Tuzag CEO Neal Sofian. (Tuzag Photo) is betting that health bots need a better bedside manner. The startup just launched a chat service that’s part concierge, part health assessor and comes with a healthy dose of compassion. Tuzag’s first product, , is an out-of-the-box service that CEO sums up as an “engagement bot.” In a demo of Tuzag’s app for Amazon Alexa, the bot responded to news that a patient was having a bad day by saying, “I wish I could give you a big hug right now.” Other details, like remembering your pet’s name and asking for doggy updates, bring the humanistic angle a step further. Health bots that use artificial intelligence are having a moment. Microsoft recently , and a number of health companies have built bots for Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. “We’re doing two things that I think are very different,” Sofian said. “One is we’re building profiles on people so that we have a persistent memory and we’re learning every time we interact with you. The second part is we’re actually tailoring content down to the word just for you.” Tuzag’s MyHealthyDay voice app is also available in other channels, such as a web dashboard, shown above. (Tuzag Screenshot) Tuzag Founder Dave Bulger. (Tuzag Photo) Tuzag’s bots can be programmed to have different personalities, which can change the experience, for example, from a friendly and bubbly conversation to a stern one. With the help of artificial intelligence, Sofian thinks more personalized bots can change patient behavior. But it all starts with engagement. “A good concierge in a hotel gets to know you. What are your needs? What do you want?” Sofian said. “Why wouldn’t we do that for consumers in health care when it’s 20 percent of the economy?” In addition to the off-the-shelf MyHealthyDay product, Tuzag creates custom bots and can provide its product as middleware to other companies. While the startup is focused on voice apps, its services can be deployed through text messages, an online chatbot or other channels. Tuzag is focused on the user experience to help improve engagement. “We want to build the concierge that can do what it takes to get people to connect to the products and services that are meaningful to them,” Sofian said. In the future, Sofian said that MyHealthyDay could integrate with smart devices to give tailored advice, such as synching with a smart pill bottle to track whether a patient is taking their medicine. “It’s pretty startling how bad adherence is,” Sofian said. Sofian runs the company with Tuzag founder , who first started working on the project in 2013. The startup has offices in Seattle and Syracuse, New York, where Bulger is based. Tuzag has partnered with the YMCA as well as Vanderbilt University, which is developing its own bot for newcomers to Nashville, Tenn. The startup has raised around $500,000 in seed funding. Sofian developed the successful smoking cessation program called Free and Clear, later renamed Quit for Life, in the 1980s. The program is now offered by more than 700 employers and health plans across 26 states. He also previously spent 14 years at Seattle-based Group Health Cooperative and was director of member engagement at Premera Blue Cross for seven years.
The Xealth team — and office dogs — inside the company’s office in Seattle’s Smith Tower. (GeekWire Photo / James Thorne) Is there big market for prescriptions beyond drugs? Several investors with deep experience in health are betting on it — joining in a new $11 million funding round for Xealth, a digital health startup building a platform that lets doctors prescribe everything from wheelchairs and insulin monitors to articles and Lyft rides. Xealth CEO Mike McSherry. (Xealth Photo) Founded by two Seattle startup veterans and spun out of Providence Health & Services, Xealth uses patient data to recommend services from a variety of vendors for possible prescription. The company wants to make its marketplace available to hundreds of thousands of doctors and nurses, letting them issue digital prescriptions, such as apps and digital media, or anything else they want to prescribe beyond a traditional drug. If a patient is overweight and doesn’t have a history of eating disorders, for example, Xealth might recommend that a doctor prescribe a service from Weight Watchers. Xealth’s Series A funding round drew new investors McKesson Ventures, Novartis, Philips and ResMed. Those names are notable in that they represent many of the medical supplies, digital therapeutics and devices that can be prescribed over Xealth’s platform. “I’m a huge fan of strategic investments,” said Mike McSherry, Xealth’s CEO and co-founder, in an interview at the company’s headquarters at Seattle’s Smith Tower, explaining why he likes to seek out investors from inside the industry, not just traditional venture capital. McSherry has followed this approach before, with success. He was previously CEO of Swype, maker of a popular swipe texting keyboard, and , key players in the world of mobile devices. Following , Xealth’s total cash raised now stands at $19.5 million, and the new round brought back prior investors Threshold Ventures, Providence Ventures, Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin Health Network, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. McSherry and Xealth co-founder Aaron Sheedy make for unlikely healthcare innovators. The pair have been working together for more than two decades, tracing their roots back to a shared office at Microsoft in the 90s. They worked together at Swype, which sold to Nuance Communications in 2011. McSherry became Nuance’s VP of advertising and content and Sheedy its VP of mobile product. They took the plunge into healthcare after McSherry was invited by Providence CEO Rod Hochman to be an entrepreneur-in-residence at Providence Ventures in 2015. Founded two years later, Xealth now has 40 employees, up from 12 in 2017. Xealth’s marketplace lives inside of hospitals’ electronic health records systems. (Xealth Screenshot) The company reflects a broader surge in interest in health by people and companies from the tech industry. The frenzy around digital health has been stoked by significant entries into the space from the likes of Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft. Venture investment in digital health grew 42 percent last year to $8.1 billion, according to . Xealth was founded with a mission to be the ultimate marketplace for doctors to prescribe anything and everything digital. But the company says its platform is more than a marketplace: It also routes the flow of data from services back into the hospital’s electronic health record system. Xealth is currently tracking data from 40,000 sleep apnea patients who are using CPAP devices for Providence St. Joseph Health. “If you can more seamlessly engage with the patients digitally, like they’re used to in their consumer lives, you’re providing a better patient experience,” McSherry said. “But that also gives the hospital system a 360-degree view of the patient’s health.” Last year, Xealth for products that could be prescribed through its marketplace. What seemed like a simple integration — a surgeon could send a patient a link to buy a product for recovery, for example — was practically revolutionary in a world where doctors often hand their patients a photocopy of the product they recommend. Not surprisingly, navigating tech-style disruption in healthcare is complicated. Amazon’s service on Xealth doesn’t use the e-commerce giant’s recommendation engine; instead, doctors manually curate the products they want. And to avoid conflicts of interest, Xealth doesn’t get affiliate payments from Amazon. McSherry said that other e-commerce sellers would soon join the platform. The startup currently offers services from 30 digital health vendors. One recent addition to Xealth’s platform is Proteus, which sells pills with sensors that monitor a patient’s drug adherence. Xealth also recently added Duke Health and Baylor Scott & White Health as customers. The startup makes money by licensing its platform to healthcare providers. Competitors include Redox and Sansoro Health, both of which integrate third-party applications into electronic health records systems. McSherry made it clear that using data to make recommendations is central to realizing Xealth’s ambitions. It just has to make sure that healthcare providers are on board. Over time, McSherry said, the company should know what works best for patients down to an individualized level. “We didn’t get into this to play small ball,” he said. “We’re going to have a huge data set that works to optimize the best patient care and clinical recommendations for patients.”
Nanodropper team members Jennifer Steger, Mackenzie Andrews and Allisa Song. (Matt Hagen / UW Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship Photo) What if something as simple as a more precise eyedropper could cut the cost of glaucoma medication by more than half? That’s the idea behind the startup Nanodropper, which won the $15,000 grand prize at the University of Washington Hollomon Health Innovation Challenge on Wednesday night. The team also won a $2,500 medical device consulting award. created an FDA-approved adapter for eyedrop bottles that aims to reduce waste in the delivery of medication, especially for patients with glaucoma, which causes blindness. Here’s how it works: Take any eyedropper medication, screw on Nanodropper’s device, and you’ll get drops that are much smaller — but still large enough to deliver the medication effectively. Eyedroppers often deliver more medication than the eye can physically absorb, and the Nanodropper reduces the size of drops by a quarter or more. The team was inspired by about how larger-than-necessary eyedrops were increasing costs for glaucoma patients, who can spend $500 per month on medication. The issue is , in which patients sued massive drug companies like Allergan, Bausch & Lomb, Merck and Pfizer. “The problem is that the companies have no incentive to reduce the size of their drops, because then they would be selling less medication,” Nanodropper’s Allisa Song, a medical student at the Mayo Clinic, told GeekWire. Nanodropper’s team also includes UW graduate students Jennifer Steger and Mackenzie Andrews, as well as Elias Baker, a mechanical engineer who has worked with SpaceX and Spacelabs. Following its launch a year ago, Nanodropper has raised $60,000 primarily from healthcare providers. The grand prize was sponsored by Seattle-based life science incubator Intuitive X. Nanodropper said five eye care clinics are interested in presales and that it’s in talks with Premera Blue Cross, Kaiser Permanente and Bartell Drugs. The startup will use the cash to start making the product, which is manufactured in Minnesota and will sell for $12.99. The device has received class I FDA approval with a 510(k) exemption. $10,000 2nd Place Prize: Appiture (Washington State University) (Matt Hagen / UW Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship Photo) Appiture is developing a mobile-based hardware and software system to detect autism spectrum disorder in children. The team, which includes students from Washington State University’s chemical engineering, bioengineering and veterinary medicine departments, also won a $2,500 digital health prize. The Herbert B. Jones Foundation sponsored the second-place prize. (GeekWire Photo) $5,000 3rd Place Prize: Pulmora (University of Washington) Pulmora created an autonomous ventilator that can easily be applied to patients who have stopped breathing. The company, comprised of UW bioengineering students, said that it hopes to make ventilators common and easy to use, in the same way that defibrillators are today. The third-place prize was sponsored by WRF Capital, the investment arm of the Washington Research Foundation. $1,000 “Judges Also Really Liked” Award: DopCuff and Insulin Anywhere In addition to the top prizes, the judges gave $1,000 to DopCuff, which is working on a better blood pressure device for patients with end-stage heart failure. Insulin Anywhere also won the “Judges Also Really Liked Award” for its system that is both an insulin-cooling chamber and a compact needle kit, which was designed to get insulin to diabetics in emergency situations such as natural disasters.
Health care provider Providence St. Joseph Health acquired Seattle startup , which uses blockchain to collect payments more efficiently. The process of billing and collecting payment, called revenue cycle management, is a common headache for hospitals that has attracted solutions from Athenahealth, Experian Health, GE Healthcare Partners and others. Lumedic CEO Lincoln Popp. (Lumedic photo) Lumedic uses blockchain, the technology behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, to share information between payers and providers on a distributed ledger. Providence said it’s the first integrated health care system to use blockchain for this purpose. By moving what is often a manual process to the blockchain, the companies hope to reduce costs. “New technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence, and machine learning give us an opportunity to view the complexities of today’s health systems through a different lens,” said Venkat Bhamidipati, Providence St. Joseph Health CFO, in a statement. Renton, Wash.-based Providence, which operates 51 hospitals, has hired the Lumedic team and intends to keep it an independent company that will pursue partnerships with providers, insurers and others. Providence did not disclose how much it paid for the acquisition or other terms of the deal. Lumedic was founded a year ago by Michael Nash, the company’s chief product officer, and is led by CEO Lincoln Popp.