Founders often cite personal experience as the inspiration behind establishing a startup. In the case of Barcelona-based FollowHealth, better known by the name of its first platform HumanITcare, its founders were motivated by the experiences of mental illness sufferers to seek better outcomes for them.
“I was shocked that people who are very vulnerable, with high levels of depression, have to wait three months between therapy visits, making professionals' follow-up very difficult after such a time lag," FollowHealth Co-founder and CEO Nuria Pastor told CompassList during the 2019 edition of 4YFN.
A psychologist working at Barcelona's Hospital del Mar with a Research Master's degree in Neuroscience, Pastor teamed up with data scientist and CTO Unai Sánchez whom she met by chance at 4YFN 2017. Together, they developed HumanITcare, the first real-time monitoring platform for patients with mental illness. Patients operate the platform via wearable technology such as a Fitbit, together with a mobile app. Information collected is available to psychologists and psychiatrists via a dashboard.
“We realized the importance of patients having constant monitoring to check their progress and any need for re-evaluation, and started to develop a solution,” Pastor explained.
Established just over a year ago, FollowHealth is on the verge of closing the first clinical trial of HumanITcare conducted on 60 patients at Barcelona's Hospital Clínic. So far, 60 patients suffering from depression, anxiety or alcoholism have provided "positive feedback," said Pastor.
Real world data revolution
The HumanITcare platform collects real world data via sensors on two common formats of wristband wearables. It also collects daily patient testimonies, known as electronic patient-reported outcomes (ePRO) to build a complete analysis, or digital phenotype, of each patient. The wearable's sensors manage parameters such as sleeping patterns, exercise, body movements and heart rate.
Patients provide feedback on their sociability levels via ePRO that may include voice recordings which can be analyzed for uncharacteristic behavior. The data is automatically uploaded to the platform from a mobile app in real time and is processed using Machine Learning, with professionals able to receive reports on demand.
This data can be used for monitoring the progress of those undergoing treatment for depression, anxiety and alcoholism, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, according to Pastor.
“When we evaluate a patient's mental health, it's very important to have access to regular data on behavior, for example in a bipolar disorder where sufferers become more depressive and withdrawn when they sleep less,” she said. In a sector with infrequent professional follow-up, these kinds of questions are important "because they provide real-time constant analysis of how the patient is feeling, and if treatment is effective." The more data collected, the more the ML algorithm learns from the user's behavior and is able to conduct a more complete analysis.
The HumanITcare platform is no replacement for personal treatment, Pastor emphasized. Rather it is a tool to achieve more accurate and objective monitoring, as opposed to medical visits that "only give a picture of the situation at that specific moment", she explained. Each patient's data must be analyzed by a practitioner who can make an accurate analysis by drawing on the patient's existing medical records.
On the fast track
FollowHealth is priming HumanITcare as the first in a series of highly scalable platforms that will monitor health using real world data, and is planning the development of a second platform that will monitor chronic illnesses such as diabetes. The company is a member of industry innovation groups Barcelona Tech City and the Mental Health Cluster of Catalonia that provide access to shared technological practice and, in the case of the latter, best practice in mental health. The Mental Health Cluster also provides crucial access to patients for clinical trials.
The company was recently selected by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) for its Health Bridgehead initiative which aims to develop, accelerate and incubate clusters based at educational institutes and companies across the European Union. Aside from a €30,000 grant to fund the first clinical trial of the HumanITcare, the Horizon2020-linked initiative is also helping the platform access further clinical trials internationally.
Later this year as part of the Health Bridgehead initiative, HumanITcare will send a team member to multinational pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson's health incubator JLabs in Belgium, and another to the German testing center Medical Valley to oversee pharmaceutical pilot projects. Pastor said she expects the projects to lead to commercial agreements, thus extending the remit of the current business model. She said real time data trials tracking the impact of drugs taken by the patients could save big pharmas around one-sixth of the cost of clinical trials.
FollowHealth has not yet conducted a seed funding round because it wants to “remain independent”, according to Pastor. The company has, however, joined forces with investors Montserrat Barceló, a medical professional and former COO at clinical research provider TFS, and Ricard Quingles, a finance expert and former VP of Corporate Strategy at TFS.
HumanITcare will be commercialized in Spain “very soon”, and the company also plans to enter markets including Germany, France, the UK and Scandinavia, possibly after a funding round. Free for patients, the platform will be commercialized on a SaaS basis with licensing pricing according to the number of users and the entity in question.
“Our platform goes a big part of the way to solving the problem of a lack of regular monitoring. [It] will improve the insight professionals have into each patient and also save them time. It is highly scalable internationally, currently for application across the mental health sphere, and soon for both clinical trials and for monitoring chronic illness,” Pastor said.