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Digital Health: There is No Exit

By MATTHEW HOLT

All of a sudden we are back in 2021.

You digital health fans remember that halcyon time. In 2019 a few digital health companies went public, and then somehow got conflated in the pandemic meme stock boom, with the harbinger event being the August 2020 sale of Livongo to Teladoc that valued it at $19bn and early in 2021 rather more, as Teladoc itself got to a market cap of $44bn in February 2021

Venture money poured into digital health as a fin de siecle for the ZIRP, that had been going for a decade, combined with the idea that Covid meant we would never leave our houses. The vaccine that became generally available at the start of the Biden Administration in 2021 put paid to the idea that telehealth was the majority of the future of care delivery.

Nonetheless between mid 2021 and early 2022 Jess DaMassa and I were reporting on VC funding in a show called Health in 2 Point 00 (later Health Tech Deals) and every week there were several deals for $100m and up going into new health tech companies.

Things don’t look so pretty now. Even while venture money was flooding into digital health, those public companies, as exemplified by Teladoc, started to see their stock price fall. While it was actually a good year for the stock market overall, in 2021 the digital health sector fell by around 60%. It kept going down. 2022 was worse and although one or two individual companies have recovered (Hi Oscar!), nearly two years later the market cap of the entire sector remains in the toilet.

Of the list that I’ve been following for years there’s only 11 broadly defined digital health companies with a market cap of more than $1 billion–that is only 11 public unicorns

What’s worse is that only one company on that list is decently profitable, and that’s Doximity. It made over $170m profit on revenue of less than $500m last year and trades at 10 x revenue. But Doximity always was profitable, going way back to 2014 (long before its IPO), and although it’s doing cool stuff with AI and telehealth, it’s basically an advertising platform for pharma.

There is no such thing as a profitable public digital health company in the mainstream of care delivery or even insurance–unless of course you count Optum. Which means there’s almost certainly no profitable VC-backed private company either.

Which leads me to this month. You remember those huge rounds that Jess & I used to report on and make fun of? They’re back.

I get it. The stock market is hot and all those pension funds are trying to put their winnings from Nvidia somewhere. VC looks a reasonable bet and there have been a few tech IPOs. If you squint really hard, as STAT’s Mario Aguilar did, you can pretend that Waystar & Tempus are health tech IPOs, although a payments/RCM company and a diagnostics company which are both losing a ton of money wouldn’t give me confidence as an investor.

But the amounts being thrown around must give anyone pause. Let’s take a few examples from the last month. Now these aren’t a knock on these companies, which I’m sure are doing great work, but let’s look at the math.

Digital front door chatbot K-Health raised at a $900m valuation. This round was a $50m top-up but it has raised nearly $400m. It says it’ll be profitable in 2025, and has Elevance as its biggest client. Harmonycares is a housecall medical group, presumably pursuing the strategy that Signify and others followed. It raised $200m, so presumably has a $500m+ valuation–Centene bought an earlier version of the company for $200m a decade ago and sold it to some investors two years back. Headway is a mental health provider network that uses tools to get providers on their system and markets them to insurers. It raised $200m at a reported $2.3bn valuation.

You can look at that list of public companies, including ones taken private like Sharecare, and see that there are lots of telehealth chatbots, medical groups and mental health companies on the list. Any of which probably have similar technology buried inside them. I’m sure if you shook Sharecare hard enough all those technologies would fall out given the number of companies it acquired over its decade plus of expansion.

But let’s take mental health.

Amwell acquired a mental health company called Silvercloud, and a chatbot called Conversa. Its market cap is bouncing around between $250m & $350m and it has more than that in cash–which means the company itself is worth nothing! The VCs who put money into K-Health and Headway could literally could have bought Amwell for about what they invested for a fraction of those companies. Is Headway is doing more than the $250m a year in revenue Amwell is putting up? Headway’s value is nearly 6 x the value of Talkspace which is bringing in about $150m a year in revenue. And if you consider BetterHelp to be 50% of Teladoc — which it roughly is — Headway is 3 x the value of BetterHelp which is doing $1bn a year in revenue. Is there any chance that Headway is doing close to those numbers? Maybe somone who saw the latest pitch deck can let me know, but I highly doubt it.

Now of course these new investments could be creating new technology or new business models which the previous generation of digital health companies couldn’t figure out. They might also have figured out how to grow profitably–although as far as I know Doximity stands alone as a profitable company that took VC funding it never needed and never used.

But isn’t it more likely that they are in the market competing with the public companies and those private companies that got funding in 2020-22, have similar pitches, similar tech and are similarly losing money?

I am a long time proponent of digital health and really hope that technology can change the sclerotic health care sector. I want all these companies to do well and change the world. Maybe those VCs investing in those mega rounds are more sensible than they were in 2022. But given the state of the digital health sector on the current stock market–which is otherwise at all time highs–I just don’t know what the exit can be, and it pains me to say it.

2012 Digital Health Investment Activity: The View From the Valley

Rock Health recently released a decidedly mixed report on the current state of Digital Health investing, as the data suggest many investors continue to tentatively explore the sector, but most have yet to make a serious commitment.

Overall, VC funding for digital health increased significantly over the past year, from just under $1B in 2011 to about $1.4B in 2012; 20% of this total was associated with just five deals: two raises for transparency companies, Castlight (targeting employees with high deductible plans looking to manage their costs) and GoHealth (targeting consumers contemplating purchase of health insurance); two raises for referral companies, Care.com (helps consumers find the right caregiver – defined broadly, as needs addressed include eldercare, child tutoring, babysitting, and pet care) and BestDoctors (helps employees find the right doctor), and one deal for 23andMe (a pioneering consumer genetics company).

Not surprisingly, the largest thematic area of investment ($237M) was “health consumer engagement,” comprised of companies that – like the first four above – help consumers or employees with healthcare purchases.   “Personal health tools and tracking,” the second leading category, captured $143M in funding last year.  “EMR/EHR” ($108M) and “hospital administration” ($78M) rounded out the list; the last two numbers seem shockingly low given the apparent size of these markets, and suggest both areas may be perceived as  firmly owned by incumbent players, and prohibitively difficult for new participants to enter.

Athenahealth’s just-announced acquisition of Epocrates highlights the competitive pressures even existing EMR companies face as they struggle for traction in an environment that seems to be increasingly dominated by a few large players, most notably Epic. “Our biggest obstacle,” Athenahealth CEO Jonathan Bush told Bloomberg Businessweek, “is that 70% of doctors don’t even know we exist.”  In contrast, I’ve suggested that a category I’d broadly define as EMR adjacencies may be primed for growth, as VC’s Stephen Kraus and Ambar Bhattacharyya have also discussed recently in this intelligent post.  The related area of care transitions is also attracting considerable entrepreneurial interest, including current Rock Health portfolio companies WellFrame and OpenPlacement, and TechStars alum Careport; it remains to be seen whether a robust business model will emerge here.

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Closing the Translational Gap: A Challenge Facing Innovators in Medical Science — and in Digital Health

The gap between model or potential solutions and solutions that work in the real world – the translational gap — is arguably the greatest challenge we have in healthcare, and is something seen in both medical science and in digital health.

Translational Gap in Medical Science

The single most important lesson I learned from my many years as a bench scientist was how fragile most data are, whether presented by a colleague at lab meeting or (especially) if published by a leading academic in a high-profile journal.  It was not uncommon to watch colleagues spend months or even years trying to build upon an exciting reported finding, only to eventually discover the underlying result was not reproducible.

This turns out to be a problem not only for other university researchers, but also for industry scientists who are trying to translate promising scientific findings into actual treatments for patients; obviously, if the underlying science doesn’t hold up, there isn’t anything to translate.  Innovative analyses by John Ioannidis, now at Stanford, and more recently by scientists from Bayer and Amgen, have highlighted the surprisingly prevalence of this problem.

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