomm in their attempt to cash in on the vast potential in mobile and digital health data.

CleverCap can also be reprogrammed and reused. The device is reported to work even without a wireless connection. It’s not clear what happens if the batteries die. What the CleverCap can’t do is know if the patient really swallowed the pills.

The Smart Pill, branded as the Ingestion Event Marker or IEM by its developer, Proteus Digital Health of Redwood City, California, aims to embed a microchip in each pill. The chip is activated and powered by stomach acid and apparently passes harmlessly through the digestive system and is eliminated. The chip communicates time and date ingested as well as physiological and behavioral patient data to a wrist patch worn by the patient.

Very high tech. Indeed, the company has partnerships with Novartis, Medtronic, St. Jude Medical, and Oracle among others. The company has raised a lot of money including $62.5 million in “the second closing of its F round.” Proteus has received FDA marketing clearance, a de novo 510(k) for its technology. It remains to be seen if drug manufacturers will need additional FDA clearance to use the technology with their pharmaceuticals.

The Smart Pill definitely knows if the patient swallowed the pills. The big question is whether patients want this much technology in their bodies vs. the less intrusive CleverCap. My guess is that there is probably room for both solutions in this potentially large emerging market.

Takeaways: There are unsolved problems and unmet needs everywhere in healthcare. We’ve all daydreamed about things like smart pills and clever caps. Keep an open mind and perhaps you will recognize a new opportunity.

Both of these technologies are potentially disruptive and they both make use of the latest information technology including cloud analytics and reporting. The CleverCap seems to have the quickest path to market but the Smart Pill has all sorts of other potential capabilities and that’s probably why the company is well-funded and flush with partners. Both strategies seem viable and there’s plenty of room in the market for their innovations and more.

Read more:

CleverCap Pill Bottle Connects to Wifi, Dispenses Only as Directed, Uploads To The Cloud | Singularity Hub.

The Pills Have Eyes: Microchipped Medicine Is Coming | Singularity Hub.

Medication Adherence: WHO Cares?.

High tech medical device maker focuses on…China?

http://axialexchange.com/images/articles/Hypertension-Nutrition-Counseling.jpg
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

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.