8 Startups Using AI for Personalized Health
The concept of personalized medicine—using the latest and greatest genetic tests and related technologies—might seem like it was born out of a Silicon Valley think tank. But, in reality, the idea goes back thousands of years. Ayurvedic medicine, practiced in some form by nearly all of India’s 1.3 billion people, is probably the most well-known example. Practitioners believe that each person has a highly individualized constitution called prakruti. In turn, prakruti is determined by dosha, a sort of energy that comes in three flavors—pitta, vata and kapha. Your body type or prakruti, to distill 5,000 years of tradition into one sentence, offers a guideline of what you should eat and affects your susceptibility to certain diseases. Western science has just added a layer of technology to make the concept more palatable to the sophisticated watchers of the Big Bang Theory. We talked about this before in our teardown on genetic fitness DNA testing. The latest wave finds companies using artificial intelligence for personalized health.
Now, it might seem like everyone and their artificially intelligent brother are banking on AI to improve healthcare or pick winning stocks. We approach these companies with a healthy dose of skepticism while recognizing that we really are entering a new era of technological disruption and not just another dot.com bubble. The question still remains: Can these 8 startups really use AI for personalized health and nutrition or should you just stick to a Jane Fonda diet?
An AI Ecosystem
Let’s start with the 800-pound gorilla. Founded in 2015, Chinese-startup iCarbonX has raised at least $200 million to achieve unicorn status last year, when we first featured it in our list of the top five AI healthcare startups by funding. Since then, iCarbonX announced another $400 million of investments in what it calls its Digital Life Alliance, which includes seven companies: SomaLogic, HealthTell, PatientsLikeMe, AOBiome, GALT, Imagu and Robustnique. Each company is a specialist in collecting different types of healthcare data. For example, SomaLogic out of Boulder, Colorado has developed a chip than can measure more than 4,000 proteins. As Nature News reported, researchers can now leverage that data to predict which previous heart-attack patients would have a recurrence by measuring nine blood proteins.
All the collected data, from genomics to wearables that measure heart rate and sleep patterns to blood tests, will be fed to algorithms that will be capable of not just tracking one’s health but making personalized health recommendations on everything from what to eat to the best exercise routines. Keep in mind that iCarbonX has a huge population in China from which it can mine vast amounts of data (though such data would be biased toward a mostly Asian population with different predispositions to disease and diet).
Put Me in Coach
Big data is at the heart of Seattle-based Arivale, which has raised $52.6 million since it was founded in 2014, including a $13.6 million Series C in June. The startup uses blood tests and genetics to build a health profile, relying on the Helix platform for the latter. The dashboard profile includes information on diabetes risk, environmental toxins and nutrient levels, among others. The $999 plan combines genetics with blood markers to help a person manage his or her diet, heart, weight and inflammation, and it includes 60 days of nutrition coaching. (The company is currently offering weight loss and heart health programs for only $19 as part of Cyber Week sale.) While Arivale co-founder Leroy Hood has published research that used advanced algorithms to correlate health tests with things like vitamin deficiencies or diabetes risk, he has gone on record with MIT Technology Review that even though “AI has tremendous potential … the claims for AI and health care are very overblown”. That’s always worth repeating, as we make our way down the list.
Blue Apron with AI
Founded in 2015, Habit out of California appears quite similar to Arivale, right down to the personal nutrition coaching. The company is backed by $32 million from Campbell Soup. The big twist on the personalized health angle with Habit is that the company focuses on turning your data from genetic tests and bloodwork into developing your perfect diet. It starts with a participant’s Biology Report, which provides a snapshot of one’s ideal caloric breakdown of fats, carbs and protein:
The company then provides a Nutrition Plan based on the Habit Type (ie, the Ayurvedic prakruti) through machine learning. Habit will also gladly sell members meals based on their nutrition profile, Blue Apron-style, with prices beginning at $7.99 for breakfast and $13.50 for lunch or dinner. The initial cost of the test kit is $299, which includes a nutritional challenge shake to measure metabolism.
A Gut Feeling
From the same founder hoping to someday mine the moon for resources, Viome is targeting the microbiome as the way to unlock personalized health and nutrition. Founded in 2016, the Cupertino, California-based startup raised $15 million in a Series A led by Khosla Ventures in July. The company is actually a subsidiary of BlueDot, yet another venture from Naveen Jain, who is one of the minds behind Moon Express and its bid for the Google Lunar XPrize. BlueDot has raised $16.7 million to commercialize technology from NASA and other public research institutions. Viome claims that it can help people stay healthier by using AI after analyzing the genetic makeup of a person’s microbiome , the trillion-strong community of bacteria and microorganisms that inhabit the gut. An increasing amount of research suggests the microbiome may be responsible for many chronic diseases, as explained below.
The company leverages technology developed at Los Alamos Lab to combat disease warfare, according to an article in Inc. Algorithms then go to work to make dietary recommendations. Like Arivale, Viome charges $999 for its in-house test kit and services.
It seems no list these days is complete without a startup from Israel, the startup nation. DayTwo out of Tel Aviv has raised $17 million to provide personalized health and nutrition advice based on the composition of a person’s microbiome. Send the company $299 and a stool sample and in return it will analyze the DNA of your gut bacteria and tell you which foods are best suited to your digestive tract.
Vitagene out of San Francisco has raised $6.6 million, including capital from Illumina (NASDAQ:ILMN), a major player in genetic sequencing and related technologies. The company runs a customer’s DNA through its AI platform, which compares the sample to a database of peer-reviewed research on genomics, nutrition and exercise. It then maps the results to a recommended diet, exercise and supplement plan. Vitagene offers the option of purchasing monthly supplements, also personalized to a person’s DNA and lifestyle. Cost is $79 for the DNA health test, which includes an ancestry report.
Seattle-based Vitamin Packs launched this year with a reported $2 million in Seed funding. The startup is basically a supplement subscription service, like Vitagene, that claims to use AI to pick the best pills to power you through your day. A five-minute online assessment collects details about a person’s health history, medication, lifestyle and wellness goals. An AI dubbed Sage crunches the data and offers its suggestions. We tried it ourselves:
So for less than $2.50 a day, a consumer can have a four-week supply of vitamins. Makes us miss those simpler days when we had Flintstone vitamins that tasted like candy. That’s probably why we’re in such poor shape today.
Power of Suggestion
Founded in 2014, San Francisco-based Suggestic has picked up $1.5 million in funding for personalized health, or what the startup calls precision eating. The app-based platform is, as one news organization said, a “lifestyle GPS” for eating. The user inputs the usual preferences, with an option to include genetic, microbiome and lab testing data from the company’s partners. Suggestic’s algorithms chew on the data and spit out recommendations that change as inputs change. One cool feature of the app is an augmented reality menu reader that highlights what is OK to eat on some 500,000 menus in the United States. Watch it at work:
The company’s AI technology was originally developed for fraud prevention.
Speaking of fraud prevention: As we discussed in our introduction, quite a few companies are slapping AI and machine learning on their websites, claiming they are using proprietary algorithms to cure everything but cancer. We’re not suggesting the startups here are selling snake oil. Many are well funded by respectable firms and companies. Of course, so was Juicero whose investors included (ahem) Campbell Soup and Google. Just as we were putting the finishing touches on this article, we came across a Fast Company story that lists at least another four companies reportedly applying proprietary algorithms to personalized health and nutrition based on genetics and other health data. While some people with money to burn may opt for a personalized plan, we’ll probably stick to the free advice from the ancient Greeks: Everything in moderation.
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