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SoftBank’s $100 million diversity and inclusion fund makes its first bet … in health

By Jonathan Shieber

SoftBank’s Opportunity Growth Fund has made the health insurance startup Vitable Health the first commitment from its $100 million fund dedicated to investing in startups founded by entrepreneurs of color.

The Philadelphia-based company, which recently launched from Y Combinator, is focused on bringing basic health insurance to underserved and low-income communities.

Founded by Joseph Kitonga, a 23 year-old entrepreneur whose parents immigrated to the U.S. a decade ago, Vitable provides affordable acute healthcare coverage to underinsured or un-insured populations and was born out of Kitonga’s experience watching employees of his parents’ home healthcare agency struggle to receive basic coverage.

The $1.5 million commitment was led by the SoftBank Group Corp Opportunity Fund, and included Y Combinator, DNA Capital, Commerce Ventures, MSA Capital, Coughdrop Capital, and angels like Immad Akhund, the chief executive of Mercury Bank; and Allison Pickens, the former chief operating officer of Gainsight, the company said in a blog post.

“Good healthcare is a basic right that every American deserves, whoever they are,” said Paul Judge, the Atlanta-based Early Stage Investing Lead for the fund and the founder of Atlanta’s TechSquare Labs investment fund. “We’ve been inspired by Joseph and his approach to addressing this challenge. Vitable Health is bridging critical gaps in patient care and has emerged as a necessary, essential service for all whether they’re uninsured, underinsured, or simply need a better plan for their lifestyle.”

SoftBank created the opportunity fund while cities around the U.S. were witnessing a wave of public protests against systemic racism and police brutality stemming from the murder of the Black Minneapolis citizen George Floyd at the hands of white police officers.  Floyd’s murder reignited simmering tensions between citizens and police in cities around the country over issues including police brutality, the militarization of civil authorities, and racial profiling.

SoftBank has had its own problems with racism in its portfolio this year. A few months before the firm launched its fund, the CEO and founder of one of its portfolio companies, Banjo, resigned after it was revealed that he once had ties to the KKK.

With the Opportunity Fund, SoftBank is trying to address some of its issues, and notably, will not take a traditional management fee for transactions out of the fund “but instead will seek to put as much capital as possible into the hands of founders and entrepreneurs of color.”

The Opportunity Fund is the third investment vehicle announced by SoftBank in the last several years. The biggest of them all is the $100 billion Vision Fund; then last year it announced the $2 billion Innovation Fund focused on Latin America.

MindLabs raises £1.4 million for its new platform, a “Peloton for mental health”

By Catherine Shu

Ideally, mental wellness should be considered part of a healthy daily routine, like exercise. But even exercise is difficult to turn into a regular habit. Peloton addressed physical fitness by combining smart stationary bikes with live classes and community features to create an engaging experience. Now a new startup, MindLabs, is taking a similar approach to mental wellness.

Based in London, MindLabs announced today it has raised £1.4 million (about USD $1.82 million) in pre-seed investment led by Passion Capital, with participation from SeedCamp, as well as several founders of British consumer tech startups: Alex Chesterman (Cazoo and Zoopla); Neil Hutchinson (Forward Internet Group); Steve Pankhurst (FriendsReunited); James Hind (Carwow); and Jack Tang (Urban).

MindLabs was founded earlier this year by Adnan Ebrahim and Gabor Szedlak, who previously launched and ran Car Throttle, an online media and community startup that was acquired by Dennis Publishing last year. Ebrahim told TechCrunch that MindLabs’ goal is to “make taking care of your mental health as normal as going to the gym.”

Its platform will launch next year, first with a mobile app that combines live videos from mental health professionals who lead meditation and mindfulness sessions, and features to help users track their stress levels. The full platform will also include an EEG headband, called “Halo,” that measures signals, like heart and respiration rates, that can help show users how effective their sessions are.

Going from CarThrottle, sometimes described as “a BuzzFeed for cars” to mental wellness might seem like a big leap, but Ebrahim said their experience “running a media company in a tough market with a young, millennial workforce” inspired him and Szedlak to think more about the issue.

MindLabs founders Gabor Szedlak and Adnan Ebrahim

MindLabs founders Gabor Szedlak and Adnan Ebrahim

“We witnessed firsthand how there was a complete lack of investment in helping this generation with their mental health in a way that they’re used to: a community product that is mobile-first and video-led,” Ebrahim said.

“Alongside that, we had to find ways to deal with managing our own mental health given the stresses that can come when running a fast-paced, venture-backed company. And when we saw the alarming statistics in young adult suicide rates and depression, we realized that finding a solution for our own problems would help millions of others, too.”

The two left Dennis Publishing to begin work on MindLabs at the end of January. During the next few months, including time spent in COVID-19 lockdown, they began researching and developing initial concepts for the platform.

“It’s fair to say that the pandemic did end up altering the course of MindLabs,” Ebrahim said. “For example, we built more real-time community features into the app as a result of the isolation and loneliness we are all now facing as a result of lockdown. We really want to make sufferers feel less alone during the hard times, but with the added convenience now of being able to watch our videos at home.

“This has already become the new normal when it comes to physical fitness, with companies like Peloton exploding in growth, and we see the same trend happening with mental wellness, too,” he added.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also been described as a mental health crisis, and downloads of meditation and mindfulness apps like Calm, Headspace and Relax: Master Your Destiny, have grown as people try to deal with anxiety, isolation and depression at home.

Two of the main ways MindLabs’ platform differentiates from other mental wellness apps is the combination of its video classes and EEG headband. The videos will initially range in length from 10 to 40 minutes and, like Peloton’s classes, will be available on livestream or in pre-recorded, on-demand sessions.

Instead of categorizing videos by technique (for example, meditation, breathing or visualization), MindLabs decided to sort them into issues that users want to cope with, like anxiety, relationships, motivation or addiction. For example, meditation classes may include ones focused on “Overcoming COVID-19 Anxiety” or “Coping With Stress At Work.”

Community features will be linked to the classes: the number of concurrent users in a class will be displayed, along with a live feed showing subscriber achievements, like streaks or number of minutes spent in a “calm state,” that other people can react to for positive reinforcement.

Halo was developed with a hardware specialist that Ebrahim said has seven years of building and distributing medical grade wearables.

“Most importantly our headset will be going through the rigor of ISO 13485 so we can ensure the product is of the highest quality and the data we gather is the most accurate,” he added. “We want to make this technology accessible, so we expect the price of the Halo to be comparable to, say, an Apple Watch.”

Other EEG headbands, including products from Muse and Emotiv, have been on the market for a while. In MindLabs’ case, its headband will help users visualize data before, during and after their classes, including information about their brain waves, heart rates and muscle tension, and saved in the app so they can track their progress.

Turning mental wellness into a habit

One of the biggest challenges that all mental wellness apps need to address is user engagement. It can be hard staying motivated to use a self-directed mental health app when someone is already stressed, depressed or very busy. On the other hand, when they feel better, they might stop checking in.

Ebrahim sees this as a major opportunity for MindLabs, and its EEG headband and data visualization features will play a major role. “Even though there was been a proliferation of mental health apps, retention has proven difficult. But we think that is because these apps truly don’t understand their users,” he said.

“With the data we’re able to show, not just through the Halo but through syncing with Apple HealthKit, we can show our subscribers a positive progression of their mental health, similar to how you can see your weight change on a scale, or improvement in heart rate variability in an app. This helps build a powerful habit because we can finally help to close the loop when it comes to improving mental fitness.”

Participating in live classes provides accountability, too, he added. “The act of scheduling a class and tuning in with thousands of others is a powerful force, similar to having a personal trainer in the gym making sure you turn up and workout.”

MindLabs also plans to build communities around its instructors. During livestreams, instructors will welcome new subscribers and mention user achievements. After each workout, users will get a results screen they can share, similar to screenshots from fitness apps like Strava or Nike Training Club.

In terms of protecting personal privacy, Ebrahim said MindLabs is “firmly against any form of data commercialization.” Instead, it will monetize through monthly or yearly subscriptions, and user data collected through Halo or the app will only be used to make personalized content recommendations.

In a statement about Passion Capital’s investment in MindLabs, partner Eileen Burbidge said, “We’re incredibly excited to be working with MindLabs as they transform the way we look after our minds. Mindfulness is more important now than ever and we know that Adnan and Gabor’s commitment to best in class content, quality production and unparalleled user experience means they’re the best to bring this platform to market.”

 

It’s Time to Talk About Covid-19 and Surfaces Again

By Gregory Barber
In the early days, we furiously scrubbed, afraid we could get sick from the virus lingering on objects and surfaces. What do we know now?

Lee Fixel is already raising a massive second fund

By Connie Loizos

On Friday, former Tiger Global Management investor Lee Fixel registered plans for the second fund of his new investment firm, Addition, just four months after closing the first. According to a report on Friday by the Financial Times, the outfit spent last week finalizing the fundraising for the $1.4 billion fund, which Addition reportedly doesn’t plan to begin investing until next year.

But a source close to the firm now says the capital has not been raised. That’s perhaps good news for investors who were shut out of Addition’s $1.3 billion debut fund and who might be hoping to write a check this time around.

The mere fact that Fixel is back in the market already has tongues wagging about the dealmaker, one whose reluctance to talk on the record with media outlets seems only to add to his mystique. Forbes published a lengthy piece about Fixel this summer, in which Fixel seems to have provided just one public statement, confirming the close of Addition’s first fund and adding little else. “We are excited to partner with visionary entrepreneurs, and with our 15-year fund duration, we have the patience to support our portfolio companies on their journey to build impactful and enduring businesses,” it read.

According to Forbes, that first fund — which Fixel is actively putting to work right now — intends to invest one-third of its capital in early-stage startups and two-thirds in growth-stage opportunities.

Whether that includes some of the special purpose acquisition vehicles, or SPACs, that are coming together right and left, isn’t yet known, though one imagines these might appeal to Fixel, who has long seemed to be at the forefront of new trends impacting growth-stage companies in particular. (A growing number of SPACs is right now looking to transform into public companies some of the many hundreds of richly valued private companies in the world.)

Clearer is that Addition is wasting little time in writing some big checks. Among its announced deals is Inshorts, a seven-year-old, New Delhi, India-based popular news aggregation app that last week unveiled $35 million new funding led by Fixel.

The deal represents Addition’s first India-based bet, even while Fixel knows both the country and the startup well. He previously invested in Inshorts on behalf of Tiger; he’s also credited for snatching up a big stake in Flipkart on behalf of Tiger, a move that reportedly produced $3.5 billion in profits when Flipkart sold to Walmart.

Addition also led a $200 million round last month in Snyk, a five-year-old, London-based startup that helps companies securely use open-source code. The round valued the company at $2.6 billion — more than twice the valuation it was assigned when it raised its previous round 10 months ago.

And in August, Addition led a $110 million Series D round for Lyra Health, a five-year-old, Burlingame, California-based provider of mental health care benefits for employers that was founded by former Facebook CFO David Ebersman.

A smaller check went to Temporal, a year-old, Seattle-based startup that is building an open-source, stateful microservices orchestration platform. Last week, the company announced $18.75 million in Series A funding led by Sequoia Capital, but Addition also joined the round, having been an earlier investor in the company.

According to PitchBook data, Addition has made at least 17 investments altogether.

Fixel — whose bets while at Tiger include Peloton and Spotify — isn’t running Addition single-handedly, though according to Forbes, he is the single “key man” around which the firm revolves, as well as the biggest investor in Addition’s first fund.

He has also brought aboard at least three investment principals from Wall Street and a head of data science who worked formerly for Uber (per Forbes). Ward Breeze, a longtime attorney who worked formerly in the emerging companies practice of Gunderson Dettmer, is also working with Fixel at Addition.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Fixel’s newest fund was already raised, per the FT.)

EU switches on cross-border interoperability for first batch of COVID-19 contacts tracing apps

By Natasha Lomas

The European Union has switched on cross-border interoperability for a first batch of COVID-19 contacts tracing apps that use Bluetooth proximity to calculate the exposure risk of smartphone users after a pilot of the system last month.

National apps whose backends are now linked through the gateway service are Germany’s Corona-Warn-App, the Republic of Ireland’s COVID tracker, and Italy’s Immuni app.

This means a user of one of those apps who travels to any of the other countries can expect their national app to send relevant exposure notifications in the same way it should if they had not travelled — without the need to download any additional software.

Collectively, the three national COVID-19 apps have been downloaded by around 30 million people that the EU said corresponds to two-thirds of such downloads in the region.

Image Credits: EU Publications Office

Other national apps are expected to gain interoperability as they are added to the service in the coming weeks — with at least 18 more compatible national apps identified at this stage.

A second batch of national apps is expected to be added next week after a period of testing — namely: Czechia’s eRouška, Denmark’s Smitte|stop, Latvia’s Apturi COVID and Spain’s Radar Covid (although the latter still doesn’t have full coverage in Spain with the Catalonia region yet to integrate it with its regional healthcare system). Further compatible apps are slated to be added in November.

The gateway has been designed to work, in the first instance, with official coronavirus apps that have a decentralized architecture — meaning any that use a centralized architecture, such as France’s StopCovid app, aren’t currently compatible.

The U.K.’s collection of apps, meanwhile — for England & Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland — are unlikely to get plugged in, despite having a technically compatible app architecture, as the country is due to exit the trading bloc at the end of this year. (So interoperability would require a separate agreement between the U.K. and the EU.)

“About two-thirds of EU Member States have developed compatible tracing and warning apps, and the gateway is open to all of them, once they are ready to connect. The connection will gradually take place during October and November, however apps can also connect at a later stage if national authorities wish so. An ‘onboarding protocol’ has been developed, setting out the necessary steps,” the Commission notes in an Q&A.

The cross-border system for the EU’s apps works via the use of a gateway server, developed and set up by T-Systems and SAP and operated from the Commission’s data centre in Luxembourg, which receives and passes on arbitrary identifiers between national apps.

“No other information than arbitrary keys, generated by the apps, will be handled by the gateway,” the EU notes in a press release. “The information is pseudonymised, encrypted, kept to the minimum and only stored as long as necessary to trace back infections. It does not allow the identification of individual persons, nor to track location or movement of devices.”

Getting a cross-border system up and running so swiftly across a patchwork of national COVID-19 apps is an achievement for the EU, even as there are ongoing questions about the utility of Bluetooth-based coronavirus exposure notifications in the fight against the spread of the novel coronavirus — with much of Europe now experiencing a second wave of the pandemic.

However EU commissioners suggested today that such apps can be a useful complement to other measures, such as manual contact tracing.

Commenting in a statement, Stella Kyriakides, EU commissioner for health and food safety, said: “Coronavirus tracing and warning apps can effectively complement other measures like increased testing and manual contact tracing. With cases on the rise again, they can play an important role to help us break the transmission chains. When working across borders these apps are even more powerful tools. Our gateway system going live today is an important step in our work, and I would call on citizens to make use of such apps, to help protect each other.”

“Free movement is an integral part of the Single Market — the gateway is facilitating this while helping save lives,” added Thierry Breton, commissioner for the internal market.

Babies May Be Drinking Millions of Microplastic Particles a Day

By Matt Simon
Scientists discover that baby bottles shed up to 16 million bits of plastic per liter of fluid. What that means for infants’ health, no one can yet say.

America's Poor Were Sick Before the Pandemic. Covid Made It Worse

By Adam Rogers
An enormous new data set peers into the health of the world’s population before 2020—and how the coronavirus turned that into a global disaster.

In the US, 50 States Could Mean 50 Vaccine Rollout Strategies

By Maryn McKenna
The CDC put out a central playbook for how to distribute the shots. But how states will address these guidelines is anything but uniform.

What Forest Floor Playgrounds Teach Us About Kids and Germs

By Megan Molteni
Finnish researchers just published the first big test of the “biodiversity hypothesis”—that exposure to the microbes in dirt is good for young immune systems.

New Oxford machine learning-based COVID-19 test can provide results in under 5 minutes

By Darrell Etherington

Oxford scientists working out of the school’s Department of Physics have developed a new type of COVID-19 test that can detect SARS-CoV-2 with a high degree of accuracy, directly in samples taken from patients, using a machine learning-based approach that could help sidestep test supply limitations, and that also offers advantages when it comes to detecting actual virus particles, instead of antibodies or other signs of the presence of the virus which don’t necessarily correlate to an active, transmissible case.

The test created by the Oxford researchers also offer significant advantages in terms of speed, providing results in under five minutes, without any sample preparation required. That means it could be among the technologies that unlock mass testing – a crucial need not only for getting a handle on the current COVID-19 pandemic, but also on helping us deal with potential future global viral outbreaks, too. Oxford’s method is actually well-designed for that, too, since it can potentially be configured relatively easily to detect a number of viral threats.

The technology that makes this possible works by labelling any virus particles found in a sample collected by a patient using short, fluorescent DNA strands that act as markers. A microscope images the sample and the labelled viruses present, and then machine learning software takes over using algorithmic analysis developed by the team to automatically identify the virus, using differences that each one produces in terms of its fluorescent light emitted owing to their different physical surface makeup, size and individual chemical composition.

This technology, including the sample collection equipment, the microscopic imager and the flourescence insertion tools, as well as the compute capabilities, can be miniaturized to the point where it’s possible to be used just about anywhere, according to the researchers – including “businesses, music venues, airports,” and more. The focus now is to create a spinout company for the purposes of commercializing the device in a format that integrates all the components together.

The researchers anticipate being able to form the company, and start product development by early next year, with the potentially of having a device approved for use and ready for distribution around six months after that. It’s a tight timeline for development of a new diagnostic device, but timelines have changed already amply in the face of this pandemic, and will continue to do so as we’re unlikely to see if fade away anytime in the near future.

Spain’s Savana Medica raises $15 million to bring its AI toolkit turning clinical notes into care insights to the US

By Jonathan Shieber

Savana, a machine learning-based service that turns clinical notes into structured patient information for physicians and pharmacists, has raised $15 million to take its technology from Spain to the U.S., the company said.

The investment was led by Cathay Innovation with participation from the Spanish investment firm Seaya Ventures, which led the company’s previous round, and new investors like MACSF, a French insurance provider for doctors. 

The company has already processed 400 million electronic medical records in English, Spanish, German, and French.

Founded in Madrid in 2014, the company is relocating to New York and is already working with the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies and over 100 healthcare facilities.

“Our mission is to predict the occurrence of disease at the patient level. This focuses our resources on discovering new ways of providing medical knowledge almost in real time — which is more urgent than ever in the context of the pandemic,” said Savana chief executive Jorge Tello. “Healthcare challenges are increasingly global, and we know that the application of AI across health data at scale is essential to accelerate health science.”

Company co-founder and chief medical officer, Dr. Ignacio Hernandez Medrano, also emphasized that while the company is collecting hundreds of millions of electronic records, it’s doing its best to keep that information private.

“One of our main value propositions is that the information remains controlled by the hospital, with privacy guaranteed by the de-identification of patient data before we process it,” he said. 

 

Rosita Longevity wants to teach seniors how to live long, healthy lives

By Natasha Lomas

Longevity, as far as startups are concerned, tends to be a moonshot-y space where technologies like biotech and AI are experimentally applied in a sort of modern day alchemical quest — and the great hope is to (somehow) ‘hack’ biology and substantially extend the human lifespan. Or even end death altogether.

Coming considerably closer to Earth is Spanish startup Hearts Radiant, which says it’s in the “longevity tech” business but is taking a far more grounded and practical approach to addressing ageing. In short it believes it’s nailed a formula for helping people live to a ripe old age.

And — here’s the key — to do so healthily.

So its moonshot isn’t to help people get to a biblical 150 or even 120. It’s about supporting seniors to live well, up to a ‘good innings’ like 95, while (hopefully) retaining their independence and vitality through the application of technology that creates a structured and engaging lifestyle routine which works to combat age-related conditions such as frailty and social isolation.

Gently does it

The startup is coming out of stealth today to disclose a first tranche of pre-seed funding and chat to TechCrunch about its dream of supporting seniors to live a more active, fulfilling and independent life.

The €450k pre-seed round, which is led by JME.vc with participation from Kfund, Seedcamp and NextVentures, will be used for research and continued development of its Rosita Longevity digital coach. The app has been in beta testing in a limited form since January — currently only for Android devices, given seniors tend to have their relatives’ hand-me-down smartphone hardware (but iOS is on the roadmap) — offering livestreamed and on-demand video classes like cardio flamenco and age-appropriate yoga for its target 60+ year-olds. 

Rosita’s co-founders are husband and wife team, Juan Cartagena (CEO) and Clara Fernández (CCO), along with CTO David Gil. Their premise is that what humans really need, as they age, is guidance and motivation to stay as active as they can, for as long as they can — and that a digital platform is the best way to make personalized, ‘healthy habit’ forming therapy for seniors widely accessible.

“We believe that we have to be a habit engine,” says Cartagena, offering “health longevity” as another descriptor for the scope of what they’re aiming to achieve.

Fernández is drawing directly on her years of experience as CEO of Balneario de Cofrentes, a family business in Valencia, which she describes as a “longevity school” or camp for seniors — and which the website suggests is a combination of spa/hotel, physical therapy/rehabilitation and education center. There she’s been responsible for overseeing activity and education programs tailored to seniors, offering guided exercise and advice on things like disease avoidance and good nutrition.

“Over the last ten years we have developed a very comprehensive strategy on how to educate, how to create habits in the senior community so that they can increase their healthy lifespan,” she explains. “We have a specific methodology. We start with teaching seniors how to manage their current health situation and we progressively start educating them with lifestyle, prevention of the main diseases, and also education about the latest discoveries in the field of science.”

“I realized that the main way to expand this was taking it online,” she adds on the decision to package the program into a digital coaching app — “where a bigger percentage of the senior population could benefit”.

Lifestyle is a key part of the proposition. But they’re most comfortable with the badge of ‘longevity tech’.

“We are trying not to play in fitness for many reasons,” adds Cartagena. “It’s limited in scope. And we are trying to go beyond that — it’s just the starting point [for reducing frailty] and the issues related to that, including the final ‘disease’ which would be dependence.”

Since the premise underlying the Rosita app hinges on the proven health benefits of regular, moderate exercise as a means of combating a range of age-related conditions — such as muscle mass loss and reduced bone density leading to frailty (which in turn can lead to a fall, a broken hip, and a senior who’s suddenly dependent on personal care) — or, beyond that, as a general bolster for mental and brain health — they are squatting on established (rather than moonshotty) science.

Although they do still need to demonstrate that digitally delivered, personalized programs of lifestyle coaching — featuring familiar but still sometimes clunky technologies like AI and chatbots — can actually help reverse frailty (in the first instance) for seniors participating remotely, with no human physiotherapists on hand to help.

Screenshots of the digital coaching app (Image credit: Hearts Radiant/Rosita Longevity)

Hence some of the funding will go on researching how their bricks-and-mortar ‘longevity school’ program translates to a digital platform. And, more specifically, whether personalised digital coaching for 60+ year olds will yield tangible reductions in frailty (and thus gains in active years) in the same way that in-person group exercises have already been shown to. (One area that certainly merits close study is whether social human contact derived from a purely digital experience vs in-person group therapy makes a difference to treatment outcomes.)

It’s true that no smartphone in the world can transform a bog-standard bathroom into a full on luxury spa. But other elements of the Balneario’s program simply need digitizing and structuring to serve up similar benefits, is the thinking.

The sorts of digital activity programs they’re devising for the app are designed to be fun for seniors as well as beneficial and appropriate for a particular frailty level. Examples of classes currently offered include reduced mobility dance, burpee-free ‘cross fit’, and osteoarthritis-safe karate.

The onboarding process involves an assessment to determine a senior’s frailty level in order that users are offered content at an activity level that’s appropriate for their physical condition.

Long is the road

Cartagena notes they’re working with Dr. José Viña, a professor at the University of Valencia, who is renowned in the longevity field. “He has proven he can revert frailty in the earliest stages by applying a certain methodology to specific muscles with a treatment of exercise-fusion — with some lifestyle habits. Now what has not been proven is whether that is applicable to a remote environment where people do it on their own,” he adds. “And this what we are doing right now. This pre-seed round is basically to take that uncertainty, put that in front of a few thousand [app] users, take that research… and see if in the next 12 months we improve [their frailty level].”

The actual Balneario is closed at the moment, in this health-stricken year of the novel coronavirus, but the plan is to reopen in March 2021 — and then introduce the annual intake to Rosita — garnering ongoing feedback on whether or not it’s steering them toward health-supporting habits.

“It’s all about understanding the customer so well and that’s where the competitive advantage of this company really comes from,” argues Cartagena. “By having 15,000 seniors per year coming to the school, every year we understand the customer very well, their habits, what they do, what they don’t. They come every year so we can ask them what did you do last year?

“That will be for us the way to have a massive focus group — let’s say a sliding window of focus group that we can see for ten days using the product — and we can iterate much faster by seeing not people just through our analytics but people who are using the product in front of us. One hundred or 500 people a day in our resort. And I think that will be a fundamental way in which we can actually build something that people really need and use and care about.”

The current version of the app doesn’t yet include AI-powered personalized coaching. But that’s again where the pre-seed funding comes in. “The initial coach for education and frailty itineraries should be ready in three weeks (together with our iOS app),” says Cartagena. “This solves a pressing problem our users have today.

“The personalized coach (pathologies, followups, context, atomization of exercises, etc) has a lot of logic behind and testing this properly will take more time. We will release that intelligence slowly and we should feel ‘proud’ by Christmas. That will become our Habits Engine. Together with our geroscience research plan, those are the uncertainties to get right with our current funding.”

Targeting chronic pain is another key aim for the app, although he concedes there may be some types of pain they won’t be able to address. The co-founders add that the app is intended to supplement not replace traditional healthcare — pointing out it’s being designed to be more forward-looking; aka that prevention of age-related problems is exactly the strategy to live better for longer.

“Telehealth is more about managing a disease — we’re more about preventing,” adds Fernández. “We’re more about discovering what are the indicators and the tools to make sure that the senior population… understand what it happening to their body, what is going to happen over the next ten years and start to slowly develop those habits so that they can minimize, reduce the evolution, the natural ageing process.”

Cartagena notes they are also working with researchers on developing sensor hardware that could go alongside the app to enhance their ability to predict frailty — suggesting it will allow them to define a wider/more nuanced range of user categories (the first version of the app has three categories but he says they want to be able to offer nine).

Smartphone and sensor hardware combined with AI technology has, for some years now, been enabling a new generation of guided physical therapy apps that seek to offer an alternative to pharmaceutical-based management for chronic pain — such as Kaia Health and Hinge Health, to name two. And of course mindfulness/guided mediation has become a huge app business. While the broader concept of ‘digital health’ has, over the past half decade or so, seen CBT-style therapy programs packaged up to be put on tap in people’s pockets. So there’s nothing inherently strange or exotic about the idea of a longevity coach for seniors.

Albeit, getting the user experience right could well be the biggest challenge. Cartagena says the app’s tone is important — talking in terms of not wanting to be “patronizing” or make seniors feel like Rosita is giving them “homework” — so they really click with the virtual coach and stay engaged.

Fernández too emphasizes the goal is to sustain good habits. Ergo, this is a (gentle) marathon not a sprint. 

If they can design a safe and engaging experience that seniors don’t find off-putting, tedious or confusing the potential to expand access to therapies, activities and information that can improve people’s quality of life looks huge. Frailty is also only the team’s first focus. As they develop the product and grow usage they want to be able to support their users to form healthy habits that could help stave off neurodegenerative conditions like dementia, for example. Combating loneliness and social isolation is another goal. So there’s a whole range of health plans they’re hoping Rosita will be able to deliver.

“What we’re doing right now is focused especially on frailty — we’re developing the personalized AI coach on top of that — and what we’re going to do is start adding the layers of all the different health plans that we’re going to be establishing off the longevity coach,” says Fernández. “Nutrition, cognitive stimulation, relaxation and breathing, and on top of that we will put all the prevention strategies — and all the classes that we’re preparing for longevity.

“One of the things that we have tested in the clinic that is very important is to educate the user. Not just on what they need to do today — but on what is happening to their ageing process, what is happening to their metabolism, what is happening to their musculoskeletal system. How and why your body is ageing is fundamental so you can make small decisions. By empowering users through education they can understand and relate to why this specific thing that you’re telling them today is useful in the long run.”

“One of the most successful strategies that we have built is creating this whole course on longevity which is what is happening to your body — what science knows today about the field of longevity,” she adds. “And how you can minimize those symptoms. And those things we’re translating completely into the [app].”

Cartagena also points to the risk of a COVID-19 ‘4th wave’ of deaths that could result from seniors becoming more frail than they otherwise would after being forced into a more sedentary existence as a result of lockdown measures and concerns about their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

Or, in other words, sitting at home on the sofa might help seniors stay free of virus but if abrupt inactivity risks their vitality that too could cut short a healthy lifespan. So tools to help older people stay active are looking more important than ever. And to that end he says the app will remain free throughout the pandemic — envisaging that could stretch into 2022.

The plan for the business model is b2c, likely focused on selling premium content — such as connecting users directly with a therapist to chat through their progress. In the meanwhile they’re relying on VC to get their digital “motivation engine” to market.

Right now they have 5,000 “pre-registrations” for the app and 1,000 seniors actively testing the product (all aged 60 to 80, in Spain). They’ve also just pushed out an update, moving the software out of the ‘early access’ phase — as they progress toward launching their “personalized AI coach for longevity.”

And while Rosita’s coaching is currently only available in Spanish — with the team having recorded “hundreds” of videos so far for different levels and chronic pathologies — the aim is to scale up in Europe (and perhaps beyond), starting with the U.K. market. Which makes English the next natural language for them to build out content.

Twentyeight Health is a telemedicine company expanding access to women’s health and reproductive care

By Jonathan Shieber

New York’s Twentyeight Health is taking the wildly telemedicine services for women’s health popularized by companies like Nurx and bringing them to a patient population that previously hadn’t had access. 

The mission to provide women who are Medicaid or underinsured should not be deprived of the same kinds of care that patients who have more income security or better healthcare coverage enjoy, according to the company’s founder, Amy Fan.

The mission, and the company’s technology, have managed to convince a slew of investors who have poured $5.1 million in seed funding into the new startup. Third Prime led the round, which included investments from Town Hall Ventures, SteelSky Ventures, Aglaé Ventures, GingerBread Capital, Rucker Park Capital, Predictive VC, and angel investors like Stu Libby, Zoe Barry, and Wan Li Zhu.

“Women who are on Medicaid, who are underinsured or without health insurance often struggle to find access to reproductive health services, and these struggles have only increased with COVID-19 pandemic limiting access to in-person appointments,” said Amy Fan, co-founder of Twentyeight Health, in a statement. “We are fighting for healthcare equity, ensuring that all women, particularly BIPOC women and women from low-income backgrounds, can access high quality, dignified and convenient care.”

To ensure that its catering to underserved communities, the company works with Bottomless Closet, a workforce entry program for women, and the 8 colleges in the City University of New York ecosystem including LaGuardia College, which has 45,000 students with 70% coming from families making less than $30,000 in annual income.

The company’s services are currently available across Florida, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and Pennsylvania and it’s the only telemedicine company focused on contraception services to accept Medicaid.

In another example of how awesome this company is, it’s also working to provide free birth control for women who aren’t able to pay out of pocket and are uninsured through a partnership with Bedsider’s Contraceptive Access Fund. The company also donates 2% of its revenue to Bedsider and the National Institute for Reproductive Health. (Y’all, this company is amaze.)

To sign up for the service, new customers fill out a medical questionnaire online. Once the questionnaire is reviewed by a US board-certified doctor within 24 hours customers can access over 100 FDA-approved brands of birth control pills, patches, rings, shots, and emergency contraception and receive a shipment within three days.

Twentyeight Health provides ongoing care through online audio consultations and doctor follow up messages to discuss issues around updating prescriptions or addressing side effects, the company said.

“Today, low-income women are three times more likely to have an unintended pregnancy than the average woman in the U.S., and nearly one-third of physicians nationwide aren’t accepting new Medicaid patients,” said Bruno Van Tuykom, co-founder of Twentyeight Health, in a statement. “This underscores why offering high-quality reproductive care that is inclusive of people across race, income bracket, or health insurance status is more important than ever.”

Launched in 2018, Twentyeight Health said it would use the new cash to continue to expand its services across the U.S.

 

Coa wants to bring an emotional workout into your fitness regimen

By Natasha Mascarenhas

When’s the last time you worked out your soul?

A mid-spin pep talk at SoulCycle might make you shed a tear, but not in the way that the co-founders of Coa, Alexa Meyer and Dr. Emily Anhalt, want. The founders, instead, want people to ask themselves: When was the last time you worked out (just) your soul?

If you stutter in response, that’s the impetus for Coa, a gym for mental health and online emotional fitness classes. The company just raised a $3 million seed round led by Crosslink Ventures, with participation from Red Sea Ventures and Alpaca VC. Other investors include Neil Parikh (the founder of Casper) and professional basketball player Kevin Love.

Coa’s core product, pre-launch, is small-group studio classes taught by licensed therapists. A customer will get onboarded, evaluated and placed into a series of classes spanning how to live alone during a pandemic to how to deal with political anxiety.

The class experience mixes lecture-style teaching with breakout sessions to breed conversations. Broadly, Coa is on a mission to take the small-group fitness culture that makes SoulCycle so successful and apply it to mental health. It makes sense: small-group fitness is easy to schedule into your busy days, breeds camaraderie and creates a sense of community that keeps you coming back for more.

Beyond studio classes, Coa sells private classes and offers free community classes.

Off the bat, the co-founders are clear about what Coa is not: a replacement for therapy. Instead, Coa wants to be a “therapeutic experience,” and the only people who create or teach content are licensed therapists. For 1:1 services, Coa has a therapist matchmaking service, currently only active in California (soon to be New York and other states). Of course, though, the fact that Coa has therapist connector services means that it will lose some customers, brought in by Coa, once they graduate to real therapy.

Coa seemingly has a grey persona to sell to: people who want to pay for their mental health, but not enough to go to therapy. Coa pricing is key here, and drop-in classes start at $25 to bring some of the accessibility to mental health awareness. The startup’s go to market strategy is currently through free community classes and offering subsidized programs for employees by working directly with employers. Coa currently works with companies including Silicon Valley Bank, Spotify, Asana and Salesforce.

“It’s pretty impossible to replace the magic that can happen between two people meeting consistently every single week and diving deep,” Meyer said. “Our problem that we worked on solving is essentially how do you support people and go deep without asking them to go farther than it’s safe to do in a group setting.” The other hurdle, which again trickles down to the eventual core customers that Coa secures, is that the small-group format requires customers to offer up a certain amount of vulnerability during each class.

We were warned that people do not want to talk about mental health and don’t want anyone to know they’re signing up for a class,” Anhalt told TechCrunch. “We’ve seen the complete opposite with our community.”

Meyer notes that group therapy does not legally require participants to promise confidentiality, but instead that participants usually follow a shared understanding that privacy is an important asset. Coa follows the same framework, posing a confidentiality agreement upfront. Participants are not required or demanded to share any information beforehand.

“There’s no sort of way to legally mandate people to keep those things private, and so far we have seen that it has not been an issue,” Meyer said.

Privacy, though, continues to be a struggle for therapy startups, as shown by a recent investigation into Talkspace by The New York Times. Talkspace, similar to Coa, has a noble mission: democratize access to mental health and make it more affordable. In Talkspace’s case, the goal was challenged when the company reportedly put the privacy of user conversations at risk.

Coa is optimistic it can make a difference without making an ethical compromise.

“Confidentiality and clinical integrity is everything,” Meyer said. “So we take measures far beyond what we’re legally and ethically required to do.” Some of those measures: a dedicated person who manages patient to therapist information, no post-class surveys or analytics and an internal commitment to not sharing who is participating in which classes.

Coa views its competition broadly as any startup in the therapy space: Talkspace, TwoChairs, Real, Alma and Octave.

Dr. Emily Anhalt and Alexa Meyer, the co-founders of Coa.

Through pop-up gyms, Coa privately offered its emotional fitness curriculum through leaders at Asana, GitHub, Silicon Valley Bank and Spotify. They’re expanding the curriculum to include more demographics at various price points. Right now, they’re sticking to online classes for social distancing purposes. Over 3,500 people have signed up for the Coa waitlist in anticipation.

But the co-founders aren’t shy about the long-term goal: in-person presence in every major city across the country. Think an actual gym for mental health.

“We want the gym for mental health to be visible and accessible,” Meyer said. “That way, when people walk around on the street, they see that there are places to work on their emotional health, the same way they work on their physical health.”

 

New York Is Trying Targeted Lockdowns. Will It Curb Covid?

By Gregory Barber
Instead of shutting down all of New York City, this time officials are taking a block-by-block approach to home in on areas with increasing case numbers.

Covid Is Strengthening the Push for Indigenous Data Control

By Kalen Goodluck
Due to data control concerns, tribal nations are not part of the "All of Us" DNA collection program. But that means missing out on its Covid-19 antibody testing.

France’s Health Data Hub to move to European cloud infrastructure to avoid EU-US data transfers

By Romain Dillet

France’s data regulator CNIL has issued some recommendations for French services that handle health data, as Mediapart first reported. Those services should avoid using American cloud hosting companies altogether, such as Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud.

Those recommandations follow a landmark ruling by Europe’s top court in July. The ruling, dubbed Schrems II, struck down the EU-US Data Privacy Shield. Under the Privacy Shield, companies could outsource data processing from the EU to the US in bulk. Due to concerns over US surveillance laws, that mechanism is no longer allowed.

The CNIL is going one step further by saying that services and companies that handle health data should also avoid doing business with American companies — it’s not just about processing European data in Europe. Once again, this is all about avoiding falling under U.S. regulation and rulings.

The regulator sent those recommendations to one of France’s top courts (Conseil d’État). SantéNathon, a group of organizations and unions, originally notified the CNIL over concerns about France’s Health Data Hub.

France is currently building a platform to store health data at the national level. The idea is to build a hub that makes it easier to study rare diseases and use artificial intelligence to improve diagnoses. It is supposed to aggregate data from different sources and make it possible to share some data with public and private institutions for those specific cases.

The technical choices have been controversial as the French government originally chose to partner with Microsoft and its cloud platform Microsoft Azure.

Microsoft, like many other companies, relies on Standard Contractual Clauses for EU-US data transfers. But the Court of Justice of the EU has made it clear that EU regulators have to intervene if data is being transferred to an unsafe country when it comes to privacy and surveillance.

The CNIL believes that an American company could process data in Europe but it would still fall under FISA702 and other surveillance laws. Data would still end up in the hands of American authorities. In other words, it is being extra careful with health data for now, while Schrems II is still unfolding.

“We’re working with health minister Olivier Véran on transferring the Health Data Hub to French or European platforms following the Privacy Shield bombshell,” France’s digital minister Cédric O told Public Sénat.

The French government is now looking at other solutions for the Health Data Hub. In the near future, if France’s top court confirms the CNIL’s recommendations, it could also have some effects for French companies that handle health data, such as Doctolib and Alan.

Tech’s role in the COVID-19 response: Assist, don’t reinvent

By Devin Coldewey

The pandemic has affected just about every business in the world, but tech has also geared up to fight back in its own way, as we found out from speakers at Disrupt 2020. But technology has opted to take a back seat to frontline workers and find ways to support them rather than attempt to “solve” the issues at hand.

The founders of tech-forward healthcare startups Color and Carbon Health explained their approach in one panel, emphasizing that the startup mindset is a resilient and adaptable one.

“You’re seeing, I think, the distributed nature of the U.S., where at some point it’s clear that you can’t wait for someone to solve your problem, so people just start jumping in and building the solution themselves,” said Othman Laraki, Color’s CEO.

His company took on the issue of bottlenecks in the COVID-19 testing ecosystem, finding that with a few tweaks Color could contribute a considerable amount.

“We realized that there were several assets that we could bring to bear,” he said. “We decided to build a platform to get around some of the logistical constraints and the supply chain constraints around COVID testing. We did that, got large-scale COVID testing lab online, but also repurposed a lot of our digital platforms for COVID testing … I think we’re doing approximately 75% of all the testing in SF right now.”

Carbon Health CEO Eren Bali noted that companies like theirs are important props at a time when the medical infrastructure of the country buckles under pressure.

“At this point the U.S. doesn’t have the best public health system, but at the same time we have best-in-class private companies who can sometimes operate a lot more efficiently than governments can,” he said. “We also just recently launched a program to help COVID-positive patients get back to health quickly, a rehabilitation program. Because as you know even if you survive it doesn’t mean your body was not affected, there are permanent effects.”

This type of at-home care has become increasingly important, both to take pressure off hospitals and frontline workers and to improve accessibility to resources.

“Sometimes the cost of care is a lesser problem compared to the access,” said Laraki. “Like if you need to drive for an hour and take time out of your day, etc., if you’re an hourly worker. That’s what makes healthcare inaccessible.”

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