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Venture investors fueling surge in healthcare technology innovation

By Jerry Zeidenberg

ORLANDO, FLA. – Healthcare used to be called the slowest industry to adopt new technologies, espe- cially those of the electronic variety. Now, however, the sector is something of a Speedy Gonzalez, and is racing ahead of others – thanks to venture capitalists and invest- ment bankers, the folks who are financing many of the innovations.

“For once, healthcare is taking the lead in technology,” asserted Lucian Iancovici, investment manager for Qualcomm Ventures of San Diego, Calif., and keynote speaker at the Venture+ forum, part of the HIMSS ’14 conference that was held in sunny Orlando in February.

“Every medical device is now being re- invented,” said Iancovici, who was a New York-based medical doctor before joining Qualcomm Ventures.

Moreover, he noted the explosion of software apps in recent years, with more appearing each month. “There has been a 10-fold increase in apps in the last few years. Will there be a few big winners or a wide variety of successful apps? Nobody knows.”

For its part, Qualcomm is a giant in the cell-phone industry, and since 2007 has been investing in startup companies that bring innovation to the healthcare sector. It has an investment fund of $100 million and, so far, has put money into 12 healthcare start-ups.

They include Fitbit, which has produced a wearable fitness tracker that uploads metrics to your smartphone and to the web; for its part, Qualcomm invested a sizeable $43 million.

Iancovici said that in the three years from 2011 to 2013, US$4 billion was invested overall in healthcare technology startups in the United States. He expects that figure to soar to US$30 billion by 2019. Qualcomm Ventures views six areas of healthcare as having the most potential for generating successful new technology businesses:

• Wellness. There is incredible opportunity in creating devices to promote health and to help consumers avoid becoming sick. Fitbit is a prime example, along with trackers of all sorts – for exercise, diet, sleep quality, and others.

• Chronic disease management. The healthcare system is having trouble dealing with an epidemic-like growth in diabetes, as well as cancer, hypertension, and other chronic illnesses. Solutions that tie patients to care-givers and help to keep their conditions under control are in demand.

• Re-admission reduction. Hospitals are trying various strategies for keeping patients well once they have been discharged, so they are not re-admitted.

• Aging in place. Another strategy for reducing the pressure on healthcare facilities is to help the aged stay healthy while still living at home. Various types of monitoring systems can assist.

• Clinical trials. Getting new medications into the marketplace faster, but with the correct testing beforehand, is a major challenge.

• Telemedicine. Physician shortages are being experienced in rural areas of the United States and Canada, and sometimes in urban centres, too. Telemedical solutions are being developed to bring specialist care to regions that face shortages of skilled physicians.

Iancovici offered several examples of leading-edge devices that solve some of these quandaries.

• Cell-phone-based glucometers, which ease glucose testing and mean that patients never have to write anything down – all of the data is captured and logged by the phone. Results can be immediately sent to the doctor, who with the assistance of charting and analytics, can monitor many more patients than before.

• Diagnostics tests that are moving from inside the hospital or doctor’s office and into the home. “There are EKGs available for $2,000,” said Iancovici. “One with a single-lead attaches to a cell phone.”

• New sensors that can be attached to cell phones, enabling point-of-care screening diagnostics. For example, a device that can measure electrolyte levels.

• Ambient intelligence, meaning systems that passively collect information, instead of requiring the patient or consumer to pump data into a device. Iancovici mentioned the example of a solution that monitors how often the elderly go to the bathroom – which could be an indication of a urinary tract infection.

There are plenty of problems to be solved, and many scientists and entrepreneurs are working on them and producing new technologies. However, Iancovici stressed that evidence will be key in validating the benefits of digital health solutions. “You have to build out studies in the way that healthcare professionals understand,” he said.

Iancovici noted the Mayo Clinic did a study of Fitbit, to find out how well patients recovering from surgery did with the help of the tracking device. Just as importantly, companies have to show up front savings to the healthcare provider. “They don’t want to hear that the solution will pay for itself in five years,” he said. “They want to see immediate benefits.”

According to Mercom Capital Group, a consulting firm based in Austin, Tex., the Top Five venture-capital funded companies in 2013 were:

• Evolent Health, a population health management services organization that integrates technology, tools and on-the-ground resources to support health systems in executing their population health and care transformation objectives. It raised $100 million.

• Practice Fusion, a web-based EMR provider, which raised $85 million in two deals.

• Fitbit, a fitness and health tracker company, which brought in $73 million in two deals.

• MedSynergies, a provider fo revenue and performance management solutions to healthcare providers, which raised $65 million.

• Proteus Digital Health, a provider of a digital health feedback system, which raised $45 million.

While there are large players making deals, there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of financings from smaller vencap funds, investment banks, angel investors, as well as loans from government and university-backed economic development agencies and incubators.

Katya Hancock, director of strategic partnerships with StartUp Health, an incubator and company that runs StartUp Health Insights, a healthcare vencap database, said the healthcare sector has “historically stifled innovation,” but is now in a period of creative destruction. She noted that many industries are going through massive transformations – they include media, music, retail and commerce, and now healthcare.

According to Hancock, the biggest growth areas for healthcare technology are in ‘patient engagement’, meaning solutions that empower patients to take charge of their own health. Similarly, solutions for chronic disease management are also on the rise, she said.

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