News roundup: Musk’s Neuralink implants first human BCI; Cigna’s $3.7B MA sale to HCSC; no Amazon deal for iRobot; DispatchHealth-Instacart food Rx; 5 India health tech fundings (updated)

Elon Musk first out (again) with a human brain-computer interface (BCI). Announced Monday by Neuralink, founded by Elon Musk, is the first human implant of a BCI. No details in the tweet beyond “recovering well’ and “promising neuron spike detection”. The device is a cosmetically invisible implant (N1) in the part of the brain that plans movements. It interprets neural activity, sending a signal to a computer or smartphone through thought. The N1 device, containing several dozen threads holding over 1,000 electrodes, is implanted by a R1 robot. FierceBiotech, MM+M Online

The subjects of the PRIME study are likely those recruited last fall after the FDA approved proceeding with a clinical trial. A blog post on the Neuralink website recruited adult volunteers with quadriplegia–paralysis of the arms and legs caused by a cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Earlier, Neuralink raised $280 million in a Series D led by Founders Fund. FierceBiotech 8 Aug 2023  There were difficulties, however. Within the past two years, Reuters reported 1,500 animal deaths over four years of research that attracted the attention of the Department of Transportation (DOT) (!) and the Department of Agriculture’s inspector general. FDA held up approval of human clinical trials until last year.

Research and companies in the BCI race have been making news since at least 2016 but have not reached clinical trials. In 2022 Synchron had an oversubscribed Series C of $75 million for the Stentrode blood vessel device (in clinical trials) and Synchron Switch BCI devices [TTA 17 Dec 22]. Last year, Precision Neuroscience raised $41 million in a Series B [TTA 28 Jan 23]. Their focus is on treatment of neurological illnesses and events such as stroke, traumatic brain injury, and dementia. Of course, one could debate implant ethics, but not for these limited uses right now.

To no one’s surprise including the relatively low price of $3.7 billion, Cigna sold its 600,000-member Medicare Advantage business to HCSC, beating out Elevance (the former Anthem). Cigna is also selling its supplemental benefits and Medicare Part D plans, along with CareAllies, a subsidiary that assists primary care practices with value-based care in Medicare and commercial plans. Together, they cover 3.6 million people, but the now-money-losing MA business represented only 2% of the total MA market. Closing is expected to be in 2025, subject to the usual regulatory approvals. HCSC currently operates in five states and this marks a major growth opportunity for them, if they pass state and Federal scrutiny.

Update: Some speculation remains that now that Cigna has agreed to sell the MA and other businesses, a Humana buy may be more of a go–at a reduced price given Humana’s recent earnings difficulties. This feels, to this Editor, like whistling in the dark. Prima facie, it ignores two factors: the major stumbling block was their respective strengths in pharmacy benefit management (PBM) though with different focuses, and that Cigna, having rid themselves of a money loser in MA, would buy it back and take on short term pain just to get bigger. Perhaps the two, because they seem to like dancing with each other, may partner in some areas like home health or other services, but for now the regulatory landscape is waaaay too hostile to mega-mergers in healthcare and the shareholders feel the same. Why buy the cow, etc.? MedCityNews  Further evidence? The CEO bragged about the sale as moving towards a leaner and more focused organization (the new catchphrase) on the 2 February earning call, as well as their interest in providing services via their Evernorth unit to MA providers, such as tying pharmacy services to the MA plans for four years after the HCSC buy. Healthcare Dive

iRobot sale to Amazon fails due to “no path to regulatory approval”, company lays off 31% of staff. In more bad news for Amazon, regulatory disapproval by the EU finally put paid to the deal for the Roomba maker. The EU found that Amazon’s ownership would have restricted competition in the robot vacuum cleaner category by restricting access to Amazon’s marketplace. This is no different than the FTC and DOJ in the US which blocked it for two years. Amazon will pay iRobot a $94 million breakup fee, which the latter will need as their market capitalization has crashed to $400 million from the $1.7 billion original sales price.  iRobot is reducing staff by 350, its CEO is also stepping down immediately, and they are concentrating now on margin improvements, restricting lines of business, and reducing R&D. CNBC  Consider this Lina Khan’s first ‘scalp’ in her War on Amazon.

DispatchHealth, an in-home care provider, has a new partnership with Instacart, a food delivery service, to directly address nutrition needs for their advanced care patients being treated at home.  Dispatch provides same-day, urgent medical care; hospital alternative care; and recovery care. With Instacart Health, Dispatch creates meal plans and medically tailored meals through shopping lists on Instacart that can be delivered direct to home. Payment must be made by the patient or if their Medicare Advantage plan permits. Food is a significant part of social determinants of health (SDOH) and Dispatch has found that 33% of their patients struggle with this and 22% have serious food insecurity. Orders can be made by phone, phone app, or website. McKnights Home Care, Mobihealthnews, DispatchHealth release   DispatchHealth has also experienced recent layoffs of 88 employees. Home Health Care News

And now for something completely different. India has been buzzing with several fundings in digital health. The roundup’s from Mobihealthnews with additional information from other sources:

  • CureBay, a rural-focused e-clinic from visits to lab tests and prescriptions with 90 locations, scored another Rs 620 million ($7.5 million) in funding as part of a Series A round led by Elevar Equity. IndianStartUpTimes
  • Mental health platform Amaha raised over Rs 50 million ($6 million) in an extended Series A funding round. The app-based treatement platform connects members with clinicians and psychiatrists. It also acquired the Delhi NCR-based Child and Adolescent Mental Health Institute, Children First, that has been providing support to 12,000+ families since its inception in 2008. Release
  • Healspan, an insurance tech startup that manages cashless health insurance claims for 60 hospitals, raised Rs 1.2 million (over $100,000) in pre-seed funding from a round led by startup accelerator PedalStart. ExpressHealthcare India
  • FlexifyMe, a chronic pain digital therapeutics platform with AI-powered patient scanning, gained pre-seed funding from angel platform ah! Ventures Angel Platform. Based in India but with operations in the US and Dubai, their therapy addresses back pain, cervical pain, spondylosis, and other conditions via what they term a unique combination of online physiotherapy, yoga therapy, and AI. BiospectrumIndia  In October, they had raised $1 million from Flipkart Ventures. Times of India
  • Docosage, described as an AI-driven health solutions provider with a telehealth consult, e-prescribing, lab testing, and genetic studies platform, also has an undisclosed amount of pre-seed funding from an individual angel investor. The funding will be used for strategic partnerships by exploring collaborations with hospitals, clinics, insurance companies, and incorporating tech advancements to enhance product features. ExpressHealthcare India 

*Updated 2 Feb for additional analysis around Cigna MA sale to HCSC and copy editing

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