UK health minister sets out tech-first vision for future care provision

The UK’s still fairly new in post minister for health, Matt Hancock, quickly made technology one of his stated priorities. And today he’s put more meat on the bones of his thinking, setting out a vision for transforming, root and branch, how the country’s National Health Service operates to accommodate the plugging in of “healthtech” […]

The UK’s still fairly new in post minister for health, Matt Hancock, quickly made technology one of his stated priorities. And today he’s put more meat on the bones of his thinking, setting out a vision for transforming, root and branch, how the country’s National Health Service operates to accommodate the plugging in of “healthtech” apps and services — to support tech-enabled “preventative, predictive and personalised care”.

How such a major IT upgrade program would be paid for is not clearly set out in the policy document. But the government writes that it is “committed to working with partners” to deliver on its grand vision.

“Our ultimate objective is the provision of better care and improved health outcomes for people in England,” Hancock writes in the ‘future of healthcare’ policy document. “But this cannot be done without a clear focus on improving the technology used by the 1.4 million NHS staff, 1.5 million-strong social care workforce and those many different groups who deliver and plan health and care services for the public.”

The minister is proposing that NHS digital services and IT systems will have to meet “a clear set of open standards” to ensure interoperability and updatability.

Meaning that existing systems that don’t meet the incoming standards will need to be phased out and ripped out over time.

The tech itself that NHS trusts and clinical commissioners can choose to buy will not be imposed upon them from above. Rather the stated intent is to encourage “competition on user experience and better tools for everyone”, says Hancock.

In a statement, the health and social care secretary said: “The tech revolution is coming to the NHS. These robust standards will ensure that every part of the NHS can use the best technology to improve patient safety, reduce delays and speed up appointments.

“A modern technical architecture for the health and care service has huge potential to deliver better services and to unlock our innovations. We want this approach to empower the country’s best innovators — inside and outside the NHS — and we want to hear from staff, experts and suppliers to ensure our standards will deliver the most advanced health and care service in the world.”

The four stated priorities for achieving the planned transformation are infrastructure (principally but not only related to patient records); digital services; innovation; and skills and culture:

“Our technology infrastructure should allow systems to talk to each other safely and securely, using open standards for data and interoperability so people have confidence that their data is up to date and in the right place, and health and care professionals have access to the information they need to provide care,” the document notes.  

The ‘tech for health’ vision — which lacks any kind of timeframe whatsoever — loops in an assortment of tech-fuelled case studies, from applying AI for faster diagnoses (as DeepMind has been trying) to Amazon Alexa skills being used as a memory aid for social care. And envisages, as a future success metric, that “a healthy person can stay healthy and active (using wearables, diet-tracking apps) and can co-ordinate with their GP or other health professional about targeted preventative care”.

The ‘techiness’ of the vision is unsurprising, given Hancock was previously the UK’s digital minister and has made no secret of his love of apps. Even having an app of his own developed to connect with his constituents (aka the eponymous Matt Hancock App — albeit running into some controversy for problems with the app’s privacy policy).

Hancock has also been a loud advocate for (and a personal user of) London-based digital healthcare startup Babylon Health, whose app initially included an AI diagnostic chatbot, in addition to offering video and text consultations with (human) doctors and specialists.

The company has partnered with the NHS for a triage service, and to offer a digital alternative to a traditional primary care service via an app that offers remote consultations (called GP at Hand).

But the app has also faced criticism from healthcare professionals. The AI chatbot component specifically has been attacked by doctors for offering incorrect and potentially dangerous diagnosis advice to patients. This summer Babylon pulled the AI element out of the app, leaving the bot to serve unintelligent triage advice — such as by suggesting people go straight to A&E even with just a headache. (Thereby, said its critics, piling pressure on already over-stretched NHS hospital services.)

All of which underlines some of the pitfalls of scrambling too quickly to squash innovation and healthcare together.

The demographic cherrypicking that can come inherently bundled with digital healthcare apps which are most likely to appeal to younger users (who have fewer complex health problems) is another key criticism of some of these shiny, modern services — with the argument being they impact non-digital NHS primary care services by saddling the bricks-and-mortar bits with more older, sicker patients to care for while the apps siphon off (and monetize) mostly the well, tech-savvy young.

Hancock’s pro-tech vision for upgrading the UK’s healthcare service doesn’t really engage with that critique of modern tech services having a potentially unequal impact on a free-at-the-point-of-use, taxpayer-funded health service.

Rather, in a section on “inclusion”, the vision document talks about the need to “design for, and with, people with different physical, mental health, social, cultural and learning needs, and for people with low digital literacy or those less able to access technology”. But without saying exactly how that might be achieved, given the overarching thrust being to reconfigure the NHS to be mobile-first, tech-enabled and tech-fuelled. 

“Different people may need different services and some people will never use digital services themselves directly but will benefit from others using digital services and freeing resources to help them,” runs the patter. “We must acknowledge that those with the greatest health needs are also the most at risk of being left behind and build digital services with this in mind, ensuring the highest levels of accessibility wherever possible.”

So the risk is being acknowledged — yet in a manner and context that suggests it’s simultaneously being dismissed, or elbowed out of the way, in the push for technology-enabled progress.

Hancock also appears willing to tolerate some iterative tech missteps — again towards a ‘greater good’ of modernizing the tech used to deliver NHS services so it can be continuously responsive to user needs, via updates and modular plugins, all greased by patient data being made reliably available via the envisaged transformation.

Though there is a bit of a cautionary caveat for healthcare startups like Babylon too. At least if they make actual clinical claims, with the document noting that: “We must be careful to ensure that we follow clinical trials where the new technology is clinical but also to ensure we have appropriate assurance processes that recognise when an innovation can be adopted faster. We must learn to adopt, iterate and continuously improve innovations, and support those who are working this way.”

Another more obvious contradiction is Hancock’s claim that “privacy and security” is one of four guiding principles for the vision (alongside “user need; interoperability and openness; and inclusion”), yet this is rubbing up against active engagement with the idea of sensitive social care data being processed by and hosted by a commercial ecommerce giant like Amazon, for example.

The need for patient trust and buy in gets more than passing mention, though. And there’s a pledge to introduce “a healthtech regulatory sandbox working with the ICO, National Data Guardian, NICE and other regulators” to provide support and an easier entry route for developers wanting to build health apps to sell in to the NHS, with the government also saying it will take other steps to “simplify the landscape for innovators”.

“If data is to be used effectively to support better health and care outcomes, it is essential that the public has trust and confidence in us and can see robust data governance, strong safeguards and strict penalties in place for misuse,” the policy document notes. 

Balancing support for data-based digital innovation, including where data-thirsty technologies like AI are concerned, with respect for the privacy of people’s highly sensitive health data will be a tricky act for the government to steer, though. Perhaps especially given Hancock is so keenly rushing to embrace the market.

“We need to build nationally only those few services that the market can’t provide and that must be done once and for everyone, such as a secure login and granular access to date,” runs the ministerial line. “This may mean some programmes need to be stopped.”

Although he also writes that there is a “huge role” for the NHS, care providers and commissioners to “develop solutions and co-create them with industry”.

Some of our user needs are unique, like carers in a particular geographical location or patients using assistive technologies. Or sometimes we can beat something to market because we know what we need and are motivated to solve the problem first.

“In those circumstances where industry won’t see the economies of scale they need to invest, we must be empowered to build our own digital services, often running on our data and networks. We will do that according to the government’s Digital Service Standard, and within the minimal rules we set for our infrastructure.”

“We also want to reassure those who are currently building products that we have no intention or desire to close off the market – in fact we want exactly the opposite,” the document also notes. “We want to back innovations that can improve our health and care system, wherever they can be found – and we know that some of the best innovations are being driven by clinicians and staff up and down the country.”

Among the commercial entities currently building products targeted at the NHS is Google -owned DeepMind, which got embroiled in a privacy controversy related to a data governance failure by the NHS Trust it worked with to co-develop an app for the early detection of a kidney condition.

DeepMind’s health data ambitions expand beyond building alert apps or even crafting diagnostic AIs to also wanting to build out and own healthcare app delivery infrastructure (aka, a fast healthcare interoperability resource, or FHIR) — which, in the aforementioned project, was bundled into the app contract with the Royal Free NHS Trust, locking the trust into sending data to DeepMind’s servers by prohibiting it from connecting to other FHIR servers. So not at all a model vision of interoperability.

Earlier this year DeepMind’s own independent reviewer panel warned there was a risk of the company gaining excessive monopoly power. And Hancock’s vision for health tech seems to be proposing to outlaw such contractual lock ins. Though it remains to be seen whether the guiding principle will stand up to the inexorable tech industry lobbying.

We will set national open standards for data, interoperability, privacy and confidentiality, real-time data access, cyber security and access rules,” the vision grandly envisages.

Open standards are not an abstract technical goal. They permit interoperability between different regions and systems but they also, crucially, permit a modular approach to IT in the NHS, where tools can be pulled and replaced with better alternatives as vendors develop better products. This, in turn, will help produce market conditions that drive innovation, in an ecosystem where developers and vendors continuously compete on quality to fill each niche, rather than capturing users.”

Responding to Hancock’s health tech plan, Sam Smith, coordinator of patient data privacy advocacy group medConfidential, told us: “There’s not much detail in here. It’s not so much ‘jam tomorrow’, as ‘jam… sometime’ — there’s no timeline, and jam gets pretty rancid after not very long. He says “these are standards”, but they’re just a vision for standards — all the hard work is left to be done.”

On the privacy plus AI front, Smith also picks up on Hancock’s vision including suggestive support for setting up “data trusts to facilitate the ethical sharing of data between organisations”, with the document reiterating the government’s plan to launch a pilot later this year. 

“Hancock says “we are supportive” of stripping the NHS of its role in oversight of commercial exploitation of data. Who is the “we” in that as it should be a cause for widespread concern. If Matt thinks the NHS will never get data right, what does he know that the public don’t?” said Smith on this.

He also points out at previous grand scheme attempts to overhaul NHS IT — most notably the uncompleted NHS National Programme for IT, which in the early 2000s tried and failed to deliver a top-down digitization of the service — taking a decade and sinking billions in the process.

“The widely criticised National Programme for IT also started out with similar lofty vision,” he noted. “This is yet another political piece saying what “good looks like”, but none of the success criteria are about patients getting better care from the NHS. For that, better technology has to be delivered on a ward, and in a GP surgery, and the many other places that the NHS and social care touch. Reforming procurement and standards do matter, and will help, but it helps in the same way a good accountant helps — and that’s not by having a vision of better accounting.”

On the vision’s timeframe, a Department of Health spokesman told us: “Today marks the beginning of a conversation between technology experts across the NHS, regulatory bodies and industry as we refine the standards and consider timeframes and details. The iterated standards document will be published in December once we receive feedback and the mandate will be rolled out gradually.

“We have been clear that we will phase out any system which does not meet these standards, will not procure systems which do not comply and will look to end contracts with suppliers who do not meet the standards.”

UK health minister sets out tech-first vision for future care provision

The UK’s still fairly new in post minister for health, Matt Hancock, quickly made technology one of his stated priorities. And today he’s put more meat on the bones of his thinking, setting out a vision for transforming, root and branch, how the country’s National Health Service operates to accommodate the plugging in of “healthtech” […]

The UK’s still fairly new in post minister for health, Matt Hancock, quickly made technology one of his stated priorities. And today he’s put more meat on the bones of his thinking, setting out a vision for transforming, root and branch, how the country’s National Health Service operates to accommodate the plugging in of “healthtech” apps and services — to support tech-enabled “preventative, predictive and personalised care”.

How such a major IT upgrade program would be paid for is not clearly set out in the policy document. But the government writes that it is “committed to working with partners” to deliver on its grand vision.

“Our ultimate objective is the provision of better care and improved health outcomes for people in England,” Hancock writes in the ‘future of healthcare’ policy document. “But this cannot be done without a clear focus on improving the technology used by the 1.4 million NHS staff, 1.5 million-strong social care workforce and those many different groups who deliver and plan health and care services for the public.”

The minister is proposing that NHS digital services and IT systems will have to meet “a clear set of open standards” to ensure interoperability and updatability.

Meaning that existing systems that don’t meet the incoming standards will need to be phased out and ripped out over time.

The tech itself that NHS trusts and clinical commissioners can choose to buy will not be imposed upon them from above. Rather the stated intent is to encourage “competition on user experience and better tools for everyone”, says Hancock.

In a statement, the health and social care secretary said: “The tech revolution is coming to the NHS. These robust standards will ensure that every part of the NHS can use the best technology to improve patient safety, reduce delays and speed up appointments.

“A modern technical architecture for the health and care service has huge potential to deliver better services and to unlock our innovations. We want this approach to empower the country’s best innovators — inside and outside the NHS — and we want to hear from staff, experts and suppliers to ensure our standards will deliver the most advanced health and care service in the world.”

The four stated priorities for achieving the planned transformation are infrastructure (principally but not only related to patient records); digital services; innovation; and skills and culture:

“Our technology infrastructure should allow systems to talk to each other safely and securely, using open standards for data and interoperability so people have confidence that their data is up to date and in the right place, and health and care professionals have access to the information they need to provide care,” the document notes.  

The ‘tech for health’ vision — which lacks any kind of timeframe whatsoever — loops in an assortment of tech-fuelled case studies, from applying AI for faster diagnoses (as DeepMind has been trying) to Amazon Alexa skills being used as a memory aid for social care. And envisages, as a future success metric, that “a healthy person can stay healthy and active (using wearables, diet-tracking apps) and can co-ordinate with their GP or other health professional about targeted preventative care”.

The ‘techiness’ of the vision is unsurprising, given Hancock was previously the UK’s digital minister and has made no secret of his love of apps. Even having an app of his own developed to connect with his constituents (aka the eponymous Matt Hancock App — albeit running into some controversy for problems with the app’s privacy policy).

Hancock has also been a loud advocate for (and a personal user of) London-based digital healthcare startup Babylon Health, whose app initially included an AI diagnostic chatbot, in addition to offering video and text consultations with (human) doctors and specialists.

The company has partnered with the NHS for a triage service, and to offer a digital alternative to a traditional primary care service via an app that offers remote consultations (called GP at Hand).

But the app has also faced criticism from healthcare professionals. The AI chatbot component specifically has been attacked by doctors for offering incorrect and potentially dangerous diagnosis advice to patients. This summer Babylon pulled the AI element out of the app, leaving the bot to serve unintelligent triage advice — such as by suggesting people go straight to A&E even with just a headache. (Thereby, said its critics, piling pressure on already over-stretched NHS hospital services.)

All of which underlines some of the pitfalls of scrambling too quickly to squash innovation and healthcare together.

The demographic cherrypicking that can come inherently bundled with digital healthcare apps which are most likely to appeal to younger users (who have fewer complex health problems) is another key criticism of some of these shiny, modern services — with the argument being they impact non-digital NHS primary care services by saddling the bricks-and-mortar bits with more older, sicker patients to care for while the apps siphon off (and monetize) mostly the well, tech-savvy young.

Hancock’s pro-tech vision for upgrading the UK’s healthcare service doesn’t really engage with that critique of modern tech services having a potentially unequal impact on a free-at-the-point-of-use, taxpayer-funded health service.

Rather, in a section on “inclusion”, the vision document talks about the need to “design for, and with, people with different physical, mental health, social, cultural and learning needs, and for people with low digital literacy or those less able to access technology”. But without saying exactly how that might be achieved, given the overarching thrust being to reconfigure the NHS to be mobile-first, tech-enabled and tech-fuelled. 

“Different people may need different services and some people will never use digital services themselves directly but will benefit from others using digital services and freeing resources to help them,” runs the patter. “We must acknowledge that those with the greatest health needs are also the most at risk of being left behind and build digital services with this in mind, ensuring the highest levels of accessibility wherever possible.”

So the risk is being acknowledged — yet in a manner and context that suggests it’s simultaneously being dismissed, or elbowed out of the way, in the push for technology-enabled progress.

Hancock also appears willing to tolerate some iterative tech missteps — again towards a ‘greater good’ of modernizing the tech used to deliver NHS services so it can be continuously responsive to user needs, via updates and modular plugins, all greased by patient data being made reliably available via the envisaged transformation.

Though there is a bit of a cautionary caveat for healthcare startups like Babylon too. At least if they make actual clinical claims, with the document noting that: “We must be careful to ensure that we follow clinical trials where the new technology is clinical but also to ensure we have appropriate assurance processes that recognise when an innovation can be adopted faster. We must learn to adopt, iterate and continuously improve innovations, and support those who are working this way.”

Another more obvious contradiction is Hancock’s claim that “privacy and security” is one of four guiding principles for the vision (alongside “user need; interoperability and openness; and inclusion”), yet this is rubbing up against active engagement with the idea of sensitive social care data being processed by and hosted by a commercial ecommerce giant like Amazon, for example.

The need for patient trust and buy in gets more than passing mention, though. And there’s a pledge to introduce “a healthtech regulatory sandbox working with the ICO, National Data Guardian, NICE and other regulators” to provide support and an easier entry route for developers wanting to build health apps to sell in to the NHS, with the government also saying it will take other steps to “simplify the landscape for innovators”.

“If data is to be used effectively to support better health and care outcomes, it is essential that the public has trust and confidence in us and can see robust data governance, strong safeguards and strict penalties in place for misuse,” the policy document notes. 

Balancing support for data-based digital innovation, including where data-thirsty technologies like AI are concerned, with respect for the privacy of people’s highly sensitive health data will be a tricky act for the government to steer, though. Perhaps especially given Hancock is so keenly rushing to embrace the market.

“We need to build nationally only those few services that the market can’t provide and that must be done once and for everyone, such as a secure login and granular access to date,” runs the ministerial line. “This may mean some programmes need to be stopped.”

Although he also writes that there is a “huge role” for the NHS, care providers and commissioners to “develop solutions and co-create them with industry”.

Some of our user needs are unique, like carers in a particular geographical location or patients using assistive technologies. Or sometimes we can beat something to market because we know what we need and are motivated to solve the problem first.

“In those circumstances where industry won’t see the economies of scale they need to invest, we must be empowered to build our own digital services, often running on our data and networks. We will do that according to the government’s Digital Service Standard, and within the minimal rules we set for our infrastructure.”

“We also want to reassure those who are currently building products that we have no intention or desire to close off the market – in fact we want exactly the opposite,” the document also notes. “We want to back innovations that can improve our health and care system, wherever they can be found – and we know that some of the best innovations are being driven by clinicians and staff up and down the country.”

Among the commercial entities currently building products targeted at the NHS is Google -owned DeepMind, which got embroiled in a privacy controversy related to a data governance failure by the NHS Trust it worked with to co-develop an app for the early detection of a kidney condition.

DeepMind’s health data ambitions expand beyond building alert apps or even crafting diagnostic AIs to also wanting to build out and own healthcare app delivery infrastructure (aka, a fast healthcare interoperability resource, or FHIR) — which, in the aforementioned project, was bundled into the app contract with the Royal Free NHS Trust, locking the trust into sending data to DeepMind’s servers by prohibiting it from connecting to other FHIR servers. So not at all a model vision of interoperability.

Earlier this year DeepMind’s own independent reviewer panel warned there was a risk of the company gaining excessive monopoly power. And Hancock’s vision for health tech seems to be proposing to outlaw such contractual lock ins. Though it remains to be seen whether the guiding principle will stand up to the inexorable tech industry lobbying.

We will set national open standards for data, interoperability, privacy and confidentiality, real-time data access, cyber security and access rules,” the vision grandly envisages.

Open standards are not an abstract technical goal. They permit interoperability between different regions and systems but they also, crucially, permit a modular approach to IT in the NHS, where tools can be pulled and replaced with better alternatives as vendors develop better products. This, in turn, will help produce market conditions that drive innovation, in an ecosystem where developers and vendors continuously compete on quality to fill each niche, rather than capturing users.”

Responding to Hancock’s health tech plan, Sam Smith, coordinator of patient data privacy advocacy group medConfidential, told us: “There’s not much detail in here. It’s not so much ‘jam tomorrow’, as ‘jam… sometime’ — there’s no timeline, and jam gets pretty rancid after not very long. He says “these are standards”, but they’re just a vision for standards — all the hard work is left to be done.”

On the privacy plus AI front, Smith also picks up on Hancock’s vision including suggestive support for setting up “data trusts to facilitate the ethical sharing of data between organisations”, with the document reiterating the government’s plan to launch a pilot later this year. 

“Hancock says “we are supportive” of stripping the NHS of its role in oversight of commercial exploitation of data. Who is the “we” in that as it should be a cause for widespread concern. If Matt thinks the NHS will never get data right, what does he know that the public don’t?” said Smith on this.

He also points out at previous grand scheme attempts to overhaul NHS IT — most notably the uncompleted NHS National Programme for IT, which in the early 2000s tried and failed to deliver a top-down digitization of the service — taking a decade and sinking billions in the process.

“The widely criticised National Programme for IT also started out with similar lofty vision,” he noted. “This is yet another political piece saying what “good looks like”, but none of the success criteria are about patients getting better care from the NHS. For that, better technology has to be delivered on a ward, and in a GP surgery, and the many other places that the NHS and social care touch. Reforming procurement and standards do matter, and will help, but it helps in the same way a good accountant helps — and that’s not by having a vision of better accounting.”

On the vision’s timeframe, a Department of Health spokesman told us: “Today marks the beginning of a conversation between technology experts across the NHS, regulatory bodies and industry as we refine the standards and consider timeframes and details. The iterated standards document will be published in December once we receive feedback and the mandate will be rolled out gradually.

“We have been clear that we will phase out any system which does not meet these standards, will not procure systems which do not comply and will look to end contracts with suppliers who do not meet the standards.”

Keeps parent company Thirty Madison raises $15 million to fight male pattern baldness

Men’s hair loss brand Keeps has raised $15 million in a round co-led by Maveron and Northzone.

Thirty Madison, the healthcare startup behind the hair loss brand Keeps, has brought in a $15.25 million Series A co-led by Maveron and Northzone.

The company provides a subscription-based online marketplace for men’s hair loss prevention medications Finasteride and Minoxidil. Keeps sells these drugs direct-to-consumer, working with manufacturers to keep the costs low.

On Keeps, a subscription of Minoxidil, an over-the-counter topical treatment often referred to as Rogaine, is $10 monthly. A subscription to Finasteride, a prescription drug taken daily, is $25 per month.

It’s an end-to-end platform that is the single best place for guys who are looking to keep their hair,” Thirty Madison co-founder Steven Gutentag told TechCrunch.

Keeps is tapping into a big market. According to the American Hair Loss Association, two-thirds of American men experience some hair loss by the age of 35.

You may have heard of Hims, a venture-backed men’s healthcare company that similarly sells subscriptions to hair loss treatments, as well as oral care, skin care and treatments for erectile dysfunction. Keeps is its smaller competitor. For now, the company is focused solely on haircare, though with the new funds, Thirty Madison plans to launch Cove, a sister brand to Keeps that will provide treatments to migraine sufferers.

The company was founded last year by Gutentag and Demetri Karagas with a plan to develop several digital healthcare brands under the Thirty Madison umbrella.

“Going through this process myself of starting to experience hair loss, I was not sure where to turn,” Gutentag said. “I went online and looked up ‘why am I losing my hair,’ and if you search on Google, really for any medical condition, you usually walk away thinking you’re going to die … I was so fortunate that I got access to this high-quality specialist who could help me with my problem and I was in the position to afford those treatments but most people don’t get that access.”

Keeps also provide digital access to a network of doctors at a cost of roughly $30 per visit.

TechCrunch’s Connie Loizos wrote last year that “it’s never been a better time to be a man who privately suffers from erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation or hair loss” because of advances and investments in telemedicine. Since then, even more money has been funneled into the space.

Hims has raised nearly $100 million to date and is rumored to be working on a line of women’s products. Roman, a cloud pharmacy for erectile dysfunction, raised an $88 million Series A last month and is launching a “quit smoking kit.” And Lemonaid Health, which also provides prescriptions to erectile dysfunction medications and more, secured $11 million last year.

Greycroft, Steadfast Venture Capital, First Round, Entrepreneurs Roundtable, HillCour and Two River also participated in Thirty Madison’s fundraise, which brings its total raised to date to $22.75 million.

Keeps parent company Thirty Madison raises $15 million to fight male pattern baldness

Men’s hair loss brand Keeps has raised $15 million in a round co-led by Maveron and Northzone.

Thirty Madison, the healthcare startup behind the hair loss brand Keeps, has brought in a $15.25 million Series A co-led by Maveron and Northzone.

The company provides a subscription-based online marketplace for men’s hair loss prevention medications Finasteride and Minoxidil. Keeps sells these drugs direct-to-consumer, working with manufacturers to keep the costs low.

On Keeps, a subscription of Minoxidil, an over-the-counter topical treatment often referred to as Rogaine, is $10 monthly. A subscription to Finasteride, a prescription drug taken daily, is $25 per month.

It’s an end-to-end platform that is the single best place for guys who are looking to keep their hair,” Thirty Madison co-founder Steven Gutentag told TechCrunch.

Keeps is tapping into a big market. According to the American Hair Loss Association, two-thirds of American men experience some hair loss by the age of 35.

You may have heard of Hims, a venture-backed men’s healthcare company that similarly sells subscriptions to hair loss treatments, as well as oral care, skin care and treatments for erectile dysfunction. Keeps is its smaller competitor. For now, the company is focused solely on haircare, though with the new funds, Thirty Madison plans to launch Cove, a sister brand to Keeps that will provide treatments to migraine sufferers.

The company was founded last year by Gutentag and Demetri Karagas with a plan to develop several digital healthcare brands under the Thirty Madison umbrella.

“Going through this process myself of starting to experience hair loss, I was not sure where to turn,” Gutentag said. “I went online and looked up ‘why am I losing my hair,’ and if you search on Google, really for any medical condition, you usually walk away thinking you’re going to die … I was so fortunate that I got access to this high-quality specialist who could help me with my problem and I was in the position to afford those treatments but most people don’t get that access.”

Keeps also provide digital access to a network of doctors at a cost of roughly $30 per visit.

TechCrunch’s Connie Loizos wrote last year that “it’s never been a better time to be a man who privately suffers from erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation or hair loss” because of advances and investments in telemedicine. Since then, even more money has been funneled into the space.

Hims has raised nearly $100 million to date and is rumored to be working on a line of women’s products. Roman, a cloud pharmacy for erectile dysfunction, raised an $88 million Series A last month and is launching a “quit smoking kit.” And Lemonaid Health, which also provides prescriptions to erectile dysfunction medications and more, secured $11 million last year.

Greycroft, Steadfast Venture Capital, First Round, Entrepreneurs Roundtable, HillCour and Two River also participated in Thirty Madison’s fundraise, which brings its total raised to date to $22.75 million.

With $300M in new funding, Devoted Health launches its Medicare Advantage plan in Florida

Andreessen Horowitz has led the $300 million Series B, with participation from Premji Invest and Uprising.

Devoted Health, a Waltham, Mass.-based insurance startup, has raised a $300 million Series B and began enrolling members in eight Florida counties to its Medicare Advantage plan.

The company, which helps Medicare beneficiaries access care through its network of physicians and tech-enabled healthcare platform, has raised the funds from lead investor Andreessen Horowitz, Premji Invest and Uprising.

The company declined to disclose its valuation.

Devoted’s founders are brothers Todd and Ed Park — the company’s executive chairman and chief executive officer, respectively. Todd co-founded a pair of now publicly-traded companies, Athenahealth, a provider of electronic health record systems, and health benefits platform Castlight Health. He also served as the U.S. chief technology officer during the Obama Administration. Ed, for his part, was the chief operating officer of Athenahealth until 2016 and a member of Castlight’s board of directors for several years.

Venrock partners Bryan Roberts — Devoted’s founding investor — and Bob Kucker — its chief medical officer — are also part of the company’s founding team.

The Park brothers have tapped Jeremy Delinsky, the former CTO at Wayfair and Athenahealth, as COO; DJ Patil, a former data scientist at the White House, as its head of technology; and Adam Thackery, the former CFO of Universal American, as its chief financial officer.

Its board includes former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. As part of the latest round, A16z’s Vijay Pande will join its board, too.

The company says it’s committed to treating its customers as if they were members of its employees’ own families. For Patil, the startup’s head of tech, that’s made the entire process of building Devoted a very emotional one.

“I’ve cried a lot at this company,” Patil told TechCrunch. “You meet these seniors and they’ve done everything right. They’ve worked so incredibly hard their entire lives. They’ve given it their all for the American dream. They’ve paid into this model of healthcare and they deserve better.”

Devoted, which previously raised $69 million across two financing rounds in 2017 from Oak HC/FT, Venrock, F-Prime Capital Partners, Maverick Ventures and Obvious Ventures, has begun enrolling seniors located in Broward, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Osceola, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Polk and Seminole counties to its Medicare Advantage plan. It will begin providing care Jan. 1, 2019.

Its long-term goal is to offer insurance plans to seniors nationwide.

“We are responsible for these people’s healthcare so we need to get it right,” Patil said.

With $300M in new funding, Devoted Health launches its Medicare Advantage plan in Florida

Andreessen Horowitz has led the $300 million Series B, with participation from Premji Invest and Uprising.

Devoted Health, a Waltham, Mass.-based insurance startup, has raised a $300 million Series B and began enrolling members in eight Florida counties to its Medicare Advantage plan.

The company, which helps Medicare beneficiaries access care through its network of physicians and tech-enabled healthcare platform, has raised the funds from lead investor Andreessen Horowitz, Premji Invest and Uprising.

The company declined to disclose its valuation.

Devoted’s founders are brothers Todd and Ed Park — the company’s executive chairman and chief executive officer, respectively. Todd co-founded a pair of now publicly-traded companies, Athenahealth, a provider of electronic health record systems, and health benefits platform Castlight Health. He also served as the U.S. chief technology officer during the Obama Administration. Ed, for his part, was the chief operating officer of Athenahealth until 2016 and a member of Castlight’s board of directors for several years.

Venrock partners Bryan Roberts — Devoted’s founding investor — and Bob Kucker — its chief medical officer — are also part of the company’s founding team.

The Park brothers have tapped Jeremy Delinsky, the former CTO at Wayfair and Athenahealth, as COO; DJ Patil, a former data scientist at the White House, as its head of technology; and Adam Thackery, the former CFO of Universal American, as its chief financial officer.

Its board includes former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. As part of the latest round, A16z’s Vijay Pande will join its board, too.

The company says it’s committed to treating its customers as if they were members of its employees’ own families. For Patil, the startup’s head of tech, that’s made the entire process of building Devoted a very emotional one.

“I’ve cried a lot at this company,” Patil told TechCrunch. “You meet these seniors and they’ve done everything right. They’ve worked so incredibly hard their entire lives. They’ve given it their all for the American dream. They’ve paid into this model of healthcare and they deserve better.”

Devoted, which previously raised $69 million across two financing rounds in 2017 from Oak HC/FT, Venrock, F-Prime Capital Partners, Maverick Ventures and Obvious Ventures, has begun enrolling seniors located in Broward, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Osceola, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Polk and Seminole counties to its Medicare Advantage plan. It will begin providing care Jan. 1, 2019.

Its long-term goal is to offer insurance plans to seniors nationwide.

“We are responsible for these people’s healthcare so we need to get it right,” Patil said.

Siilo injects $5.1M to try to transplant WhatsApp use in hospitals

Consumer messaging apps like WhatsApp are not only insanely popular for chatting with friends but have pushed deep into the workplace too, thanks to the speed and convenience they offer. They have even crept into hospitals, as time-strapped doctors reach for a quick and easy way to collaborate over patient cases on the ward. Yet […]

Consumer messaging apps like WhatsApp are not only insanely popular for chatting with friends but have pushed deep into the workplace too, thanks to the speed and convenience they offer. They have even crept into hospitals, as time-strapped doctors reach for a quick and easy way to collaborate over patient cases on the ward.

Yet WhatsApp is not specifically designed with the safe sharing of highly sensitive medical information in mind. This is where Dutch startup Siilo has been carving a niche for itself for the past 2.5 years — via a free-at-the-point-of-use encrypted messaging app that’s intended for medical professions to securely collaborate on patient care, such as via in-app discussion groups and being able to securely store and share patient notes.

A business goal that could be buoyed by tighter EU regulations around handling personal data, say if hospital managers decide they need to address compliance risks around staff use of consumer messaging apps.

The app’s WhatsApp-style messaging interface will be instantly familiar to any smartphone user. But Siilo bakes in additional features for its target healthcare professional users, such as keeping photos, videos and files sent via the app siloed in an encrypted vault that’s entirely separate from any personal media also stored on the device.

Messages sent via Siilo are also automatically deleted after 30 days unless the user specifies a particular message should be retained. And the app does not make automated back-ups of users’ conversations.

Other doctor-friendly features include the ability to blur images (for patient privacy purposes); augment images with arrows for emphasis; and export threaded conversations to electronic health records.

There’s also mandatory security for accessing the app — with a requirement for either a PIN-code, fingerprint or facial recognition biometric to be used. While a remote wipe functionality to nix any locally stored data is baked into Siilo in the event of a device being lost or stolen.

Like WhatsApp, Siilo also uses end-to-end encryption — though in its case it says this is based on the opensource NaCl library

It also specifies that user messaging data is stored encrypted on European ISO-27001 certified servers — and deleted “as soon as we can”.

It also says it’s “possible” for its encryption code to be open to review on request.

Another addition is a user vetting layer to manually verify the medical professional users of its app are who they say they are.

Siilo says every user gets vetted. Though not prior to being able to use the messaging functions. But users that have passed verification unlock greater functionality — such as being able to search among other (verified) users to find peers or specialists to expand their professional network. Siilo says verification status is displayed on profiles.

“At Siilo, we coin this phenomenon ‘network medicine’, which is in contrast to the current old-­fashioned, siloed medicine,” says CEO and co-founder Joost Bruggeman in a statement. “The goal is to improve patient care overall, and patients have a network of doctors providing input into their treatment.”

While Bruggeman brings the all-important medical background to the startup, another co-founder, Onno Bakker, has been in the mobile messaging game for a long time — having been one of the entrepreneurs behind the veteran web and mobile messaging platform, eBuddy.

A third co-founder, CFO Arvind Rao, tells us Siilo transplanted eBuddy’s messaging dev team — couching this ported in-house expertise as an advantage over some of the smaller rivals also chasing the healthcare messaging opportunity.

It is also of course having to compete technically with the very well-resourced and smoothly operating WhatsApp behemoth.

“Our main competitor is always WhatsApp,” Rao tells TechCrunch. “Obviously there are also other players trying to move in this space. TigerText is the largest in the US. In the UK we come across local players like Hospify and Forward.

“A major difference we have very experienced in-house dev team… The experience of this team has helped to build a messenger that really can compete in usability with WhatsApp that is reflected in our rapid adoption and usage numbers.”

“Having worked in the trenches as a surgery resident, I’ve experienced the challenges that healthcare professionals face firsthand,” adds Bruggeman. “With Siilo, we’re connecting all healthcare professionals to make them more efficient, enable them to share patient information securely and continue learning and share their knowledge. The directory of vetted healthcare professionals helps ensure they’re successful team­players within a wider healthcare network that takes care of the same patient.”

Siilo launched its app in May 2016 and has since grown to ~100,000 users, with more than 7.5 million messages currently being processed monthly and 6,000+ clinical chat groups active monthly.

“We haven’t come across any other secure messenger for healthcare in Europe with these figures in the App Store/Google Play rankings and therefore believe we are the largest in Europe,” adds Rao. “We have multiple large institutions across Western-Europe where doctors are using Siilo.”

On the security front, as well flagging the ISO 27001 certification the company has gained, he notes that it obtained “the highest NHS IG Toolkit level 3” — aka the now replaced system for organizations to self-assess their compliance with the UK’s National Health Service’s information governance processes, claiming “we haven’t seen [that] with any other messaging company”.

Siilo’s toolkit assessment was finalized at the end of Febuary 2018, and is valid for a year — so will be up for re-assessment under the replacement system (which was introduced this April) in Q1 2019. (Rao confirms they will be doing this “new (re-)assessment” at the end of the year.)

As well as being in active use in European hospitals such as St. George’s Hospital, London, and Charité Berlin, Germany, Siilo says its app has had some organic adoption by medical pros further afield — including among smaller home healthcare teams in California, and “entire transplantation teams” from Astana, Kazakhstan.

It also cites British Medical Journal research that found that of the 98.9% of U.K. hospital clinicians who now have smartphones, around a third are using consumer messaging apps in the clinical workplace. Persuading those healthcare workers to ditch WhatsApp at work is Siilo’s mission and challenge.

The team has just announced a €4.5 million (~$5.1M) seed to help it get onto the radar of more doctors. The round is led by EQT Ventures, with participation from existing investors. It says it will be using the funding to scale­ up its user base across Europe, with a particular focus on the UK and Germany.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, EQT Ventures’ Ashley Lundström, a venture lead and investment advisor at the VC firm, said: “The team was impressed with Siilo’s vision of creating a secure global network of healthcare professionals and the organic traction it has already achieved thanks to the team’s focus on building a product that’s easy to use. The healthcare industry has long been stuck using jurassic technologies and Siilo’s real­time messaging app can significantly improve efficiency
and patient care without putting patients’ data at risk.”

While the messaging app itself is free for healthcare professions to use, Siilo also offers a subscription service to monetize the freemium product.

This service, called Siilo Connect offers organisations and professional associations what it bills as “extensive management, administration, networking and software integration tools”, or just data regulation compliance services if they want the basic flavor of the paid tier.

Weed in space is going to be a thing now

Scientists interested in cannabis as a subject for pharmaceutical studies may find an unlikely new home for their research into the plant, its byproducts and biochemistry aboard the International Space Station. Yes, weed is going to space thanks to the work of a small Lexington, Ky.-based startup called Space Tango. The company makes a “clean […]

Scientists interested in cannabis as a subject for pharmaceutical studies may find an unlikely new home for their research into the plant, its byproducts and biochemistry aboard the International Space Station.

Yes, weed is going to space thanks to the work of a small Lexington, Ky.-based startup called Space Tango.

The company makes a “clean room” laboratory in a microwave-sized box. Because space is tight on the International Space Station, companies that want to conduct experiments in microgravity have to do more with less. And Space Tango gives them a small environment in which to perform tests and monitor the results.

Using Space Tango’s “CubeLab” modules, which slot into the larger TangoLab containers, companies like Anheuser-Busch can send barley up to the space station to observe how the crop could be cultivated in environments approaching zero gravity.

Now, Space Tango is taking its own steps to develop experiments on how the zero gravity environment could affect cannabis cultivation.

Alongside two Kentucky hemp and cannabis cultivation and retail companies, Atalo Holdings, which provides hemp genetics, and Anavii Market, an online retailer of hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) therapeutics, Space Tango has set up its own subsidiary to research how microgravity can be used to better cultivate particular strands of hemp for medical compounds.

“For all entrepreneurial companies in this new space area everyone is trying to hone in [sic] on what is the actual business,” said co-founder and chairman Kris Kimel of Space Tango, in an interview. “We’re trying to figure out here what’s the business now… For us, the model is looking at low earth orbit to actually develop and design applications for life on earth.”

Kimel said the company now has two micro-laboratories installed on the International Space Station and has payloads launching to the space station for corporate and university customers about six times a year.

In its early stages, the company is mainly operating on existing income. “We’re able to meet our operating expenses off of revenue,” says Kimel. “Which is great for a company that is not just three years old.”

As it looks to create these kinds of joint ventures with other companies, Kimel said that additional revenue could come from a profit-sharing agreement rather than just straight contracts for services. The new subsidiaries enhance what the company sees as its broader mission, Kimel said.

“Each time a new type of physics platform has been successfully harnessed such as electromagnetism, it has led to the exponential growth of new knowledge, benefits to humankind and capital formation,” said  Kimel, in a statement. “Using microgravity, we envision a future where many of the next breakthroughs in healthcare, plant biology and technology may well occur off the planet Earth.”

Industrialized hemp production and research and development into the crop was enabled four years ago with the passage of the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill. It was the first time in 70 years that new rules were enacted to promote research into applications for the hemp plant as fiber, food or medicine.

By taking the plants to space, Space Tango hopes to study whether the growth of certain strains can be better controlled in the absence of gravitational stresses on the plant’s development.

“When plants are ‘stressed,’ they pull from a genetic reservoir to produce compounds that allow them to adapt and survive,” said Dr. Joe Chappell, a member of the Space Tango Science Advisory Team who specializes in drug development and design. “Understanding how plants react in an environment where the traditional stress of gravity is removed can provide new insights into how adaptations come about and how researchers might take advantage of such changes for the discovery of new characteristics, traits, biomedical applications and efficacy.”

Founded by former NASA engineer Twyman Clements and Kimel, who was serving as the president of the nonprofit Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., Space Tango was spun up to be the for-profit arm that would commercialize experiments in space as a service for large businesses that wanted to take advantage of the unique properties of manufacturing in microgravity.

There have been few commercially viable products that have come from microgravity research or production, in part because it’s expensive to bring products from space to earth.

That’s why Space Tango has focused on drug discovery and pharmaceuticals and why the company is spinning up its independent subsidiary that will focus exclusively on cannabis. Pharmaceutical compounds are lightweight and can be profitable in production without enormous volumes.

“That’s why biomedicine is attractive,” Kimel said. “You’re dealing with products that are incredibly high value and incredibly low weight.”

Sequoia backs Maven, a virtual health clinic for women

Maven has raised a $27 million Series B co-led by Sequoia and Oak HC/FT, bringing its total raised to date to $42 million.

Despite the increase in women in the U.S. workforce and public pledges from several high-profile CEOs to close the gender pay gap, women, especially working mothers, often find themselves without the resources necessary to succeed at work.

Maven, a digital health startup and benefits platform focused on improving access to healthcare for women, has emerged specifically to help businesses help their female employees.

Maven has garnered the support of Sequoia Capital, a household name in Silicon Valley and a venture capital firm that has seldom backed female-focused businesses. Today, the company is announcing a $27 million Series B co-led by Sequoia and Oak HC/FT. Existing investors Spring Mountain Group, 14W and Female Founders Fund have also participated in the round.

As part of the deal, Sequoia’s Jess Lee and Oak’s Nancy Brown will join Maven’s all-female board of directors.

The company was founded by Kate Ryder, a journalist-turned-venture capitalist-turned-founder. Before joining Index Ventures as an early-stage investor in 2012, Ryder was a reporter at The New Yorker and The Economist.

During her time as a VC, digital health and telemedicine were the nascent sectors to watch. Professionally, Ryder realized the huge market opportunity, meanwhile, personally, she was reminded of the major lack of resources for women at work.

“A lot of my friends started having kids while I was working in venture capital, so I started hearing about the difficulties of having kids or postpartum depression,” Ryder told TechCrunch. “It’s not like you as a woman get educated on what all this is while you’re in school.”

In 2014, Ryder left her VC job to create Maven . Her goal: become a one-stop shop for working women starting families. Since launching the company, Ryder herself has become a mother of two.

“You go through this enormous life experience; it’s hugely transformative to have a child,” she said. “You do it when your careers is moving up — they call it the rush hour of life — and with no one supporting you on the other end, it’s easy to say ‘screw it, I’m going home to my family’ … If someone leaves the workforce, that’s fine, it’s their choice but they shouldn’t feel forced to because they don’t have support.”

Maven partners with companies, including Snap and Bumble, to provide employees access to its women’s and family health provider network. The platform connects users to OB-GYNs, pediatricians, therapists, career coaches and other services including resources for families interested in adoption, IVF or maternity care.

Users can also video chat or direct message healthcare practitioners using the Maven app.

Along with the Series B financing, Maven is announcing the launch of a breastmilk service, Maven Milk, which it says is its next step toward closing the resource and care gap for working mothers.

Apple’s Watch isn’t the first with an EKG reader but it will matter to more consumers

Apple’s COO Jeff Williams exuberantly proclaimed Apple’s Watch was the first to get FDA clearance as an over-the-counter electrocardiogram (EKG) reader during the special event at Apple headquarters on Wednesday. While Apple loves to be first to things, that statement is false. AliveCor has held the title of first since late last year for its […]

Apple’s COO Jeff Williams exuberantly proclaimed Apple’s Watch was the first to get FDA clearance as an over-the-counter electrocardiogram (EKG) reader during the special event at Apple headquarters on Wednesday. While Apple loves to be first to things, that statement is false.

AliveCor has held the title of first since late last year for its KardiaMobile device, a $100 stick-like metal unit you attach to the back of a smartphone. Ironically, it also received FDA clearance for the Kardiaband, an ECG reader designed to integrate with the Apple Watch and sold at Apple stores and just this week, the FDA gave the go ahead for AliveCor’s technology to screen for blood diseases, sans blood test.

However, the Apple Watch could be the first to matter to a wider range of consumers. For one, Apple holds a firm 17 percent of the world’s wearables market, with an estimated shipment volume of 28 million units in just 2018. While we don’t know how many AliveCor Kardiaband and KardiaMobile units were sold, it’s very unlikely to be anywhere near those numbers.

For another thing, a lot of people, even those who suspect they have a heart condition, might have some hesitations around getting a separate device just to check. Automatic integration makes it easy for those curious to start monitoring without needing to purchase any extra equipment. Also, while heart disease is the number one killer in the U.S. and affects a good majority of the global population, most of us probably aren’t thinking about our heart rhythm on a daily basis. Integrating an EKG reader straight into the Watch makes monitoring seamless and could take away the fear some may have about finding out how their heart is doing.

Then there’s the Apple brand, itself. Many hospitals are now partnering with Apple to use iPads and it’s reasonable to think there could be some collaboration with the Watch.

“Doctors, hospital systems, health insurers, and self-insured employers don’t want to manage separate partnerships with each of Apple, Xiaomi, Fitbit, Huawei, Garmin, Polar, Samsung, Fossil, and every other wearable manufacturers. They need a cross-platform product that works for all of their patients,” Cardiogram founder and EKG researcher Brandon Ballinger told TechCrunch. “So if Apple becomes the Apple of healthcare, then a company like Cardiogram or AliveCor can become the Microsofts of this space.”

How does this announcement from Apple affect AliveCor? CEO Vic Gundotra shrugs it off. He tells TechCrunch the vast majority of AliveCor’s business is from KardiaMobile, not it’s Apple-integrated ECG reader. “Apple has long alluded they were building something like this into the device,” Gundotra said, “so we’ve been anticipating it.”