2023 was buying time, 2024 is face the music time: Rock Health

Rock Health’s year-end wrapup, which usually makes a splash, didn’t this year. It was released this year in conjunction with the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in the week after New Year’s, which almost guaranteed it would fly below the radar.

Another analogy: if you were doing aerobatics, 2023 for digital health was maintaining a flat spin from altitude if you could (left/above), 2024 would be getting out of the flat spin and into level flight before you and the ground had a meeting, so to speak.

Rock Health’s summary of 2023 was minus their typical frothiness:

  • It was back to 2019 across the board, as if 2020-21 never happened.
    • Full year 2023 raised $10.7 billion across 492 US deals. It was the lowest amount of capital invested since 2019, which finished with $8.1 billion across 413 deals. By comparison, 2022’s total was $15.3 billion across 577 deals.
    • Q4 2023 was the lowest funding quarter since Q3 2019, with an anemic raise of $1.9 billion across 122 deals.
  • M&A was left for dead, unexpectedly so from their earlier projections. (Note to Rock Health–it could be the negative attitude toward deals emanating from Washington)
  • A and B stage companies had trouble raising money in the usual lettered way. 81% of currently active venture-backed startups that raised a round in 2021 didn’t raise a labeled one in 2023. Some resorted to ‘extensions’ that further diluted existing ownership or unlabeled rounds that left more questions about when the next raise was going to be. Unlabeled rounds hit an all-time record of 44% of total raises, double that of 2022. (This Editor notes that there were no analyses of C and D rounds, because there were so few.)
  • “Silent rounds” of financing happened but were hard to gauge–and because they were inside, didn’t measure the attractiveness or competitiveness of the company in the real market. It was pure, simple survival of the company and the investment.
  • Startup shutdowns, in their view, were no higher than usual–less than 5% of venture-backed US digital health companies (i.e., have raised >$2M).

In this Editor’s view, the percentage does not capture the prominence of the startup shutdowns: Babylon Health, Quil Health, Pear Therapeutics, OliveAI, Smile Direct, Cureatr, SimpleHealth, The Pill Club, Hurdle. It also doesn’t count Amazon shutting down Halo, Cano Health’s parting out before this week’s bankruptcy, as well as Bright Health’s (now NeueHealth) divestitures and shutdowns through 2023 leading to their becoming a very different company in 2024. 

For 2024, Rock Health is seeing:

  • The return of labeled raises (A, B, C etc.) In their view, many companies will not be able to manage this without moving into ‘hot’ areas like obesity care (cue the Ozempic), value-based care enablement, or AI. Those that can’t will either have ‘down’ rounds or close (see this week’s closing of Astarte Medical in the NICU segment because they wouldn’t integrate AI).
  • M&A will increase, with acquirers buying low among the now cash-strapped companies. This Editor would add that both DOJ and FTC will have their say about this, having published new Merger Guidelines in December.
  • Publicly traded companies will ‘recalibrate’, which is a polite way of saying a lot of companies will face delisting. As of 31 December 31, 2023, at least 17% of public digital health companies trading on the NASDAQ or NYSE were noncompliant with listing standards. This Editor notes that 23andMe is the latest cracked SPAC in jeopardy. Some will rally, the strongest may IPO. BrightSpring Health IPO’d on 26 January, Waystar’s is pending. 

Their sobering conclusion. Too many companies were created in the last few years of the boom. “2024 will be a year of recalibration and consolidation. Some startups will rally, finding that high capital efficiency and exceptional offerings pay off to secure them their next major fundraise. Others will need to make the tough call to wind down operations or accept lower-than-hoped-for M&A offers, particularly in saturated segments.”

At last, Rock Health and TTA have met on similar ground. This Editor’s take back in December. From ‘Signs of the next phase in 2024’:

“…the board is being cleared of the also-rans and never-should-have-beens. They are like dead plants and brush that need to be cleaned out so that new growth can happen. We are cycling through some of them already as we move to a New Reality and winding this up.”

Additional TTA views on 2024: The New Reality permeating JPM, and Peering through the cloudy crystal ball into 2024

Categories: Latest News, Opinion, and Soapbox.

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