With healthtech leading the stampede, the UK has a thriving ‘Tech for Good’ ecosystem. Across Britain, venture capital investment in healthtech was only surpassed by fintech investment over 2018.

Companies such as London based Medopad, for example, are using healthtech to track and treat Parkinson’s Disease. Additionally, London based Touch Surgery use digital technologies to address the problems of global surgical inequality.   

Healthtech is an optimistic landscape which has the potential to revolutionise lives for patients and health practitioners across the globe.  

This week our Technology Director, Tony uses “Our Week in Digital” to look into all the latest happenings within this prosperous and growing space.  

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Healx raises $56m to use AI to find treatments to rare diseases.

Our first healthtech story is the Cambridge based startup, Healx has raised $56 million to help discover new treatments for rare diseases using AI.

In broad terms, Healx aims to discover new treatments and to fast track these solutions to clinic within 24 months. A time frame which is significantly faster than the norm.  

Healx co-founder and CEO Dr Tim Guilliams remarks;

“The traditional model of discovery and clinical development of new medicines is very expensive in terms of costs, timelines and efficacy. To bring a new drug to market typically costs $2-3 billion, takes 12-14 years to develop and has a 95% failure rate”.

Moreover, Healx looks to address the multitude of “rare diseases” that aren’t the focus of new treatments at all.  

Healx says the new round of finance will be used to influence this shortfall. Healx will develop the company’s “therapeutic pipeline” and will launch its global ‘Rare Treatment Accelerator programme’. A project that will seek to make rare drug discoveries more efficient. 

Guilliams has highlighted the need for more work to be done on these lesser-known conditions:

“There are over 7,000 rare diseases affecting 400 million people worldwide (50% of these are children). Of these diseases, 95% still lack an approved treatment today”.  

What are Healx doing about this?

Healx aims to remedy this. It has an ambitious target and plans to progress 100 rare disease treatments towards the clinic by 2025.

Critically, Guilliams says that the current model doesn’t work for diseases which have a small patient population. Unsurprisingly, he points to the bottom line as the reason behind the lack of research and development amongst this underresourced area. 

With the discovery and development costs of drug research being so high, he cites that the small return on investment from rare condition drug sales simply doesn’t make it a profitable practice.

Guilliams says the industry needs a “radical change of course”. He believes the answer lies in AI to discover alternative uses for existing drugs.

He claims that by focussing on approved drugs and harnessing the power of AI, the rare disease drug discovery process can be “a faster and more efficient” one.

The application of AI technologies to drug discovery is not unique to Healx. However, Healx is taking a different approach to other companies in the space. The company has a focus on rare genetic conditions and have the world’s leading biomedical knowledge graph for rare diseases. They also don’t develop new molecules. Instead, they have chosen to maximise the value of those drugs already approved.

Additionally, Healx uses tech that is data-driven and “hypothesis-free”. A very different approach from former approaches to drug discovery which is target driven.

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Who is participating in this latest funding round?

Leading the round is London-base VC firm Atomico, with participation by Intel Capital, Global Brain and btov Partners. All previous investors, including Balderton Capital, Amadeus Capital Partners, and Jonathan Milner have also followed.

From an investor perspective, this is an interesting one. The returns from the drug discovery market can be short and a long time in arriving. This is especially true in the case of Healx. Particularly considering its focus will be on lesser-known and already under-funded conditions. 

However, it is worth noting that it may be the ‘brains behind the operation’ which is the draw in this case. Healx co-founder, Dr David Brown, has invented several drugs that have already made it to market. He was one of the founders of Viagra for example. The drug has brought a total of $400 million in revenue for Pfizer in the first quarter alone. It would go on to produce annual sales in the region of $1.8 billion. 

Atomico principle Irina Haivas has a strong belief that her investment will be profitable and has confidence in Healx’s agenda. She asserts that there are early signs AI can be harnessed to solve this “big search” problem better than humans. She has cautioned though that disrupters such as Healx require a different framework from an investor perspective. As a result, some investors may need time to get on board.  

Foodvisor automatically tracks what you eat using Deep Learning.

Foodvisor is a startup who has built a mobile app that logs everything you eat in order to lose weight, follow a diet or get healthier. Users can add data simply by capturing a photo of your plate before you eat. This last week saw World Health Day, on which UNICEF reported that at least 1 in 3 children under five is either undernourished or overweight. Foodvisor demonstrates how healthtech could be used to raise awareness of malnutrition from an unbalanced diet. 

The company is using deep learning to enable image recognition to detect what you’re about to eat. In addition to identifying the type of food on your plate, the app tries to estimate the weight of each item. By trying to evaluate the distance between your plate and your phone using camera autofocus data, it calculates the area of each food item. The company then tries to extrapolate the volume of each item depending on its type.  

Of course, if Foodvisor miscalculates your photograph, you are able to correct and manually log your entry before you eat!  

Many people give up on food logging tech due to the high levels of time-consuming complexity. Foodvisor aims to eliminate the demanding nature of these products. This technology is all about making the data entry process as seamless as possible.  Following each entry, you get a list of nutritional facts about what you are about to eat. The app breaks down each entry into calories, proteins, carbs, fats etc. Users can then set a goal, log activity and monitor progression over time.

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How well will this actually work?

Although we love the simplicity of this, we can’t help but question the accuracy of this method. There are plenty of ‘hidden’ calories in the foods we consume. Could the app detect a salad dressed with olive oil over a ‘naked’ one for example, or would you have to enter this manually?  

It certainly seems popular though. The startup has managed to attract 1.8 million app downloads already and is available on iOS and Android. It is also a global product and is available in French, English, German and Spanish. Foodvisor is also looking to expand into the American market. It has enriched its database to better represent a wider range of food products.

At the current time, the app is a free product with bolt-on premium subscriptions.  

This is another example of a ‘tech for good’ startup using data, deep learning and AI to promote wellness. This is especially relevant in a time when we are turning to digital devices to help us manage our health. The popularity suggests that we may start to see healthtech become more common in our day to day lives. 

However, the main differentiating feature between the free product and the premium package is that ‘premium’ customers receive a chat facility with a registered dietician and nutritionist.  It seems that (for the time being at least), AI can’t replace real human nutritionists altogether!  

UK Biotech start-up injects $16m to get novel cell therapies to market.

Start-up Mogrify has closed an initial $16 million Series A funding round. Biotech is working on systematizing the development of novel cell therapies in areas such as regenerative medicine. This round follows close on the heels of their $4M seed in February, and takes their total raised to $20m.

Simply put, Mogrify’s approach entails the analysis of vast amounts of genomic data. It can then identify the specific energetic changes needed to flip an adult cell from one type to another without having to reset it to a stem cell state. This process has the potential to be transformative. It also has huge potential to be used in a wide variety of therapeutic use-cases.

Successful so far, CEO and investor Dr Darrin Disley claims Mogrify has successfully converted 15 cells out of 15 tries.

The startup is drawing on around 10 years’ worth of recent work in genomics science. Most specifically though it has relied on a huge data-set generated by an international research effort, called Fantom 5 which Mogrify founders had early access to.

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How long will it take before we see this technology on the market?

In terms of timeframe for getting novel cell therapies from concept to market, Disley suggests a range of between four and seven years. He remarks, that things have moved on in this respect;

“It’s not like the old days with small molecules where it can take ten, 15, 20 years to get a serious therapy on the market”, he says.

He also emphasises that this concept does not use AI and that he thinks AI is still trying to”find its way”. He says the danger with using AI in isolation is that it only knows what you want it to know and as a result is open to bias. 

Instead, he credits using this massive Fantom 5 data set to be the fundamental baseline. Mogrify have layered all that data, and as such have created a network map between all the different cell types.   

Disley asserts that a combination approach could be used with success;

“…once you continue to generate this massive cell network data you can start applying aspects of machine learning and AI”.  

he goes on to say that “with AI you have to be a little careful” and that “it will be a more optimizing tool once you’ve got sufficient confidence in your system.” 

What are the plans for funding?

The plan for the Series A funding is to ramp up Mogrify’s corporate operations and to grow their team. Mogrify plan to introduce senior executives and experts from industry as well as spending to fund its therapy development programs.

In evidence, Disley has appointed Dr Jane Osbourn as chair. Prior to this, Dr Osbourn was VP for Research and Development and Site Leader for MedImmune.

Mogrify hopes to bring in still more people who have cell therapy experience from big pharma. In short, they hope to dispel the assertion that Mogrify is “just a tech company”. They already have 35 heads and plan to add another 30 to that. However, they hope to do so using those who have big pharma, cell therapy development and manufacturing experience with a view to getting products to market. This is great news for the healthtech industry as it will mean more effective technological treatments come into use sooner rather than later. 

Partner search is another focus for the Series A. Mogrify will target the right strategy collaborators; those who can deliver multi-programs in a partnership.  

Despite having enough money to last the next two years, Mogrify is also leaving the Series A open to continue expanding the round over the next 12 months – up to the value of another $16m.  

Disley comments that they are not short of potential investors and have had a lot of interest. They didn’t open this latest round, instead choosing to run with internal investors and those with whom they had previously worked. Disley remarks that they had “others lined up” however, and that they are leaving it open so that in these next 12 months they may choose to increase the amount brought in.

He says;

“It would be a maximum of another $16M if it was an A round but we may decide just to go straight forward if we progress very fast to a much bigger B round.”

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Bayer launches new AI Hub to optimise drug discovery.

Bayer UK has launched ‘Life Hub UK’ – a new AI Hub intended to optimise data-driven drug discovery, disease detection and diagnosis by developing Artificial Intelligence enabled imaging solutions.

The latest hub will be based in Reading’s Green Park and as such is in a prime location. Green Park houses more than 45,000 tech-related jobs and contributes around £12billion to UK annual digital technology revenues.

Bayer’s LifeHubs already have locations across the globe; Berlin, Boston, California, Japan, Lyon and Singapore. LifeHub UK is the newest addition to this already impressive portfolio. This is great news for the UK healthtech industry.

In the early stages, LifeHub UK will focus on the development of AI-enabled radiology solutions.

Professor Dr Olaf Weber, Head of Radiology R&D at Bayer has remarked;

“Bayer is looking forward to bringing its knowledge and expertise in medical imaging within radiology into joint development activities with our partners at LifeHub UK.”

Collaborations

Bayer and LifeHub UK has committed £3m to these projects and have secured some influential collaborations and partnerships.

Clinical AI technology company, Sensyne Health, sealed a collaboration agreement with Bayer earlier this year. Sensyne will be one of the first companies to have a presence in LifeHub UK. Other partners will include Reading University, Royal Berkshire Hospital and Harwell Science & Innovation Campus.

On the partnership, Rt Hon. Lord Drayson, CEO Sensyne Health Plc, said “Initiatives like this are essential to quickly maximise the opportunity AI presents to improve patient care and accelerate medical research. I’m delighted to be working with Bayer, extending our partnership to deliver the benefits of digital innovation directly to clinicians and patients.”

The UK is an exciting and vibrant place to be within the global healthtech ecosystem.

Endorsing this is Dr Diana Medeiros Placido, head of LifeHub UK. In a statement, she remarks that Bayer is delighted to place roots here, and to be “connecting with some of the brightest minds to jointly explore, discover and develop leading customer-centric solutions to advance patient care.”

Haptic artificial skin aids rehab and VR.

It has been noted this week that the ongoing work into touch-sensitive artificial skin at the Swiss Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) has massive potential for gaming, training, and medical rehabilitation.  

Scientists at the technology education and research institution recently published their development of soft artificial skin that integrates both sensors and actuators in Soft Robotics.

Engineers working from EPFL’s Reconfigurable Robotics Lab (RRL) and the Laboratory for Soft Bioelectric Interfaces (LSBI) form the team who have been striving to develop the artificial skin material. This progressive material has strain sensors that measure deformation in real-time. This data can then be used to drive haptic inputs to the human patient, and in turn, create a sense of touch.

This area of healthtech that is only just being explored and the horizon for this revolutionary material looks very exciting! 

What potential applications does this kind of healthtech have?

The potential applications for the EPFL ‘skin’ include both human-computer and human-robot interfaces. For example, when considering training and rehabilitation the ability to detect surface textures as well as absolute and relative movement can provide feedback to users, as well as reports to therapists and teachers.

Additionally, those patients who are undergoing self-led therapy at home could receive immediate feedback with therapists. They could then monitor patient progress remotely.

Meanwhile, applications in robotics could augment experiences with prosthetics and add a level of differentiation to remote tasks.

Concerning testing, so far the EPFL scientists have experimented with the artificial skin on users’ fingers. The next stage would involve fully wearable prototypes for rehab and VR/AR studies. In the future, the researchers also envision using the skin to stimulate humans in MRI experiments to study dynamic brain activity.

We hope you have enjoyed Tony’s round-up of this week’s healthtech news!

We’d love to hear your thoughts on her choices or any other healthtech or more general tech and digital news stories that may have caught your eye this week.

As ever, please leave your comments below. We’d love to read them!

About the author: As a founder of Ignite Digital Talent, I lead our brilliant team to ensure we deliver time and time again for our clients. I also stay closely networked with industry influencers to ensure we are well placed to understand the issues and challenges our clients face.

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