News roundup: Proteus may be no-teous, DOJ leads on Google-Fitbit, HHS’ mud fight, Leeds leading in health tech, malware miseries, comings and goings

Proteus stumbles hard, cuts back. The original ‘tattle-tale pill’ company, Proteus Digital Health, plans to lay off 292 people in the San Francisco Bay Area and to permanently close its three Redwood City and Hayward locations, starting 18 January, according to notices sent to California state and local offices, including the state employment development department. It is unclear where Proteus will be located after the closures.

This followed after Proteus failed to launch a twelfth funding round of $100 million. According to reports, they furloughed most of their employees for two weeks in November and are reorganizing. This is after a substantial number of investors have put in about $487M in funding through a Series H (Crunchbase), including a game-changing investment by Novartis dating back to 2010.  Proteus achieved unicorn status about three years ago, but its high-priced pill tracking technology with a pill sensor tracked by a skin-worn monitor reporting into a smartphone has a built-in limited market to expensive medication. Otsuka Pharmaceutical in 2017 partnered with Proteus for an FDA-cleared digital medicine system called Abilify MyCite that basically put an off-patent behavioral drug back into a more expensive tracking methodology. But Proteus remains a great idea on tracking compliance in search of a real market, and may not have much of a future. San Jose Mercury News, CNBC

But ingestible detectable pills are still being tested. On Monday, as Proteus’ bad news broke, eTectRx announced its FDA clearance of the ID-Cap System and its testing at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Fenway Health, focusing on HIV medication when used for treatment and prevention. Release, HISTalk

Department of Justice taking the lead on scrutinizing Google’s Fitbit acquisition. The Federal Trade Commission also sought jurisdiction over the transaction. According to the New York Post, “both agencies are concerned that a Google-owned Fitbit would give the search giant an even bigger window into people’s private data, including sensitive health information, sources said. Under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act, all large mergers must file proposals with both the DOJ and the FTC, but only one antitrust agency reviews the merger.”

Coal from stockings being thrown about at HHS. According to POLITICO and the New York Times, the disagreements between Seema Verma, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and the Cabinet-level Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Alex Azar, have boiled over, enough to have to be settled by the President’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. According to the Times, both President Trump and VP Mike Pence have told them to find a way to work together. Both are administration appointees, but President Trump has not been reluctant to cut a mis-performing or overly contrary appointee loose. The latest salvo from those obviously not on Ms. Verma’s side was the revelation that she requested compensation for jewelry stolen on a business trip, contrary to government policy of course. She was compensated for other items which is standard. (Isn’t that what homeowners’ insurance is for? And what sensible person actually travels with valuable jewelry?) Under Ms. Verma, CMS has been quite progressive in developing new business models in Medicare fee-for-service, moving providers to two-sided risk, and innovating in both Medicare and Medicaid. It will either be settled, or one or both will be gone. Pass the popcorn.

Leeds picks up another health tech company. Mindwave Ventures is opening an office there, as well as appointing Dr Victoria Betton and Dr Janak Gunatilleke to the roles of chief innovation officer and chief operating officer. Mindwave develops technologies around digital products and services in healthcare and health research. Leeds reportedly is home to over 250 health tech companies and holds an annual Leeds Digital Festival in the spring [TTA 11 April].

Ransomware attack hits Hackensack Meridian. Systems were down for about a week. While this large New Jersey health system hasn’t admitted it, sources told the Asbury Park Press that it was ransomware. And if it’s not ransomware, its Emotet and Trickbot. Read ZDNet and be very apprehensive for 2020, indeed, as apparently healthcare is just one big target.

Comings and Goings: There may be some end of year bombshells, but after last week’s big news about John Halamka, it’s been fairly quiet. Paul Walker, whom this Editor knew at New York eHealth Collaborative, has joined CommonWell Health Alliance as executive director. Mr. Walker was most recently Philips Interoperability Solutions’ vice president of strategy and business development. CommonWell’s goal is improving healthcare interoperability and its services are used by more than 15,000 care provider sites nationwide. Blog release, Healthcare Innovation ….Dr. Jacqueline Shreibati, the chief medical officer for AliveCor, is joining Google Health in the health research area. Mum’s the word when it comes to Fitbit (see above). CNBC ….Peter Knight has pleaded guilty to falsifying educational credentials to gain his position as chief information and digital office at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. He held that position from August 2016 until September 2018. BBC News

It’s not a bubble, really! Or developing? Analysis of Rock Health’s verdict on 2018’s digital health funding.

The doors were blown off funding last quarter, so whither the year? Our first take 10 January on Rock Health’s 2018 report was that digital health was a cheery, seltzery fizzy, not bubbly as in economic bubbles.  Total funding came in at $8.1 billion–a full $2.3 bn or 42 percent–over 2017’s $5.7 bn, as projected in Q3 [TTA 11 Oct]–which indicates confidence and movement in the right direction.

What’s of concern? A continued concentration in funding–and lack of exiting.

  • From Q3, the full year total added $1.3 bn ($6.8 bn YTD Q3, full year $8.1 bn) 
  • The deals continue to be bigger and fewer–368 versus 359 for 2017, barely a rounding error
  • Seed funding declined; A, B, C rounds grew healthily–and D+ ballooned to $59M from $28M in 2017, nearly twice as much as C rounds
  • Length of time between funding rounds is declining at all levels

Exits continue to be anemic, with no IPOs (none since 2016!) and only 110 acquisitions by Rock Health’s count. (Rock only counts US only deals over $2 million, so this does not reflect a global picture.)

It’s not a bubble. Really! Or is it a developing one? Most of the article delivers on conclusions why Rock Health and its advisors do not believe there is a bubble in funding by examining six key attributes of bubbles. Yet even on their Bubble Meter, three out of the six are rated ‘Moderately Bubbly’–#2, #3, and #5–my brief comments follow. 

  1. Hype supersedes business fundamentals (well, we passed this fun cocktail party chatter point about 2013)
  2. High cash burn rates (not out of line for early stage companies)
  3. Unclear exit pathways (no IPOs since ’16 which bring market scrutiny into play. Oddly, Best Buy‘s August acquisition of GreatCall, and the latter’s earlier acquisitions of Lively and Healthsense didn’t rate a mention)
  4. Surge of cash from new investors (rising valuations per #5–and a more prosperous environment for investments of all types)
  5. High valuations decoupled from fundamentals (Rock Health didn’t consider Verily’s billion, which was after all in January)
  6. Fraud or misuse of funds (Theranos, Outcome dismissed by Rock as ‘outliers’, but no mention of Zenefits or HealthTap)

Having observed bubbles since 1980 in three industries– post-deregulation airlines in the 1980s, internet (dot.com) in the 1990s, and healthcare today (Theranos/Outcome), ‘moderately’ doesn’t diminish–it builds to a peak, then bursts. Dot.com’s bursting bubble led to a recession, hand in hand with an event called 9/11.

This Editor is most concerned with the #5 rating as it represents the largest divergence from reality and is the least fixable. While Verily has basically functioned as a ‘skunk works’ (or shell game–see here) for other areas of Google like Google Health, it hardly justifies a billion-dollar investment on that basis alone. $2 bn unicorn Zocdoc reportedly lives on boiler-room style sales to doctors with high churn, still has not fulfilled its long-promised international expansion, and has ceased its endless promises of transforming healthcare. Peleton is a health tech company that plumps out Rock Health’s expansive view of Health Tech Reality–it’s a tricked out internet connected fitness device. (One may as well include every fitness watch made.)

What is the largest divergence from reality? The longer term faltering of health tech/telecare/telehealth companies with real books of business. Two failures readily come to mind: Viterion (founded in 2003–disclosure, a former employer of this Editor) and 3rings (2015). Healthsense (2001) and Lively were bought by GreatCall for their IP, though Healthsense had a LTC business. Withings was bought back by the founder after Nokia failed to make a go of it. Canary Care was sold out of administration and reorganized. Even with larger companies, the well-publicized financial and management problems of publicly traded, highly valued, and dominant US telemed company Teladoc (since 2015 losing $239 million) and worldwide, Tunstall Healthcare’s doldrums (and lack of sale by Charterhouse) feed into this. 

All too many companies apparently cannot get funding or the fresh business guidance to develop. It is rare to see an RPM survivor of the early ’00s like GrandCare (2005). There are other long-term companies reportedly on the verge–names which this Editor cannot mention.

The reasons why are many. Some have lurched back and forth from the abyss or have made strategic errors a/k/a bad bets. Others like 3rings fall into the ‘running out of road and time’ category in a constrained NHS healthcare system. Beyond the Rock Health list and the eternal optimism of new companies, business duration correlates negatively with success. Perhaps it is that healthcare technology acceptance and profitability largely rests on stony, arid ground, no matter what side of the Atlantic. All that money moves on to the next shiny object.(Babylon Health?) There are of course some exceptions like Legrand which has bought several strong UK companies such as Tynetec (a long-time TTA supporter) and Jontek.

Debate welcomed in Comments.

Related: Becker’s Hospital Review has a list of seven highly valued early stage companies that failed in 2018–including the Theranos fraud. Bubble photo by Marc Sendra martorell on Unsplash