It's been a little over a year since the worst pandemic in a century closed businesses and homes to the outside world. Now, with the hope of multiple vaccines and both countries and companies beginning to advance through reopening processes, it's time to start laying the groundwork for future investments (either literally or through acquisitions and partnerships in healthcare).
It's time to start preparing for the long tail of long-term COVID-19 symptoms that are manifesting months post-infection. However, what may come as a surprise is that these conditions aren't new at all. While they are strongly associated with COVID-19, even before the pandemic, failures to adequately address these conditions were already unsustainably exacerbating the inelasticity across global healthcare systems.
COVID-19's long-tail symptoms are underscoring a compelling market need
COVID-19 hit just as paradigm shifts in healthcare were underway. As outlined in a recent report, the costs of healthcare globally have become unsustainable, in part due to a rise in chronic disease – and there are opportunities to address early signs of disease before they become permanent. The promise of these early interventions is that they will reduce burdens on healthcare systems. This need for early intervention solutions is a market opportunity that clients can't ignore, especially for nontraditional healthcare players. That said, COVID-19 has magnified this need in specific health conditions: cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and cognitive decline.
Digital tools that manage these diseases now have a two-pronged value proposition: They can help prevent disease in the general population, keeping the numbers down, and they can manage the diseases in the COVID-19 long-tail symptom population, where it is still unclear how long symptoms will last – reducing the burden on healthcare facilities. The key here is recognizing that while it is impossible to predict long-tail symptoms, building elasticity into healthcare systems with digital tools to manage non-COVID-19 disease symptoms is the only way forward in the face of uncertainty around the virus-related symptoms. Regardless of how long the long-tailed symptoms last, digital tools supporting existing chronic conditions that can also manage symptoms give flexibility to an overstretched system.
What are the key technologies to invest in?
Last year, Lux Research predicted the technologies to invest in that would last beyond the pandemic, and one year later, that is holding true. Telehealth, digital therapeutics, and digital biomarkers have all seen tremendous growth and success and are going to have staying power well beyond the pandemic. Using these three conditions as guiding stars for where to engage in healthcare, companies should be looking at players in these tech spaces to identify investment, acquisition, and partnership opportunities.
There are a number of remote monitoring devices on the market that play into cardiovascular care, ranging from more wellness-focused exercise monitors like Oura all the way to specialized EKG devices like AliveCor. These more consumer commercialized opportunities have been a good way for clients already interested in healthcare to engage. Now, as every company begins to pivot toward opportunities in healthcare as a result of COVID-19, cardiac care offers the widest range of companies with which to engage. Commercially, there is an opportunity to layer on digital therapeutic apps and software to support consumers in managing lifestyles in a way that can prevent (in the general population) or treat cardiac conditions. Like remote monitoring tools, digital therapeutics can be more wellness/prevention-focused or developed for clinical applications, and there are a number of go-to-market approaches that apply, ranging from D2C to B2B.
As cognitive decline is associated with aging in existing populations, and brain fog is increasingly identified as a long-tail COVID-19 symptom, there is increased interest in developing both solutions to quantitatively define cognitive impairment and solutions to address it. Cognitive impairment is particularly challenging because it is largely internal and difficult to identify – even in COVID-19 patients, as it can be both subtle and ignored as general fatigue. This subtlety is why a handful of startups (and Amazon) have started looking at digital biomarkers to identify problems.
These companies are still in early stages and are reasonable investment targets at this point. From a digital therapeutics perspective, there are a few companies that are developing brain training-based digital therapeutics to help support brain fog and confusion. Digital therapeutics that make solutions for adjacent conditions (like Akili Interactive Labs) are also working on applying their work to brain fog from COVID-19, although the efficacy is less clear at this time. Digital therapeutics companies are more advanced than digital biomarker companies and as such are a better fit for partnerships to complement existing products or even acquisitions to bring a solution into an existing portfolio.
Kidney care opportunities are largely in the remote monitoring space (specifically home testing), with a rare occasion of home dialysis care. The home testing opportunities remain the strongest, and there is potential for partnerships and investments, especially with CPG companies. For those more interested in a more clinical approach, there is research being done to facilitate remote and even mobile dialysis, but these opportunities are still early-stage – with investment as the key potential relationship.
COVID-19 brought with it many challenges and piqued interest in a number of healthcare technologies, but the longest-lasting will continue to be telehealth (especially remote monitoring), digital therapeutics, and digital biomarkers. Those interested should be aware that due to the likely long-term health impacts of the pandemic, there will be a stronger market pull for tools that address cardiac health, cognitive challenges, and kidney care.
Most importantly, innovators need to realize that while COVID-19 will be used as a draw for engaging with healthcare, the real opportunity is engaging with companies that can bring significant ROI and elasticity to healthcare infrastructure, leading to a more sustainable system for increasing numbers of patients.