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Edition 4 — May 19, 2021
Good morning, 

Our last edition was focused on the telehealth boom. One day after the newsletter was published, BestBuy announced that it had joined the race with the acquisition of telehealth provider MeMd. 

One could fill an entire weekly newsletter just with telehealth stories, but we are interested in all facets of innovation at the intersection of technology and medicine. So this time, we have a telehealth-free edition for you with the following topics:
  • our take on the relevance of space travel for medical innovation,
  • a surprising infographic on the top investors in MedTech,
  • an interview with the founder of Spharia Medical, the company behind the world’s first mobile protective pod, and
  • CeramTec CEO Hadi Saleh on the beauty of Stanford’s mindwriting brain implant.
As always, feel free to get back to us with feedback by replying to the email. Enjoy reading. 

HOW SPACE TRAVEL IS CHANGING THE HISTORY OF MEDICINE

Illustration by Mary Delaney

Space, the final frontier, is gradually opening up to (wealthy) mortals. In 2022, four private individuals are expected to embark on the “AX-1” journey to the ISS for the first time. NASA is working with the space startup Axiom Space on this ambitious endeavor. The Washington Post reported in January that ticket prices clocked in at $55m each. It is the beginning of a potentially longer collaboration that will culminate with the controlled descent of the ISS into the Pacific Ocean in 2030.

→ Granted, the message may seem out of place in a MedTech publication. But as is so often the case, the really interesting news is in the details. First, two of the astronauts are collaborating with the Montreal Children's Hospital as well as Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic to conduct scientific experiments. Secondly, the announcement is characteristic of large-scale technology projects whose side benefits are almost as important as the actual purpose. Space is not a fruitless, low-return government expenditure. The high scientific-technical demands of space travel have stimulated a wealth of new discoveries in a wide variety of fields. The NASA project SPINOFF, for example, lists more than 2,000 applications that were initiated by NASA's space projects including a wide variety of medical use cases: The technology underpinning CAT Scans and MRI machinery is based on NASA research. The space agency has also helped to build a medical device that keeps patients alive while they wait for a heart transplant and has laid the foundations for fiber-optic nerves and biometric sensors. They even built an astronaut-supporting AI that today telemonitors high-risk patients at home. Given these facts, every penny of NASA's $23.3 billion budget seems quite reasonable.

THE FUTURE OF CLINICAL TRIALS IS DECENTRAL, VIRTUAL, AND DATA-DRIVEN

Image: National Cancer Institute (Unsplash)

Clinical trials are essential for medical and life science innovation and represent a significant cost bucket. It's certainly no surprise that the COVID 19 pandemic has imposed boundaries on the industry — boundaries that startups are now looking to displace: They want to help make clinical trials more digital to reach patients and, most importantly, more efficient and effective. In any case, they have already attracted the attention of investors: in early May, LA-based Science 37, a developer of a decentralized clinical trial operating system, announced a SPAC merger with LifeSci Acquisition II. The proposed transaction values Science 37 at more than $1bn. Similarly, Medable raised $194m in the past year to tap into the growing opportunity in decentralized digital clinical trials. Likewise, Florence Healthcare – a software developer for managing document and data flow between research sites and sponsors – announced an $80m Series C last week. Remember: Startup activity is often a symptom of a long-needed change.

→ As in many other medical fields, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced clinical trial companies to become more patient-centered and inclusive. The pandemic acted as an accelerator for innovation. Clinical trial designs have had to adapt significantly: Remote patient monitoring, virtual study designs, BigTech’s data collaboration approaches (e.g. Apple ResearchKit and CareKit or Facebook’s Preventive Health), and direct-to-patient assessments are just a few of many new digital attempts to become more efficient and effective. From the patient's perspective, these developments are a highly welcomed change in modus operandi. But the clinical trials industry also participates strongly. All three essential clinical trials pillars — study set-up, activation, and evaluation — are being addressed by digital innovations and can draw on small startup ecosystems. Medable and Science 37 go just one step further and offer not only disaggregated special solutions but an end-to-end service.

BOSE ENTERS MEDICAL DEVICES MARKET WITH SOUNDCONTROL HEARING AIDS

Image: Bose

American audio equipment manufacturer Bose is introducing a new product category. The SoundControl hearing aids are the first FDA-approved hearing aids sold directly to consumers in the US. The hearing aids are designed for adults with mild to moderate hearing loss. In tandem with the Bose-Hear app, users can adjust, program and control the device in real time — without the need to consult a medical professional. Bose states that the quality is clinically proven and equivalent to audiologists' equipment. Custom earpieces are not currently offered. The device is priced at $850.

→ Early readers will recall that we covered the consumerization of the multi-billion dollar hearing aid market in MedTech Pulse Edition 1. In the meantime, Sennheiser has sold its consumer division to hearing aid specialist Sonova. Jabra has also proven that a link between headphone and hearing aid technologies is a natural fit (Jabra belongs to the Danish parent company GN Store Nord A/S, manufacturer of hearing aids). The previously highly isolated market is being pressured by the emergence of smaller and smarter earplugs, giving birth to many new consumer-friendly startups. Or simply put: Medical devices and consumer electronics are converging. A welcoming development for people with some degree of hearing loss, as the cost and complexity of treatment are major barriers.

MedTech is not just another vertical. This becomes particularly clear when you take a look at the biggest investors. In almost every sector, the usual suspects Y Combinator, Plug and Play, Techstars, and 500 Startups are leading the investor rankings, and governmental organizations only show up in the bottom ranks.

For MedTech, the situation looks quite different: six of the ten biggest investors are governmental organizations. The only non-governmental investor in the Top5 is MassChallenge, a non-profit organization. 

On the one hand, this shows that the classic Venture Capital logic does not apply in the highly regulated medical marke, and on the other hand, that a strong MedTech ecosystem is dependent on governmental support — especially in the early stages.

A techie at heart, Janis founded his first company in 2001, building websites for Germany’s largest global companies like Siemens and VW. He then worked in strategic finance and venture building, launching several companies as an entrepreneur, and engaging in corporate leadership roles around the world — ultimately conducting large-scale mergers and acquisitions for Bertelsmann from their US headquarters in NYC. Janis entered the healthcare space in 2017, working with this same focused ambition: to create immediate and sensible solutions with a truly positive impact on people's lives. 

His venture Sphaira Medical is developing the world’s first mobile protective pod — a highly mobile shell that is protected against environmental influences and that could fundamentally improve the lives of patients in protective isolation. Read a Handelsblatt article (in German) about Janis and Sphaira Medical here.

 

"We are just beginning to understand biology and medicine" 

Janis Muench (CEO and Co-Founder, Sphaira Medical)

Series B
Imaging
UltraSight, an Israeli medical imaging startup, raised a $13m Series B financing round led by The Yozma Group, Atain Insurance, and the Weizmann Institute of Science. The startup develops a platform that leverages AI technologies to analyze ultrasound readings quicker and more accurately.  
geektime.com (2021-05-1) 
Seed
EHR
DeepScribe, an AI-driven platform for medical record-taking, has raised a $5.2m seed round led by Bee Partners. The startup, launched in 2019 based on technology developed at the University of California, Berkeley, is designed to transcribe patient notes. 
venturebeat.com (2021-05-13) ↗
Venture
Vascular
Healionics, a medical device startup, closed a $4.7m venture round led by Keiretsu Capital. The company aims to commercialize its STARgraft vascular graft, designed to provide a safer means to access the bloodstream for dialysis in patients with kidney failure.
finsmes.com (2021-05-13) ↗
Series C
Virtual care
Huma, a London-based startup offering “hospitals at home” and decentralised clinical trials, raised a $130m Series C funding round led by the venture arms of Bayer and Hitachi. The NHS found that by using Huma they can double the amount of patients they’re able to help at once.
sifted.eu (2021-05-12) ↗
M&A
Medical devices
Allergan Aesthetics has struck a $550 million deal to acquire Soliton for its newly launched tattoo removal and cellulite treatment device. The device, Resonic, uses high-frequency sound waves to fade tattoos and drive short-term improvements in the appearance of cellulite.
medtechdive.com (2021-05-11) ↗
Series B
Surgery
Oura, the startup behind the namesake fitness ring, raised a $100m Series C financing round led by The Chernin Group and Elysian Park. The startup plans to develop features that would help people better understand what to do with their health data.
fiercehealthcare.com (2021-05-05) ↗

Two recent stories on brain implants have reminded me in a beautiful way about technology’s potential to make people's lives richer. The Guardian published an article about a computer system developed by Stanford researchers that allows a paralyzed man to write sentences with his imagination. The system is technologically impressive. But even more exciting is what this innovation enables: a person unable to express itself can interact with society through thoughts.

That's exactly what the work of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh is all about. They have developed an implant that allows Nathan Copeland, who is paralyzed, to play video games. His big goal is to play Pong against the now-famous monkey with the Neuralink implant. He also uses his implant to surf the Internet and draw pictures. “It got me through the pandemic”, he says.

Using technology to make people's lives richer. That is the essence of MedTech to me.