Meet 11 startups using highly advanced technology to help healthcare reach its next frontier.
Tech startups and investors are increasingly targeting healthcare as an area where they can solve “hard things,” including cancer detection, rural medical access, and improving surgical outcomes, using some of the newest technology in development, from AR/VR to drones to even space tech.
We used the CB Insights platform to identify startups applying sophisticated “frontier” technologies to innovate within the medical and healthcare sectors. Read on to learn how 11 private companies are going beyond more traditional research approaches and using virtual reality, machine learning, and even brain-hacking to advance the future of healthcare.
Focus: 3D virtual reality for surgical guidance & navigation
Total Disclosed Funding: $10.5M
Select Investors: HTC, Shanghai Creation Investment
VR has already proven useful for training in highly specialized fields, such as defense and aeronautics. These successes inspired the founders of Cleveland-based Surgical Theater to use VR technologies to help neurosurgeons preview surgical procedures before operating, in much the same way fighter pilots pre-fly their missions in order to improve success rates.
Surgical Theater uses VR to enable neurosurgeons to navigate through patients’ brains to get a better look at tumors, nerves, blood vessels, and tissue prior to surgery – leading to improved accuracy, efficiency, and patient outcomes. The company says its 3D brain modeling tools have been used in more than 1,500 surgical cases to date, and doctors report the technology has led to increases in the rate of complete tumor removal, decreases in the rate of neurological complications, and reduced time to repair aneurysms.
Focus: Biological experiments in microgravity
Total Disclosed Funding: $1M
Select Investors: Horizon 2020, State of Mind Ventures
Switzerland-based SpacePharma offers researchers access to the R&D frontier of microgravity – aka outer space. Since cells behave differently in a weightless microgravity environment, SpacePharma claims that conducting research in space helps scientists in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, material/chemical science, and nutrition industries to accelerate breakthrough discovery processes.
SpacePharma’s clients create their experiments in miniaturized “nanolabs,” then deploy them to space by rocket on one of the company’s nanosatellites. Once in space, clients remotely access, monitor, and control their projects using online tools. SpacePharma sent its first four client projects to space earlier this year in a device the size of a tissue box, and announced in March that their clients’ initial experiments were all completed successfully.
Focus: Machine vision to spot new drug treatments
Total Disclosed Funding: $58.6M
Select Investors: Felicis Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures, Data Collective
Utah-based Recursion Pharmaceuticals applies advanced robotics and deep learning to the fight against rare diseases, defined as those affecting fewer than 200,000 people in the US. Unlike other pharmaceutical companies, Recursion isn’t testing new drugs – rather, it’s using algorithmic modeling of the anatomy of diseased cells to discover new uses for existing drugs.
Recursion’s image recognition software scrutinizes hundreds of thousands of images of human cells modified to model genetic diseases and uses deep learning to monitor for signs that one of the more than 2,000 compounds Recursion is testing on sick cells can make them look more like healthy ones. Using these methods, Recursion says it has already identified 15 potential treatments for rare diseases, with one drug candidate slated to enter clinical trial later this year.
Focus: VR immersion therapy for behavioral & mental health issues
Total Disclosed Funding: $1.15M
Select Investors: Caixa Capital Risc, Rothenberg Ventures
Formerly known as Phobious, Barcelona-based Psious aims to “heal minds” using “therapy beyond imagination.” Psious’ virtual reality technology is designed to complement and improve traditional therapeutic techniques by transporting patients out of anxiety-inducing circumstances – claustrophobics in MRIs, for example – into more appealing virtual settings.
Psious believes VR can be applied to an ever-increasing number of pathologies, from the treatment of conditions like ADHD and OCD to afflictions such as fear of flying, stress management, and social anxiety. To assess the effectiveness of their VR techniques, Psious’ technology comes equipped with patient monitoring features, enabling medical professionals to control the patient’s VR experience, track graph data from a biofeedback sensor, and assess “Subjective Units of Distress” related to treatment.
Focus: UAVs for rural healthcare supply
Total Disclosed Funding: $100K
Select Investors: Caixa Capital Risc, Rothenberg Ventures
Michigan-based Vayu is one of many companies developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), aka drones, that can transport goods to areas that are difficult to access through traditional modes of transportation. Vayu is using UAVs to close gaps in the rural healthcare supply chain, particularly in developing and impoverished countries.
Vayu’s technology can be used for medicine and device delivery, but the company is also working to facilitate better disease testing among remote populations. A video posted to Vayu’s Facebook page chronicled the first ever successful unmanned drone flight carrying clinical samples from a remote village in Madagascar to a central laboratory for testing. Vayu received a USAID Global Health Grant in August 2016 to advance its efforts to collaborate with rural health workers in isolated areas.
Focus: Holographic visualizations of the medical anatomy
Total Disclosed Funding: $30.4M
Select Investors: Convergent Investors, Voyager Capital, Ford Motor Company
Zebra Imaging provides holographic printing to enable complex information to be communicated through 3D visualizations. The Texas-based startup serves a variety of industries – ranging from architecture and design to government/defense, oil & gas, and engineering – but its applications in the medical industry are helping advance healthcare education: One study has proven that medical holograms provide a statistically significant performance improvement over traditional textbook materials in understanding anatomy, especially in regards to spatial relationships.
Zebra’s 3D medical holograms accurately display complex diagrams of the human anatomy to assist doctors, students, and patients with understanding diagnoses. Zebra’s tools also enable healthcare professionals to quickly create, view, and share 3D anatomical models for collaborative viewing of patient information.
Focus: NLP & machine learning for patient feedback
Total Disclosed Funding: $5.47M
Select Investors: DreamIt Ventures, HealthX Ventures, LiveOak Venture Partners
Texas-based NarrativeDx uses advanced technology to help healthcare providers understand patient feedback in a more comprehensive way. The company has built and patented the first automated Natural Language Processing (NLP) pipeline specifically for patient experience – helping doctors cultivate greater “linguistic insight” into what their patients actually mean in survey responses and other forms of feedback.
NarrativeDx deploys machine learning in its NLP offering in order to assess comment language at a highly granular level and cultivate structured, sophisticated insights. According to NarrativeDx, engaging in comment analysis in this manner can help providers identify key trends and issues that affect the patient experience. From there, they can use the intelligence to address problem areas and drive better retention and referral performance.
Focus: “Liquid biopsies” for cell-free DNA sequencing
Total Disclosed Funding: $72M
Select Investors: Andreeson Horowitz, Google Ventures, Cardinal Health
From a macro perspective, one of the key drivers for making populations healthier is making tests and procedures less invasive (and thus more accessible and available outside the traditional hospital setting). California-based Freenome is on the frontlines of that fight: The company’s goal is to help doctors proactively treat cancer and other diseases at their most manageable stages by bringing more accurate non-invasive screening tools to a greater number of providers.
Freenome is advancing “liquid biopsies” – blood-based diagnostics that could enable the routine, early detection of cancer. (Blood contains cancer clues such as circulating tumor DNA, or “ctDNA”). Freenome uses a combination of machine learning and traditional scientific techniques to look at a range of biological signals in blood, from relevant analytes to markers of the immune system’s response to tumor cells, to sequence DNA and assess risks for cancer and other forms of disease.
Focus: Making pig organs viable for human transplantation
Total Disclosed Funding: $40M
Select Investors: Heritage Provider Network, Khosla Ventures
Organ donation is one of the most pertinent issues facing healthcare providers and patients: According to organdonor.gov, as many as 22 people die each day waiting for a donor organ; around 120,000 people are on an organ waiting list, but only around 31,000 transplants are performed in a given year. Massachusetts-based eGenesis, a life sciences company, is seeking to help increase the supply of organs to meet demand by making pig organs suitable for human transplantation.
eGensis is using the CRISPR genome editing tool to knock out certain genes in pigs that could cause diseases or organ rejection in humans. If they’re successful, “xenotransplantation” (aka animal-organ transplantation to humans) may become a far more viable solution for serving the many patients waiting on organ donation lists around the world.
Focus: Wearables for medical transcription
Total Disclosed Funding: $59.3M
Select Investors: Emergence Capital Partners, McKesson Ventures
Accurate documentation of patient visits is integral to the back-office administration of healthcare, especially for providers participating in value-based incentive programs like Medicare’s MIPS. By providing a “remote scribe” solution through Google Glass, Augmedix says it reduces the time medical groups spend on medical-records charting by 80%.
Roughly 500 doctors in 27 states use Augmedix’s technology to live-stream their office visits to virtual scribes, who look on, document the visit, and provide back transcribed notes, according to a 2016 article in the Washington Post. Augmedix’s founders aim to supplement the tool with AI to transcribe the office visit in real time “while immediately comparing the patient’s medical issues with those of millions of others, then making predictions about what treatments would work best.”
Focus: Brain implants and “neural lace” technology
Total Disclosed Funding: N/A
Select Investors: Elon Musk
Ultimately, the rise of fields like robotics, AI, and machine learning will undoubtedly change the experience of human life. As anxieties over these technologies mount, mysterious California-based startup Neuralink is working on “brain hacking” solutions to ensure humans can – in founder Elon Musk’s words – “keep up with machines.”
Reports say the stealth organization, which was registered as a medical research company in July 2016, is developing “neural lace” technology that would allow people to communicate directly with machines without going through a physical interface. It’s akin to connecting your mind to the internet: Neural lace involves implanting electrodes in the brain so people can upload or download their thoughts to an external source. The company has begun pursuing its futuristic vision by hiring both engineers and academics with expertise in how the brain controls movement, according to the Wall Street Journal. Ultimately, Musk believes brain-hacking will give us a leg up on our proverbial robot overlords in the future: Prior to Neuralink’s launch in March 2017, Musk told an audience at Vox Media’s 2016 Code Conference that neural lace could prevent a person from becoming a “house cat” to artificial intelligence.
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