Longevica takes in $2.5M as it launches open research resources to examine life extension

Life science company Longevica said Wednesday it is launching an open research tool so scientists and research institutions can access a data set that tracks the effects of more than 1,000 pharmacological compounds for testing drugs.

This is the latest effort from the biotechnology company, which is researching mechanisms of healthy aging and life extension. To do this, the company took in $2.5 million in funding led by Xploration Capital.

In April, Longevica announced the launch of a line of supplements based on its research. The company got its start more than 11 years ago and has now raised over $15.5 million in funding from investors, including Alexander Chikunov, a longevity investor, who is also president of the company.

When the company emerged from stealth, it was primarily focused on finding the best ways to leverage the results of its research as soon as possible and bringing some consumer-ready products to market, Longevica co-founder and CEO Ainar Abdrakhmanov told TechCrunch via email.

“We still move along this path, which includes screening and trials; however, through a series of deep interviews, we found that most scientists in the longevity space lack infrastructure, and we decided to share our internal engine to leverage more research through partnerships and by giving researchers a data platform for their work,” he added.

Living longer is an area that other companies are working in as well, for both humans and pets. The global anti-aging drugs market was valued at nearly $8 billion in 2020 and is projected to double by 2027.

Meanwhile, Crunchbase News took a look at the status of longevity startups in July and found over 30 operating in the space that collectively raised billions of dollars. A more recent example is Loyal, which raised $27 million to examine longer lives in animals with a long-term vision of translating that into human longevity.

Longevica itself started fundraising when it came up with the idea of the end-to-end open research platform. The new funding will go toward supporting the platform’s development and integration of the company’s research data set.

The goal is to validate the pipeline of turning scientific research into consumer-ready products, Abdrakhmanov said.

“There’s a lot of hypotheses around ageing and lifespan, but there’s a clear bottleneck in actually testing those ideas to figure out who might be right,” he added. “Our platform should help the scientific community get a bit closer to the answers.”

Its original study, led by Chikunov and Longevica co-founder Dr. Alexey Ryazanov, tested 300 compounds and showed significant life extension properties. The company is close to publishing a peer-reviewed paper on that study. Abdrakhmanov called it “more of a moonshot project,” but also that this direction could bring results much sooner and be beneficial for the entire industry, something its investors were able to see, he added.

Armed with the new research capabilities, Longevica will now go deeper into testing those compounds with a new research study at Jackson Laboratory. In January, the company will also begin collecting applications from researchers interested in testing their drugs in a full-scale pharmacological screening experiment that will begin in June 2022.

“Also in January, we will start a public database including marked up data on most longevity-related experiments on mice, both public and some which haven’t been published yet,” Abdrakhmanov said. “The entire platform will be free and open source, even its program code will be publicly available on GitHub.”

Tiamat Sciences cooking up plant-based proteins for cheaper production of cellular meat

Cellular growth medium is a component of cellular agriculture that enables lab-grown meat to be made at a lower cost. However, the traditional ways of making these growth factors, or reagents, are costly themselves, which makes large-scale manufacturing difficult.

On average, reports show that lab-grown meat costs about $50, but that new technologies could bring that down to a more reasonable $3 per pound by 2030.

Tiamat Sciences is one biotech startup developing a more cost-effective biomolecule aimed at replacing more costly bioreactors. Today, it announced $3 million in seed financing, led by True Ventures, with participation from Social Impact Capital and Cantos.

France-Emmanuelle Adil, Tiamet Sciences

France-Emmanuelle Adil, founder and CEO, Tiamet Sciences. Image Credits: Tiamet Sciences

The company’s CEO, France-Emmanuelle Adil, founded the company in 2019 to manufacture animal-free proteins using a proprietary plant molecular farming approach that combines biotechnology, vertical farming and computation design to reinvent recombinant proteins.

“The growth factors used in media are expensive right now,” she told TechCrunch. “We can reduce costs drastically and reach price parity with meat.”

Adil estimates that today’s growth factor costs $2 million per gram to make, but she believes that with efforts from Tiamat Sciences and others, that cost could come down 10 times with a focus on making it 1,000 times cheaper by 2025 so that large-scale production can proceed.

Prior to the $3 million seed round, the company brought in a small round last July to give it $3.4 million in total funding to date. Adil wanted to expand the company, which was in Belgium, where it has an operating site, and moved to North Carolina in May.

The new funding will aid in building a pilot production facility in Durham, North Carolina and in technology development. The company is already on its way to reaching carbon-neutral production.

She was not able to disclose customers yet, but said the company is in development of its first product aimed for release by the end of the year. Tiamet would then be sending samples to customers for testing, which she believes will lead to some partnerships in 2022.

In addition to food, Adil says Tiamat’s approach could be applicable in other industries like regenerative medicine and vaccine production.

“Growth factors are transferable to other industries because the processes are similar,” she added. “We will be working on expansion for the end of 2022. We will scale very fast with a number of plants and then 100,000 plants. We are in discussion with companies to help us scale big but progressively.”

Phil Black, co-founder of True Ventures, said the investment into Tiamat Sciences fit into its plant-based portfolio. The initial money raised by the company allows them to prove to people that their technology works and to produce it at the trial level. Then will come a much larger round to scale up from liters to gallons.

“The cell meat industry is here to stay and now people are interested in making it more profitable for themselves and making more of it,” he added. “Limited factors exist, and Taimat’s solution will be a game-changer.”

Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes testifies in her own criminal trial

One of the biggest mysteries in former Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes’ high-profile fraud trial was whether or not she would testify. So it was a shock late Friday afternoon when the Stanford dropout took the stand, eleven weeks after the trial began. Now that the prosecution has rested its case — questioning witnesses like former US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, whistleblower Erika Cheung, Theranos patients, investors, medical professionals and journalists — Holmes is telling her side of the story under oath, her defense aiming to build the case that she did not knowingly defraud her investors.

The former Silicon Valley hotshot faces two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and nine counts of wire fraud. If convicted, each count could land her up to 20 years in prison.

So far, Holmes has stuck to her argument that while Theranos made errors, the startup’s failure wasn’t fraud. She claims that when she told stakeholders about the capabilities of Theranos’ technology, she was conveying what she thought was the truth. Since Holmes isn’t a trained scientist, she says she listened to the guidance of the experts she hired — she even testified that scientists and engineers designed a slide deck presented to investors.

Holmes’ defense has produced emails from high-ranking lab officials like chief scientist Ian Gibbons, who said that Theranos machines had “demonstrated capabilities fully equivalent to lab methods in areas where we have done assay development.” Holmes testified that Gibbons’ emails indicated that Theranos’ 4.0 Edison machine “could run any test,” per live courtroom reporting from Law 360’s Dorothy Atkins (the trial is not livestreamed). Gibbons died by suicide in 2013 while employed at Theranos, days before he was to be summoned to appear in court about a Theranos-related patent dispute.

Holmes has also denied that she was trying to lead Walgreens astray by sending the company documents with the unauthorized use of Pfizer’s logo. She said in court that she wishes she had handled the situation differently, but that she had included the Pfizer logo because Theranos had done some testing with Pfizer before they decided not to work together. Her defense also pulled up a study from Johns Hopkins University from around the same time, which called the Theranos technology “novel and sound.”

This is a direct response to a key claim from the prosecution, which produced evidence that Holmes sent Walgreens a document in 2010 called “Pfizer Theranos System Validation Final Report.” As it turned out, this document was created by Theranos staff, not Pfizer. Yet Pfizer’s logo appeared prominently in the document, which indicated that the pharmaceutical giant endorsed Theranos’ technology. Theranos entered deals with Walgreens and Safeway that year. But in court, a Pfizer scientist denied that Pfizer endorsed Theranos, adding that no employees approved the document she sent while in talks about the deal. Pfizer had looked into Theranos’ technology in 2008, but chose not to invest in the company.

Holmes has also begun discussing her relationship with the Theranos board, who were paid $150,000 per year and given half a million shares for their role — former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was paid $500,000 per year as a consultant. So far, it seems Holmes is trying to characterize the board as being knowledgeable enough about the nature of the company to make an informed investment in the company. Multiple courtroom reporters have noted that Holmes is deploying corporate and scientific jargon in her testimony.

Image Credits: Ethan Swope (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Elizabeth Holmes built Theranos with a heartfelt pitch that raised enough capital from high-profile investors to reach a $10 billion valuation. With just a needle prick of blood, her technology would run dozens of blood tests to detect disease quicker, and at a lower cost. She famously repeated the line: “I hope that less people will have to say goodbye too soon to people that they love.”

But, as we now know — and as you can now learn about through tell-all HBO documentaries and investigative nonfiction books — the technology didn’t work, and the company appeared to continue testing patients’ blood despite knowing they couldn’t deliver accurate medical information. Her criminal trial began in early September in San Jose, California — after delays due to the pandemic and Holmes’ childbirth — with Judge Edward Davila at the bench.

In her heyday, when Forbes named her the youngest and wealthiest female self-made billionaire in America, she was portrayed as a Steve Jobs-like genius with unstoppable charisma. But in court filings, Holmes’ defense said that Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, her former boyfriend and COO of Theranos, was abusive and controlling. The filings indicate that Holmes’ lawyers might introduce testimony on Holmes’ mental health and the effects of the abuse as part of her defense, perhaps pinning the blame of Theranos’ failure on Balwani, who will be tried for fraud separately next year.

But as Holmes has testified the last few days, the San Jose courthouse has looked more like a circus than the site of a criminal fraud case. Law360 reporter Dorothy Atkins tweeted this morning that when she arrived at 4:30 AM, she was the 32nd person in line to enter the courthouse. Due to the popularity of the case, audience members have been urged to only take notes or live-report using silent keyboards, like touch screens on a smartphone. Some journalists have brought tarot cards to give readings while waiting hours in line. The fanfare is reminiscent of the early days of the trial in September, when fans (yes, fans) of the disgraced entrepreneur cosplayed as Elizabeth Holmes. As a play on that viral moment, artist Danielle Baskin — who often pokes fun at Silicon Valley culture — sold blonde wigs, black turtlenecks, lipstick, and blood energy drinks in line this morning (she later tweeted that she learned today that you can’t “sell merch” on federal property.)

Though Elizabeth Holmes makes for an easy Halloween costume, the antics around the high-profile case can’t undermine the horrifying evidence presented by the prosecution, which is working to prove to the jury that Holmes knowingly defrauded investors by lying about the efficacy of Theranos products.

One former Theranos patient Erin Tompkins testified in court that her Theranos test results detected the presence of HIV antibodies, which could mean she had the virus that causes AIDS, a life-threatening disease. Tompkins said she didn’t have insurance at the time, so it wasn’t until three months later that she could get a blood test elsewhere, which did not detect HIV. She said she was initially drawn to Theranos since the prices were so low. Another patient, Dr. Mehrl Ellsworth, testified that he received inaccurate results, which falsely indicated that he had prostate cancer.

Dr. Adam Rosendorff, the former Theranos lab director, testified that “the company was more about PR and fundraising than patient care,” adding that Holmes went ahead with Theranos’ commercial launch despite his concerns about the technology. One of the Theranos whistleblowers, Erika Cheung, recounted her story of quitting the startup because she was uncomfortable processing patient samples when she didn’t think the technology could provide accurate results.

After court adjourns today, the trial will take a break for the Thanksgiving holiday, resuming Holmes’ testimony on Monday. According to court schedules, her defense is expected to continue presenting its case through the middle of December.

UK-based mental health provider ieso raises $53M armed with an ‘unprecedented’ data set

UK-based digital therapy company ieso announced a $53 million Series B round on Tuesday. The round is the funding the company needs to move in a brand new direction: creating more intuitive autonomous text therapy. 

In other words, AI trained on thousands of hours of real-life therapy that can provide personalized sessions, over chat. 

ieso has been around for about ten years, and has been running a text-only therapy service (with human therapists on one end) through the UK’s National Health Service. So far, the company has provided text-based therapy for about 80,000 patients – though 6,000 are actively receiving therapy, Nigel Pitchford, ieso’s CEO told TechCrunch. That’s a total of 460,000 hours of therapy so far. 

“We’ll deliver some sort of 400 hours of therapy this evening, via our network,” said Pitchford. 

This most recent round of funding was led by Morningside, with participation from Sony Innovation Fund. It also included existing investors IP Group, Molten Ventures and Ananda Impact Ventures

Ultimately, ieso is looking to take itself from a human-based therapist based system, to a scaled up autonomous system. The idea of A.I. based chat therapy isn’t exactly unique in this space (we’ve covered other companies pursuing this) but the data behind ieso’s approach is what the company sees as its secret sauce. 

ieso’s “unfair advantage,” is ten years of real-life text-based conversations between patients and therapists, which Pitchford calls “transcripts of care.” That dataset is paired with real-time data on patient’s clinical outcomes, which the company has also been collecting alongside those transcripts. 

“ieso has built one of the most impressive data assets I have seen in the space with their text therapy dataset,” said Stephen Bruso, an investment partner at Morningside. The dataset is one aspect of ieso he finds most attractive as an investor, and called it “unprecedented.” 

This dataset has been used to track how certain therapeutic conversations or techniques are linked (or not linked) to patient improvement. And, there is some evidence ieso has managed to mine that data for insight. For example, the company published a paper in 2019 in JAMA Psychiatry analyzing 90,000 hours of therapy. The paper found that aspects of therapy like “planning for the future,” or certain cognitive behavioral therapy techniques were linked to better patient outcomes. 

Overall, the data suggested that 28 minutes out of every hour of therapy contained conversations or exercises that “directly affected” the patient outcome, said Andy Blackford, the company’s group chief science and strategy officer.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the paper also found that therapeutic empathy was negatively associated with patient outcomes – though other research has suggested clients have better outcomes when they feel their therapists understand them. Blackford interpreted the empathy finding as evidence that empathy should be employed alongside other therapeutic techniques. 

Ultimately, Pitchford sees this dataset, and analysis like the type conducted in that JAMA paper as a roadmap for how the A.I. based therapists will be trained and personalized. 

“So essentially, we’ve been studying what the very best therapists are doing at a very high scale, and then reconstructing that, so it can reach people that are unable to access human psychotherapy delivery, which is a huge problem all over the world,” he said. 

Even with this dataset, ieso does seem to be working in an increasingly crowded space. Funding for mental health startups is anticipated to crack $3 billion in 2021, per Q3 a Silicon Valley Bank Trend report. That means there are a lot of minds focused on the problems associated with traditional therapy right now. 

Bruso sees ieso as one of the few mental health companies that can point to real-world health outcomes, at least using their own dataset. 

“We believe that there is a unique synergy between ieso’s digital products built on real world data, and their ability to trial these products in their existing user base to generate outcomes data from day 1,” he said. “At the end of the day, the products that will last in the space will be those who can demonstrate a measurable impact on both individual health and societal outcomes.”

Blackford is also aware of how packed this space is – in fact, he sees it as a problem for consumers. These apps, ieso’s leadership figures, are often designed for either self-help, mindfulness, or patients with non-severe mental health diagnoses. 

Though ieso can treat people with non-advanced mental health struggles, the company also has a focus on moderate-to-severe diagnoses. It’s not, to use his words, a “wellness solution” – and can be used by groups who might require more intensive care. 

This focus means that safeguards for self-harm need to be especially strong. Blackford says the company has risk escalation protocols in place for its human-based therapy model that have been honed over the course of ten years as one of the largest mental health providers in the UK. The company has plans to incorporate those programs into the autonomous therapy product in the future.  

Right now, Blackford doesn’t anticipate a harder regulatory path because it’s looking to deal with higher-stakes mental health diagnoses. 

“The good thing is that there are precedents and predicates that we can use as we come to market. But the key thing will be about having, you know, demonstrably safe and effective products,” he said. 

The high volume of data the company has already collected will allow it to collect insights into efficacy and safety “many times faster” than you’d expect under regular clinical trial circumstances, Blackford argued. 

Going forwards, ieso plans to use this round to build out its A.I. based therapy arm, and shore up a presence in the US. The team is expected to grow to about 200 people by next year, which will set up a push to go to market over in the next two years. 

Wave brings some science and sanity to the business of mental health

The kids aren’t alright. According to the founders of Wave, 75% of Gen Z is struggling with their emotional well-being. To be clear — not all of them are meeting the criteria for diagnosable mental health illnesses, but they do need a bit more than a firm handshake and a “keep going, son.” That’s the market Wave is primarily going after with its digital platform, which is taking an inclusivity-first approach to making tools and techniques available to young adults.

The app is launching to a public test audience early next year, and with a broader launch to a wider group of consumers later in the year. The company’s founder is Dr. Sarah Adler, a Stanford Professor of Psychiatry and Clinical Psychologist. She is eager to tell the world about what the app will do, but is playing her cards a little guardedly until the app becomes available to the wider public. Adler has spent her career building innovative delivery models to increase access to care through user-centered design. She believes that data-informed, digital solutions paired with well-trained, lower-cost human capital, like health coaches, is the best way to deliver quality care at scale, especially for overlooked populations (think GSRM and BIPOC) traditionally left out of the conversation.

I asked Dr. Adler to give an example of the type of exercises the app would be able to provide.

“One of the things that we fundamentally believe is and this comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is an evidence-based treatment for anxiety and depression. We believe that a lot of the poor decisions that we make in life, or the decisions that don’t make us feel really good, we do because of a lack of clarity about what’s important to us. A values clarification exercise is an exercise that you might do with your therapist if you have one, and you can afford to pay $250 an hour to do that. What we’ve done is we designed one that is much more engaging. It’s a video game-like experience where you’re going through a values clarification exercise, and at the end of it, we’ve evoked the emotion that we want to evoke neurochemically in your brain, the same way that you would do if you were sitting with me in a therapy session,” explains Dr. Adler. “When you have clarity on your values, you can start to piece together how to make decisions. What are the actions that I want to take, that are aligned with my greater values? Do I want to go out and binge drink with my friends tonight? By knowing my longer-term goals and values, I can reconcile my behaviors. That helps me make decisions.”

The company just announced it closed a $2 million pre-seed round late this summer. The round was led by Hannah Grey VC, with participation from K50 Ventures, Tribe Capital, Alumni Venture Group, Verissimo Ventures, Conscience VC and select strategic angels.

“There is a ton of funding pouring into mental health, over $2.5 billion in 2020 alone, to build and scale products that aren’t backed in science, not deeply mired in inclusive user experience, and not showing repeatable outcomes,” says Dr. Adler. “At Wave we aren’t just interested in the business metrics: the downloads, sign-ups and pilots, we are building for tangible results, with measurable outcomes for people who traditionally can’t get care.”

“We’re not fighting social media. We’re trying to integrate it with it. We believe that in order to address and engage these users, we need to meet them where they are — especially true for a generation that’s entirely tied to their phones. We call it our digital ecosystem and it integrates all of the best evidence-based content with immersive experiences that borrow from the best video game technology. I don’t mean token economies; what I mean is what the video game industry has learned about how to keep people engaged with things they have to learn,” explains Dr. Adler. “We create these immersive experiences and deliver them in a way that keeps people coming back to use it. Ultimately, that helps them get better.”

Amazon opens pre-orders for its Halo View fitness band

Amazon announced a new version of its Halo fitness band at its September hardware event, and now you can lock in a pre-order. Halo View, Amazon’s first wearable with a display, is $50 during the pre-order period. It’ll typically cost $80.

The device, which will ship sometime in December, comes with a year-long Halo membership. The plan includes workouts and nutrition guidance, and it typically costs $4 per month.

Halo View has a similar design to Fitbit’s Charge bands. The AMOLED color screen displays details about your live workouts, activity history, blood oxygen and sleep scores, among other things (some of those features are exclusive to the Halo subscription). You can view text notifications too.

The swim-proof device contains a skin temperature sensor, heart rate monitor and an accelerometer. Amazon claims the battery runs for up to seven days on a single charge, and that it will fully recharge in two hours.

Although Halo View doesn’t have a built-in microphone, there is integration with Alexa. If you connect to the voice assistant through the Halo app settings, you can ask an Alexa-enabled device to tell you about your health summary, sleep quality and other information.

Amazon says privacy was a key consideration in how it designed Halo. “There are multiple layers of protections in place to keep data safe and in your control,” the company claims. It also pledged not to sell health data that’s linked directly to you. You’ll have the option to download your health data or delete it from the Halo app at any time too.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Engadget.

Helaina’s latest round brings it closer to market with human milk-equivalent baby formula

Helaina, a company producing a first-of-its-kind infant milk, announced $20 million in Series A financing to usher in its next phase of growth that includes beginning the manufacturing and commercialization process for its first product.

Food scientist Laura Katz, who also teaches food science at New York University, founded the company in 2019, and touts it as “the first company making functional human proteins for food.”

To do this, Helaina is tapping into a precision fermentation process that programs yeast cells and teaches them to become manufacturing hubs to develop almost identical proteins found in human milk.

“When we started Helaina, there was a lot of technology going into a lot of industries, but feeding babies had not advanced too much,” Katz told TechCrunch. “For me, when I thought about where in the population to advance nutrition and health, infants and parents were the first thing that came to me.”

As the infant formula market, poised to be a $103 billion market by 2026, grows, there continues to be shame and stigma around how to feed children in their early years, and Helaina aims to provide parents with a choice of foods that are priced to be accessible to all, but also support as they examine their choices, she said.

Helaina created its first protein and now wants to create all of breast milk’s components, though one at a time. Not only will its product provide calories, but also it will help to build immunity against fungal, bacterial and viral diseases.

The company’s latest round was co-led by Spark Capital and Siam Capital, and includes Plum Alley and Primary Venture Partners. It gives the company $24.6 million in total funding, which includes a $4.6 million combined round of pre-seed and seed investments from 2019 and 2020, respectively, Katz said.

It was a planned round, but what Katz noted was unexpected was the “overwhelming interest” in the company from investors.

“What we found in raising money is such a personal connection to what we are doing,” she added. “So much is happening in food tech, but seeing the ability to use this tech for a product so close to people’s heart has been overwhelming. Lots of people are interested in what we are doing.”

The Series A will enable the company to scale with manufacturing partners to prepare for commercialization. The goal is to grow capability, round out the executive team and finalize go-to-market plans.

The company is working to gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its product and then has plans to use its proteins in a host of consumer products that will be clinically proven, essentially creating a new category within the consumer sector that broadens the definition of nutrition to include immunity, Katz said.

Helaina is not alone in working to create a formula that is more nutritious and best resembles human milk. Earlier this year, Bobbie raised $15 million in Series A funding for its formula modeled after European brands. ByHeart is also developing a formula, while Biomilq says it has produced the “world’s first cell-cultured human milk outside of the breast.”

Katz says the approach her company is taking to create the proteins and focus on making a product that is better in terms of health outcomes is what differentiates Helaina from its competitors.

“Helaina is the first company to bring human proteins to food,” she added. “No one else has done this before. As we expand technology to parents to feed growing children, we are creating this new category that is like consumer immunology.”

Meanwhile, the company is one of the first investments that Sita Chantramonklasri made from her new fund, Siam Capital, which she said invests in businesses that are at the intersection of sustainability and consumer need.

Chantramonklasri spends a lot of her time in the food tech space and heard about Helaina long before she was connected with Katz by Kevin Thau, who led the seed round for Spark Capital, she said.

At the time, she was doing a deep dive into the breast milk space and was looking at some of the novel technology in the space from some of Helaina’s competitors. She spent a lot of time with Katz to understand her background and what Helaina was doing in the space. After spending time in the laboratory and seeing the company’s yeast engineering experience, Chantramonklasri said she felt that Helaina was providing a science-forward product.

“Laura is a fantastic founder and wise beyond her years [she’s 29 years old!] and wants to see the mission of Helaina through,” she added. “The market will get more competitive and timing is the play as is customer loyalty. Helaina is in a position to be an advocate for mothers and families. From a technology standpoint, it is too early to tell what will happen. We see innovation in other cell culture technologies like the Biomilq, but Helaina will be a leader in the space from a progress standpoint.”

 

Indian e-commerce giant Flipkart to acquire an online pharmacy marketplace to foray into healthcare space

Walmart-backed Flipkart is acquiring online pharmacy startup SastaSundar to enter the healthcare segment in India as e-commerce battle intensifies in the world’s second largest internet market.

Flipkart said it has signed definitive agreements to acquire a majority stake in SastaSundar, but did not disclose the size of the deal. Eight-year-old SastaSundar was last valued at $125 million in a financing round in 2019. The Kolkata-headquartered startup, which works with over 490 pharmacies, raised $48.2 million across several financial rounds prior to the current deal, according to research firm Tracxn.

India’s top e-commerce platform, which is valued is valued at over $37 billion, said its healthcare vertical will be called Flipkart Health+. Flipkart’s planned foray into the healthcare space comes at a time when the market is seeing both consolidation and aggressive investments.

Amazon India, Flipkart’s chief rival in India, began selling medicines on its marketplace last year. Reliance Retail, the largest retail chain in India, acquired the parent firm of online pharmacy Netmeds last year. Its conglomerate rival, Tata Digital bought online pharmacy 1mg in June

PharmEasy, the market leading healthcare startup, filed for an $843 million initial public offering earlier this month.

E-pharmacies today accounts for less than 5% of the pharma market and its “scope for growth is very high with increasing awareness, digital penetration and increasing comfort with online transaction in other categories,” analysts at Bernstein said in a report earlier this year. “Even with low levels of penetration, there has been significant levels of consolidation with players exiting and M&A activity,” they added.

Ravi Kant Sharma, founder and chief executive of SastaSundar said the startup’s majority stake acquisition to Flipkart will accelerate the younger firm’s mission to “provide affordable healthcare to all Indians in a convenient manner.”

“The consumer internet ecosystem in India is growing rapidly as consumers recognize the opportunities and convenience that digital adoption is enabling in their lives. With growing awareness and focus on health heightened by the pandemic, there is a large opportunity and demand for affordable healthcare and ancillary offerings,” said Ravi Iyer, Senior Vice President and Head of Corporate Development at Flipkart, in a statement.

“We are excited to enter this space through this investment in SastaSundar.com, a company that has established itself as a trusted partner for lakhs of consumers through genuine products, a technology-powered platform and a wide network. The synergies between the Flipkart Group and SatsaSundar.com, combined with our commitment to prioritize our customer’s needs, will help us grow and transform online healthcare in India.”

EasyHealth, a startup targeting the Medicare experience, announces $135M Series A

EasyHealth, a startup focused on navigating the Medicare experience, announced a $135 million Series A round on Thursday. EasyHealth has a simple purpose: to help enroll, and follow-up with (more on this later), people eligible for Medicare. But the bigger picture is that the company is aiming to fill a major “information gap” facing insurance companies along the way. 

EasyHealth was founded in 2020 (initially under the name Medicare Advisors 365, but has since rebranded to EasyHealth), and this most recent round represents the company’s total financing. The $135 million Series A consists of a $100 million credit facility, and $35 million in equity financing. The round was led by Anthemis Group and QED Investors and included Victory Park Capital, Nationwide Ventures, Healthy Ventures, Brewer Lane, and Operator Partners. 

In some sense, EasyHealth is reminiscent of insurance brokerages – third parties that help people pick between Medicare-eligible insurance plans. EasyHealth can connect users with Medicare Advantage plans (Medicare-approved plans offered by private insurers) or other Medicare supplements or prescription drug plans that partner with medicare. 

Picking these plans can be a fraught process. In New York alone, there are 280 Medicare Advantage Plans and 19 stand-alone Medicare prescription drug plans to pick from according to the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services

That’s a lot of insurance jargon to weed through. In response, about 96 percent of Medicare Advantage and Part D (the drug add-on) plans contract with agents to help sell plans. (Though some studies have suggested that these agents don’t represent all the available options). 

EasyHealth represents about 30-40 percent of Medicare Advantage plans, said CEO David Duel. 

So far, the company has managed to enroll about 40,000 people in Medicare-based plans, per Duel. However, its aiming to be more than a broker. EasyHealth is particularly interested in follow-up up with enrollees. 

That is what Duel sees as a “core differentiation” between EasyHealth and an insurance broker. 

“There’s a lot of brokers and a lot of great companies that support enrollment and support the brokerage function. We’re going beyond just enrollment and having these clinical functions in house by employing a network of nurse practitioners, doctors and medical assistants to do in-home assessments, and meet the members in their home.”

Once a broker helps someone enroll in a healthcare plan, insurers will occasionally send a healthcare professional (usually not someone’s PCP) in-person to do a home visit. These visits are designed to detect chronic conditions or other conditions that might indicate underlying health problems that an insurance company can’t know about before enrollment. 

That “information gap” between a patient’s true health status and what an insurer actually knows  is the pain point Duel is trying to address. 

“If a health insurance plan or a PCP doesn’t know what conditions a member has, they’ll only find out if once the issue becomes chronic, or the guy ends up in the hospital. So having that first party collect preventative data is super, super critical,” he said. 

Duel says that the company has conducted “a few thousand” home visits so far. 

Home visits can also be a money-maker for insurance companies that partner with Medicare. These home visits allow insurers to detect conditions they may otherwise miss. That allows them to adjust “risk scores” assigned to each patient. Higher scores allow companies to bill Medicare for the higher anticipated cost. 

In general, there’s some evidence that home visits can reduce hospitalizations. The Center for Medicare Services also encourages Medicare Advantage companies to conduct health risk assessments, including home visits, because they offer an opportunity to develop a plan of care, deliver an intervention, or adjust a care plan. 

But these home visit health assessments have also been controversial. A 2014 report by the Center for Public Integrity found that home visits had skyrocketed, and had likely led to more payments for insurance companies, while government regulators cast doubt on their effectiveness for patients. 

An Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services issued a report in September 2021, showing that 20 Medicare Advantage companies (a small proportion overall), had driven a disproportionately large share of Medicare spending through diagnosis made, in large part, through health risk assessments. The benefits patients were receiving as a result of this increased spending was not clear, per the report. 

It is possible that beneficiaries are receiving care, but plans are not submitting this data as required,” acknowledged Christi Grimm, Principal Deputy Inspector General of the. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in an op-ed summarizing the report.   

“Regardless, plans that use risk assessments to gather diagnoses, but then take no further action, are clearly missing an opportunity for meaningful care coordination.” 

Overall, the home visit can be a useful tool and an opportunity to improve care. But the concept has also faced criticism when it comes to spending and patient outcomes. 

Duel, for his part, argues these home-visits do drive better care in the long-term.  

“We are facilitating the shift from a reactive care to a proactive care model,” he said. 

“The member gets a detailed education on their benefits and how to utilize them. The members get comprehensive clinical and social determinant screening which uncovers potential conditions and allows the providers to build the right care plan. If providers and payers are not aware of conditions due to poor engagement which is very common, they are unable to proactively manage care.”

So far EasyHealth has been able to get more people to complete home assessments. For example, with Bright Health, an insurance company partner, Duel says EasyHealth has led to an 80 percent visit completion rate, compared to industry averages “between five and 20 percent” he estimates. 

EasyHealth plans to use the $135 million raised to drive this “independent broker space.” The $100 million credit facility portion of this raise will be used to provide technology tools and capital to independent brokers to help them enroll members in Medicare. EasyHealth can then “leverage that membership” to provide the clinical followup portion of its business (the visits). 

Going forward, the membership enrollment will take a back seat to the clinical visit side of things – that’s EasyHealth’s internal core competency. Though the company will keep a hand in enrollment too. 

 

Gravitiq throws its hat into crowded e-commerce aggregator ring

London-based Gravitiq is the latest e-commerce roll-up company, or aggregator, that has attracted a large amount of initial funding. It is buying and scaling Amazon marketplace brands in the digitally-native, consumer e-commerce healthcare sector.

The company announced today $55 million of seed investment in a mix of equity and debt (the company declined to disclose the breakdown), from a group of investors that includes CoVenture and Crossbeam Venture Partners.

What you’ll find a bit different about Gravitiq than its e-commerce aggregator peers is that the company was co-founded by a group that includes doctors and a lawyer, all who know what it takes to build a healthcare brand because they did it with their own brand in 2016.

Doctors Saurabh Srivastava and Adam Gunasekara, and Srivastava’s brother, Sachin, who began his career at Latham & Watkins and has an M&A background, made their first acquisition in October 2020.

“While stuck in a hotel for 14 days during the pandemic, we had the idea of building an online healthcare portfolio that would combine Adam’s and my skills building healthcare companies with Sachin’s M&A background,” CEO Saurabh Srivastava told TechCrunch.

Gunasekara noted that by acquiring brands in one niche, it would be easier to scale due to similarities with customers, while Sachin Srivastava added that having the group’s expertise resonated with sellers who felt comfortable handing their company over to medical specialists.

Gravitiq is looking for companies in all areas of healthcare, like supplements, wellness, baby and first aid. The company has now made half a dozen acquisitions that include orthotics and ADHD and anxiety tools.

The new investment provides a path for the company to acquire additional companies, consider expanding its portfolio of e-commerce healthcare brands and add to its team of 20 employees in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

The company plans to move quickly, but cautiously in the number of companies it buys, and is looking for annual recurring revenue of $1 million to $10 million per brand.

With the new funding, Gravitiq joins a long list of startups that have also attracted venture-backed funding to purchase Amazon marketplace companies. Just this week, San Francisco-based Heyday brought in $555 million in a Series C round. The big name in aggregators, Thrasio, announced $1 billion in October, while Perch grabbed a large investment of $775 million in May.

Sakib Jamal, investor at Crossbeam, says it’s still too early to say how the e-commerce aggregator market will shake out, but that there are a lot of brands that need help. As more and more new sellers join Amazon, there will be a large pool of companies that will seek help from aggregators like Gravitiq, he added.

What stood out to him with Gravitiq was the specialization in healthcare and being able to help companies with their regulatory pathways and making sure they don’t make outlandish claims on packaging, something Amazon won’t necessarily assist with, Jamal said.

“We like that they have both the medical and Amazon operating experience, and that combination is rare,” he added. “Other things that stood out was that they had already successfully run a brand and the materials and the processes they created on how they would do this — even before acquiring their first companies. There was also a trust factor, we trusted them and knew sellers would too.”