It was only a matter of time before healthcare got caught up in the technology revolution. And, as demonstrated by some groundbreaking British startups, healthtech looks like changing the world for good
We’ve all seen how technology has disrupted the worlds of finance, food and fitness in recent years. As a result of the hype surrounding startups in these sectors, innovations in healthcare haven’t hit quite as many headlines. However, there is a plethora of companies working in Britain’s burgeoning healthtech space that are harnessing the power of digital to solve some of life’s most serious problems.
Founded by Dr. Ali Parsa in 2013, babylon is quite literally putting healthcare in the hands of patients. The idea for the startup came while Parsa was leading CircleHealth, which is now Europe’s largest partnership of clinicians. “One thing that we quickly discovered is that the vast majority of people’s healthcare needs have little to do with hospitals,” explains Parsa. “There isn’t much in our system that actually helps keep you at the peak of your health.”
He also spotted a fundamental flaw in the way healthcare was provided globally. “While the system is inconvenient or expensive for those of us in the West, the problem is much more serious for 50% of the world’s population who have no access to healthcare but have a mobile phone in their hand,” Parsa adds. “So we sat back and asked: ‘How can we meet more people’s healthcare needs, deliver it to them right from their mobile and, in doing so, make healthcare accessible, affordable and available to every human on earth?’”
Suffice to say, babylon is going a long way to answering this question. As well as letting people consult with doctors on their phone within minutes – and get answers to basic medical questions – users can also monitor their health, carry out rudimentary tests and store their clinical records, which can then be easily accessed and shared with GPs.
In the space of three years, the startup has amassed an impressive list of corporate partners including Sky, BT, LinkedIn and Mastercard, not to mention the likes of Bupa and Aviva, whose support has been essential. It has also been well backed by the investment community, with a recent Series A round delivering $25m in funding. “We have never had a problem raising money,” says Parsa. “If you are doing something that is beyond the ordinary, you always have a huge amount of people who want to back you.”
And while the industry as a whole isn’t yet attracting the same levels of investment as other sectors – fintech, for example – Parsa is sure it won’t be long before healthtech starts to flourish. “Once we are doing something that genuinely contributes to healthcare, we’ll start to see some big valuations,” he says. “There is no question about that.”
It was shortly after the birth of his first son that Bruce Hellman had the inspiration for uMotif. “I was tracking my own sleep and other aspects of daily life,” he says. “I realised that if you have that understanding, you can make changes to improve your health.”
However, when Hellman paid a visit to Cure Parkinson’s Trust with uMotif’s co-founder Ben James, the pair discovered a more compelling use for the technology. “We realised these very general ideas could be applied to people with a serious health condition to help them have a better quality of life,” says Hellman.
The entrepreneurs have gone on to develop a set of digital tools for patients, care teams and providers, all designed to ensure the best care possible. “We wanted to explore how people can do more to manage their own health condition but within the context of a healthcare relationship with a nurse, clinician, doctor or physiotherapist,” says Hellman.
uMotif has been warmly received by the NHS, which is letting it sell software licences into hospitals. “People might ask ‘how do you get into the NHS?’ but our experience has been really good ,” says Hellman. “If you are focused on doing something that matters and that solves a real problem, there is plenty of help and support available.”
While its currently selling into the public and private sector, uMotif will be making its mobile app available for free download in January. “The public-facing trial will get more people on the platform and will help with our own learning, product development and marketing,” says Hellman. “It also means that more hospitals and healthcare providers will be able to experience our tool.”
As the CEO of one of Blighty’s brightest healthtech startups, Hellman is predictably optimistic about the industry’s future on these shores. “It’s all too easy to think that everything great happens in the US but it’s not the case,” he says. “There is already an incredible amount of data available here.”
People all over the world suffer from sleeping difficulties – and Big Health’s CEO Peter Hames used to be one of them. Like many insomniacs, he found that traditional remedies weren’t doing the trick. “My own experience of insomnia – and the difficulty I had getting something other than sleeping pills – inspired me to find a way to get evidence-based non-drug therapy to the millions who need it,” says Hames.
He hit upon the solution when recovering from his own sleep problems. “I finally overcame insomnia by self-administering a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) using a self-help book,” he says. “It struck me that technology offered a much more accessible, friendly, even enjoyable way for sufferers of mental health problems to receive evidence-based solutions such as CBT.”
Before long, Hames had started building a clinical team to help develop his idea. It included renowned sleep expert Professor Colin Espie, whose book had helped cure Hames of insomnia. Hames convinced Espie to come on board as Big Health’s co-founder and two years later, the pair launched Sleepio, a digital sleep improvement program. Initially rolled out as a web-based platform, the Sleepio mobile app was launched in 2014 and has gone on to win numerous awards.
With Martha Lane Fox listed among its advisors. the startup has also raised seed capital from angel investor Esther Dyson and completed a $3.3m Series A round led by Index Ventures in April 2014. Hames says that building a healthtech startup “takes time, care, patience and money”. This, he suggests, is why investor activity in the space hasn’t been quite as electric as elsewhere. “There’s a lot of interest in healthtech amongst investors but it’s understandably tempered with caution,” he explains. “There are knowledge gaps that need to be overcome, whether that’s traditional healthcare investors learning about what’s possible with new tech or traditional tech investors learning about healthcare.”
Given the success of Sleepio, Hames is now exploring other ways that his tech can help healthcare. “We’re looking at how to apply the principles that have been so successful in addressing insomnia to other mental health problems,” he concludes.