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Challenge Cup Health Startups Across the Globe are Revolutionizing Fitness, Better Diagnosing Diseases

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Hospitals are equipped to do almost everything. They treat adults with chronic conditions, deliver premature babies, perform emergency surgeries and prescribe treatment after treatment for hard-to-diagnose cases.

Just as the types of ailments the medical field deals with can be incredibly broad, so, too, were the startups that competed in the health category of the Challenge Cup this year. From city to city during 1776’s six-month global competition, it seemed like the 100-plus companies covered every possible aspect and niche within the medical realm with very little overlap.

Not surprisingly, a number of the startups emerged out of medical schools and universities’ PhD programs. To come up with and test their products and solutions involved amazing amounts of research and validation. Other founders were doctors—past and present—wanting to help other medical professionals do their jobs better or facilitate enhanced communications with both peers and patients.

No matter their specific subset, health startup founders overwhelmingly spoke of struggles to get that first, second or third customer and break into medical communities that arguably need their innovations the most.

Beyond this shared quest for traction, here’s what I observed in the health category across Challenge Cup locales:

A whole class of startups is out to give patients better access to their medical records

BlueHub, a Texas startup that was the runner-up health company in Austin, wants to democratize medical information so that, as CEO and cofounder Buzz White put it, the doctor and patient “share custody of the data.” What his company has created is a repository for patients’ official health records. For patients, it empowers them and offers far more information at their fingertips. Doctors, meanwhile, get the “right information at the right time” to improve treatment outcomes.

White’s motivation to launch BlueHub came out of a personal struggle. In one of the most riveting health pitches of the competition, White explained that he once almost killed his wife on accident because he didn’t have immediate access to the medication she needed when an attack came on—and ended up guessing wrong. He created his company to prevent that sort of dilemma.

In addition to BlueHub, a number of Challenge Cup startups are in this patient-information space, enabling individuals to keep and store their medical files digitally, research diseases and symptoms or look into their genetics and how it might affect their conditions.  For these startups, personalization is a key feature.

For instance, Medivizor, the Tel Aviv health winner, aims to supplement Google and WebMD as a go-to site for individuals wanting to dig into their medical afflictions. Founder Tal Givoly said that the trouble with those platforms is that they don’t deliver information that’s relevant to each person’s diagnosis. His startup’s site, instead, delivers customized information about a patient’s condition, translating it from medical jargon into plain, readable English.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if people would come in and get cutting-edge science—only what’s relevant for their situation—in language they could understand, and sent to their inbox?”’ Givoly said. “They, their caregivers and their doctors, could become world experts on their particular condition. That’s what we do.”

Improving workers and individuals’ fitness levels was a common theme

This phenomenon began in D.C.’s contest with runner-up RebelDesk, which makes treadmill desks that get workers on their feet and moving while doing their jobs. Cofounder Kathleen Hale said that, in her work as a lawyer prior to RebelDesk, she spent hour upon hour sitting—to her own detriment. In response, she hacked a basic treadmill desk and became addicted to how it cleared her thoughts and made her more productive. RebelDesk is her way of spreading this impact to others.

In Chicago, the next U.S. Challenge Cup city after D.C., Fitness Cubed wasn’t as dead-set on ending sitting, but was focused on corporate wellness via portable Bluetooth-enabled fitness machines that offices can buy to keep their employees exercising during the workday from their desk areas.

Fitness outside of the office also came up in Mexico City and Austin, where a few startups in each city are shaking up the traditional gym model for citizens. Austin Fitness Rentals does what its name suggests: rents out individual pieces of equipment, such as elliptical machines, for customers who pay a monthly fee and can swap out equipment as often as they like. Clients run the gamut from celebrities to overweight residents too embarrassed to hit up a gym.

Similarly, Mexico City-based InstaFit offers an online personal-training portal that gives subscribers access to personalized workout videos, nutrition guides and coaching via Skype. Cofounder Oswaldo Trava said the idea is to teach people to incorporate exercise into their home lives, even if they don’t want to hit the gym.

Medical devices had a major presence

Especially in Bangalore and Toronto, startups aplenty had physical items to show, hardware that was often patent-protected and did everything from diagnose to disinfect.

Toronto winner Limestone Labs, for one, created The Clean Slate to help hospitals better sanitize their equipment. The device is the size of a toaster and is able to clean mobile phones in 40 seconds or less. The Clean Slate uses ultraviolet light and a patented bulb that the startup will sell separately as a secondary revenue stream.

According to Cofounder Taylor Mann, most health startups are trying to leverage the potential of mobile technology by physicians and hospital staff. Yet, “no one’s really addressed the fact that hospitals don’t have a way to clean them right now.”

Also in the Canadian capital, ExVivo Labs has a prototype of a device that changes the way doctors test for allergies. The company’s product is a noninvasive skin patch that uses a micro-fluid system. It works like a home pregnancy test, only for allergy detection.

MNK_3245Bangalore also proved to be a hotbed for medical devices. Runner-up Fyrsta Innovations developed ReLive, a device for portable, personalized pain management. Cofounder Siddharth Nair said he was inspired by his mother, who has chronic pain. Atreya Innovations also presented a gadget with pressure sensors to measure and share patients’ vitals. Alternative medicine practitioners, who don’t have to abide by the same standards as more traditional practitioners, are the target customers. Atreya hopes to use its connected device to transfer patient information between New-Age and standard doctors.

Treating, diagnosing specific ailments was big

Plenty of Challenge Cup competitors have devised services and platforms that apply to swaths of patients. Many, though, also honed in on one disease or a set of diseases over the entire universe of affliction or patient care more generally.

This was certainly the case with cancer. Boston-based Oncolinx is developing chemotherapy that goes right to cancerous cells, rather than attacking healthy cells, which causes the nasty side effects associated with chemo. Once out in the market, Oncolinx’s improved chemo will treats 18 kinds of cancer. Kuveda Health, too, which was the top performer in San Francisco, gives oncologists more sophisticated tools to treat cancer patients by looking at cancer cells’ genetic mutation patterns to come up with treatment options.

Diabetes was another disease that came up often during various Challenge Cup stops. Toronto startup Medella Health’s innovation is a contact lens that monitors blood glucose levels in real time so as to monitor diabetes, which is becoming more prevalent in Canada. Boston runner-up Admetsys also is centered on diabetes monitoring—but with an artificial pancreas that can automate treatment. Currently, nurses have to manually check blood-sugar levels for diabetics. Because of nurses’ heavy workloads keeping up is difficult so the artificial pancreas attaches to a patient’s intravenous line and automatically measures blood-glucose concentration for them.

In a few Challenge Cup contests pregnant women were the target market for sensor technology and devices that sought to better monitor their growing babies. D.C.’s top health startup 1EQ uses Internet-of-Things connectivity so that physicians can monitor expectant patients remotely with its premiere product, BabyScripts.

Meanwhile, Nairobi-based Totohealth is using mobile text alerts between pregnant women and medical professionals so that the moms-to-be get nutritional guidance and any warning signs around the baby’s health. The startup also is planning to begin selling maternity boxes that will include everything mothers need during their children’s first year of life. In sub-Saharan Africa, 500 women still die daily during childbirth.

The strongest cities in the health sector were Toronto and Boston

Boston’s strong performance is probably not a shock, given the number of top-notch hospitals, medical schools and an increasing selection of life science-related startup hubs. In fact, several of the health companies involved in Challenge Cup had spent time in the same life-science incubators or made the rounds in the same high-calibre healthcare competitions.

Toronto, a first-time Challenge Cup city, also boasted a strong field in health. The sector is a growing one in Canada, as well as in Toronto specifically. Limestone Labs, which emerged victorious, has experienced rapid-fire success in a very short time. The company, as of Challenge Cup in November, had set up pilots with four major hospitals in Ontario. That happened just five months after the company was founded by a group of graduate students.

Challenge Cup Dublin 1776-8

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Dena Levitz is traveling to almost all of the Challenge Cup cities to cover the competition and analyze startup ecosystems around the globe. Dena joins 1776 after finishing the first…

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