Digital health has arrived.
In 2014, investment in health-technology companies surpassed $4.1 billion, nearly the total of all three prior years combined. A broad spectrum of startups gained funding, including wearable-makers, analytics vendors, and new medical devices.
But the press has focused its attention on just a tiny fraction of these promising startups. Companies that win headlines tend to fit a certain mold: The product is trendy; the founders are twenty-something college drop-outs; the offices are based in a tech hub like San Francisco; and the team is backed by a trendy venture capital firm or startup accelerator.
For the past several weeks, I've been on the hunt for America's most promising, but relatively-unknown companies. Over a dozen health experts [skip to the bottom for the full list of names] submitted their suggestions to KQED and we whittled it down to just ten.
What is it? Figure 1 is a service for doctors and nurses to securely share patients' medical images to increase knowledge and aid diagnosis.
Why it's Under-the-Radar: The company has just this year gained some attention from the press, in part, due to its high-profile investor (New York City's Union Square Ventures) and catchy description as an "Instagram for doctors." But it is based in Toronto, Canada, and has a long way to go before it's a household name in the United States.
What Stands Out: Photo-sharing is a crowded space, even in the world of health care. But Figure 1 appears to be gathering steam: A spokesperson says "hundreds of thousands" of health professionals use it to share medical media. In future, it may prove to be a valuable tool for patients who want to keep a visual record of their rashes, burns, wounds or other medical issues over time.
What is it? Homecare Homebase wants to make life a little easier for hospice and homecare agencies with its cloud-based software.
Why its Under-the-Radar: The company is based in Dallas, Texas, rather than a technology hub. It's core product is highly useful for its niche market, but it's not particularly sexy.
What Stands Out: One of our experts, Chris DeNoia, describes Homecare Homebase as a "dominant technology" in the hospice community, but one that is rarely discussed. Hearst Corporation acquired a large chunk of the company in 2012, as it saw major potential for companies that can help hospital and homecare professionals access medical data.
What is it? Kyruus's technology helps hospitals and health systems match patients to the right doctors.
Why it's Under-the-Radar: Most people's eyes will glaze over at the term "referral management," which is Kyruus' core competency. And the investors are big names in the world of health IT, but aren't widely-known in the mainstream business press.
What Stands Out: The company makes money and has a strong social mission. Kyruus is helping crack down on the widespread practice of "inappropriate referrals," so patients' time and money isn't wasted by seeing the wrong doctor. The founders started the company after hearing about frequent "conflict of interest" in the the murky business of physician-to-physician referrals.
What is it? ConsejoSano delivers virtual care, including practical tips and advice, to the Latino community in the United States. The doctors that deliver this information reside in Mexico.
Why it's Under-the-Radar: It serves a large, but specific demographic. The company hasn't gained investment from any trendy venture capital firms and is based in Los Angeles, rather than Silicon Valley.
What Stands Out: Canaan Partners' health investor Julie Papanek initially put the company on my radar as one to watch. "Having a doctor who can communicate verbally as well as culturally is critical and has mainly been unavailable to Latinos of Mexican decent in the U.S.," she said. The service isn't intended to replace the existing doctor-patient relationship for its users, but to facilitate it.
What is it? Primary care clinics focused on serving the sickest, poorest, and oldest patients. The company also has a technology arm called "ChenTech," which develops products to help medical professionals care for elderly patients.
Why it's Under-the-Radar: ChenMed hasn't migrated yet to any technology hubs. It is based in the Southeast, although it is exploring other markets (the company tells me it has no "short-term" plans to expand to the Bay Area).
Why it Stands Out: It's a true family business: The Chens are a family of doctors from Miami, Florida. The idea for the company came from the family's patriarch, James, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in his sixties and informed he had just six months to live. James survived, and helped start ChenMed to improve the experience for other patients.
What is it? Sano is closely guarding its technology, which is loosely described as "primed to make a major impact on wearable health." But Sano is rumored to be exploring new ways to continuously and noninvasively monitor people's blood sugar, a feat that has eluded the industry for decades.
Why it's Under-the-Radar: The company has intentionally stayed-under-the-radar, despite the speculation following the news that hardware lead Nancy Dougherty had been poached by Apple.
Why it Stands Out: Non-invasive glucose monitoring is considered the "holy grail" in biotech circles. There's an enormous payoff for any company that can bring a product to market, despite the myriad challenges. And it's a game-changer for people with diabetes, who have to prick their finger as much as ten times per day to check their glucose levels.
What is it? Ever feel like collecting your step-count is a futile exercise? Tictrac has a highly-intuitive dashboard that people can use to pull together data from health trackers, social media sites and more. Its product is focused on helping people change their behavior, so it can correlate things like the hours you slept last night with your running speed today.
Why it's Under-the-Radar: The company is based in the UK and hasn't made its name yet in Silicon Valley. It only recently launched its service to the public, and scored a wave of mainstream press in the wake of a partnership with AT&T.
Why it Stands Out: As Unity Stoakes, cofounder of digital health accelerator Startup Health put it: "The team at Tictrac are connecting the health data layers." The company isn't afraid to delve into chronic disease management: It recently launched a new service to help people with asthma, hypertension and other diseases.
What is it? Starting an electronic medical records company is not easy. The competition is stiff and many hospitals are locked into multi-million dollar contracts with their current vendor. But one Raleigh, North Carolina-based upstart has been quietly cornering a niche of the market: Schools.
Why it's Under-the-Radar: As Missy Krasner, health care lead at Box and a former venture capitalist, puts it: This team has a "great business serving high school nurses and college student clinics," but it isn't the kind of trendy product that most venture capital firms would flock to.
Why it Stands Out: In less than a decade, Magnus Health has sold its software to more than 900 programs nationwide, from K-12 schools to top universities. The company collects tens of thousands of health and medical forms annually for schools, including physicals and immunization reports. It makes life a lot easier for parents and students who need only to login and share the record with their school, rather than deal with a mountain of paperwork.
What is it? The company's message is essentially 'better, faster, cheaper' technology to develop synthetic DNA, which is in-demand from researchers in countless industries from agriculture to bio-tech. The secret? Silicon engineering.
Why it's Under-the-Radar: The technology is highly complex and difficult to communicate to the public, despite the best efforts of some of the top biotech reporters in the business. Like many of its competitors, the team has kept some of its most promising technology under wraps to protect its intellectual property.
Why it Stands Out: Twist Bioscience has secured a $5 million grant from DARPA, the Department of Defense's research and investment arm, which has backed some breakthrough technology. In addition, many of our experts spoke highly of Twist's CEO Emily Leproust, who has spoken out about the lack of female executives.
What is it? Chicago-based HealthJoy wants to help you navigate the complex and expensive world of health care. It can connect you to a doctor, book appointments, and negotiate on your behalf to reduce medical bills -- and it provides all of these services online.
Why it's Under-the-Radar: The company is not based in Silicon Valley and it has not yet raised major venture capital dollars (the technology press will often only pay attention to startups once they've announced a round of investment.)
Why it Stands Out: As General Catalyst's Niko Bonatsos puts it: In the wake of the Affordable Act Act and other health reforms, HealthJoy helps "consumers and patients interact with the health care system in order to make informed decisions."
Special thanks for guidance from our panel of digital health experts: UCSF's, Chris DeNoia, Cien Ventures' Bryan Bui, Box's Missy Krasner, Emergence Capital's Kevin Spain, Doximity's Nate Gross, Venrock's Bob Kocher, Canaan Partners' Julie Papanek, Startup Health's Unity Stoakes, Medical practitioner Molly Maloof, General Catalyst's Niko Bonatsos, Strategic Advisor Paul Sonnier, and HealthTech Capital's Anne DeGheest. Note: I asked these judges for their "unbiased" perspective, meaning no portfolio companies or current/previous employers.