During my first due diligence, I asked a developer why he was working for mySugr. He replied that he could use his time to make an impact. Life was too short to just work on another CRM platform or another social networking app. That got me thinking about my father when he was diagnosed with cancer. I realised our life spans are limited. As an entrepreneur, we can either work on our own economic goals or combine them with a contribution to the public wealth.
After conducting numerous more due diligence projects, a clear pattern emerged. Outstanding companies are defined by purpose – one that is fostered and communicated by the founders or the management team. I realised that a company that is driven by such purpose can access and use energy, enthusiasm and dynamics that other companies often find themselves lacking.
With our first notable digital health exit in Europe, I have come to believe that our ecosystem is becoming more stable and professional. Further, it is also good to see that more serial entrepreneurs and professional investors are joining the digital health scene.
Four years ago, when I joined a Venture Capital Fund that specialised in digital health as a Partner, I saw over 3,000 relevant companies in Europe. Back then, the European digital health scene was romantic and in its baby shoes. It was mainly filled with doctors who wanted to start their own company, or self-affected patients that wanted to build a service around their own problem. Very few of them had the experience of building up tech companies and positioning a company within the money streams of the healthcare system.
Watching the eco system develop in Europe I noted that the first companies that went bankrupt were the ones that mainly saw building up a healthcare company as solving a technological challenge, not a business challenge where you need to align yourself with the existing interests within the healthcare system. On the other hand, there were very few VCs and investors that wanted to touch digital health startups. Digital health startups were seen as too risky, very static and undynamic.
This attitude has changed since digital health companies in the US have begun producing trade sales and IPOs. In Berlin alone, we currently have 4 Venture Capital Funds and 2 company builders who raise funds for digital heath investments. Founders and investors of today’s startups are professionalising growth channels and B2B relations. Looking at companies that have successfully surpassed the Series A stage, it is notable that most of them are about digital access to doctors (KRY, Doctolib, DocPlanner, Min Doktor, Babylon Health, Push Doctor, Infermedica), consumerism (MEDIGO, mimi, Natural Cycles, Clue), health data (Symptoma, AdaHealth) or monitoring (dacadoo, Kaia Health). I am very happy for these entrepreneurial teams and expect them to find their strategic niche within the (digital) healthcare chain along the way.
Despite the professional approach of these growth companies, one of the major trends I have seen with digital health founders is that they focus solely on the patient benefits and neglect the business figures behind their purpose. They believe that being close to the end consumer and serving their needs will align stakeholders behind them and disrupt healthcare. Growth companies in digital health have to better-understand how to embed their value proposition towards the end customers within the existing healthcare stakeholder system too. Understanding the goals, KPIs and money streams of healthcare stakeholders is crucial for growth companies. In the digital health space of the future, competition will not take place between companies, but between alliances who have a connected value proposition.
As corporate growth investors, we have to look deeper into the financial substance of the companies. During our due diligence process, we have to assess if the company can establish itself long-term within the healthcare system. Having been an early stage VC, I understand that my colleagues need to focus more on the future potential and, more importantly, the next round’s valuation. Unfortunately, looking at a lot of Series A companies I have come to the conclusion that being purpose-only, or saying how many lives will be saved through the product/service, is not enough.
During growth, investing smart money is good, but what is more important for post-Series B investments is access. Scaling in healthcare is different to most other industries. Access to customers, stakeholders and, most importantly, data is key. This element to success can be provided by deep partnerships built on mutual trust and alignment of incentives. Corporate investments are a highly effective tool for cementing partnerships between key players in the healthcare system and innovative startups. When strategic priorities are aligned, such corporates provide access to a range of stakeholders that startups would otherwise have trouble reaching.
In contrast to the holy grail of MedTech, being non-invasive blood sugar monitoring, I believe that in digital health the holy grail lies with algorithms. For instance, startups like Predemtec are using their data for early detection of dementia patients. Detecting and predicting the onset of dementia or Alzheimer patients is crucial. Proactive treatment can transform the lives of patients, and the collection of data can further our research and work towards curing the disease, instead of just reactively treating or managing it. As for what is probably biggest blindspot in medicine, Symptoma has raised the bar for this field, providing the first and only viable deep-data solution. Their search algorithms analyse millions of medical publications and empower doctors to diagnose even rare diseases, based on symptoms, age and sex.
Last month, at a digital health startup competition, there were more investors and corporates in the room than startups. Hopefully this new ratio will push digital health founders to not only pitch the purpose of their offering, but also show a financial business opportunity. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how investors want to differentiate to attract good deals. At the moment, competition among VCs favours digital health entrepreneurs. Therefore we, as VCs, need to re-evaluate our value proposition as well, so that we can participate on the best deals. Watching the ecosystem develop over the past 5 years, digital health is one of the greatest opportunities available to combine making a meaningful impact with personal economic goals. The opportunities are there for those who understand that purpose alone is not enough – that financial opportunities are one of the key drivers that attract the capital injections needed to undertake the company’s purpose.