9 AI Healthcare Startups Deploying Virtual Assistants
Some people watch beauty contests. We study lists that rank the smartest digital assistants. Googlers will rejoice to know that Google Assistant is the brainiest of the bunch. That’s according to a couple of different studies that came out at the end of last year, including one by a Minneapolis-based venture capital firm. It’s been about 10 years since Apple, which looked like a dunce in the second study, introduced the world to Siri. We expect that in the next decade these virtual assistants will become even more ubiquitous in every facet of our lives. One area where we’re seeing an explosion in this kind of use of artificial intelligence is healthcare. This space is dominated by AI healthcare startups deploying virtual assistants as doctor, caretaker, and to perform medical-related administrative tasks.
Biggest of the Bunch
We first wrote about this topic in depth in 2017 when we discovered London-based Babylon Health, a startup valued at $2 billion that has raised more than $635 million since it was founded in 2013. It scored $550 million last August, led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which invested $45 billion in SoftBank’s Vision Fund in 2016. Its free flagship product is an AI chatbot that serves as a symptom checker and as the first filter for moving people through the healthcare system. It’s primarily used in the UK and has built up a nice business with the National Health Service to become what we heard (more on that in a moment) the country’s fifth-largest practice. It also just inked a 10-year deal to build an app for the city of Wolverhampton and its 300,000 residents, according to TechCrunch, that will provide not only remote diagnoses but live monitoring of patients with chronic conditions.
Not everyone is bullish on Babylon: We came across a somewhat sensational headline asking if Babylon is the next Theranos, referring to the disgraced blood-testing company. The thoroughly researched article makes a strong case that Babylon Health’s AI chatbot needs to go back to medical school. Other coverage of Babylon Health has noted how the company’s AI symptom checker has given out bad advice, while the company itself has allegedly deleted evidence showing it’s not yet Doogie Howser.
There are thousands of companies claiming to use AI today, and we always caution our readers that many of them aren’t really using artificial intelligence (just some fancy re-marketed software). Or, at the very least, they’re overselling the product. We’re certainly not saying any of that about Babylon Health (on the advice of our attorney who we found on a billboard outside of Chicago), but when you’re literally handing over thousands of lives to machines, you want them to work properly. Now, off the soapbox and into the rest of the list of AI healthcare startups deploying virtual assistants.
Some Other Familiar Names
As we started to dive into the list, we found that Nanalyze has already covered quite a few other startups in this space. Let’s give them a brief mention here before we dig into the new meat.
- We covered K Health just a few months ago in our article on AI diagnostics and imaging startups. Its platform is very similar to Babylon Health in that it is an intelligent symptom checker that provides information on what might be going on. And, like Babylon, you can pay a fee to access a human doctor who can diagnose the problem further, order tests, and even hand out prescriptions
- We featured Suki in a list of smart voice assistants back in 2018. The Silicon Valley startup has developed a platform that allows doctors to take oral notes while examining a patient, with Suki automatically updating electronic health records (EHR). Studies show that doctors spend twice as much time on paperwork and updating EHRs than seeing patients.
- Seattle-based Saykara, which popped up on our list of startups transcribing voice to text using AI, pretty much does the same thing as Suki. Just like Suki, Saykara claims its virtual assistant reduces the amount of time a physician spends on note-taking by 70%. Yet both companies face major competition against the world-leader in voice recognition, Nuance Communications (NUAN), which is pushing heavily into healthcare using AI.
Now let’s move on to five startups that we haven’t covered before.
Virtual Assistants for Checking Symptoms
By far the most common AI healthcare startups deploying virtual assistants fall into the category of symptom checkers like Babylon Health, where users “chat” with an AI algorithm for a few minutes before being directed to the next step (i.e., take an aspirin or get your ass to the emergency room or chat with one of our doctors).
Founded in 2014, Buoy Health out of Boston was spun out of the Harvard Innovation Laboratory. It has raised $29 million, including a $20 million Series B last August that included healthcare companies Humana (HUM) and Cigna (CI). Like Babylon Health and K Health, Buoy Health has the word “health” in its name, so you know it’s legit. And it also offers an intelligent symptom checker for guiding users to a possible diagnosis and recommendations for further action. Buoy Assistant is particularly being marketed to employers, as a way to save money so that employees don’t run to the doctor over every sniffle or collapsed lung.
Update 11/11/2020: Buoy Health has raised $37.5 million in Series C funding to make the process of handing off patients to other clinical services, such as a telemedicine visit, as frictionless as possible. This brings the company’s total funding to $68.2 million to date.
Mfine is sort of the Babylon Health of India. Founded in 2017, the Bengaluru startup has raised about $27.4 million, mainly from investors around Asia. Its AI platform for hospitals is reportedly capable of triaging more than 1,200 common diseases based on hundreds of health parameters. Like many symptom checker virtual assistants, there is a telemedicine component where users can connect with a care provider by video or text for a consultation fee. The company partners directly with hospitals and Mfine also reportedly receives a commission for every new lead generated.
If you’re going to build a startup in this space, it would probably be good to have access to one of the best VC firms in the business. So perhaps it’s no accident that Neal Khosla is a co-founder of Curai, a Silicon Valley-based AI healthcare company that has raised $10.7 million and counts Khosla Ventures as one of its primary investors. In a blog post explaining what his new company is all about, Khosla (son of Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures) explained that Curai will be able to not only triage a user’s medical condition through text exchange, but also accept additional input, like pictures of that uncomfortable herpes rash. It will also know a patient’s medical history and how many people have the coronavirus on your block. Eventually, Curai will be able to predict disease in the fashion that other AI healthcare startups propose.
Update 12/16/2020: Curai Health has raised $27.5 million in Series B funding to continue expanding its services. This brings the company’s total funding to $38.2 million to date.
Voice-Powered Virtual Assistant
Silicon Valley-based Notable, founded in 2017, joins startups like Suki and Saykara in developing an AI voice-powered virtual assistant to help doctors keep up with all the paperwork around ensuring EHRs are up to date. The company has raised about $19.2 million, with a respectable roster of investors that include Greylock Partners. Like its competitors, Notable leverages voice recognition and natural language processing technologies to simplify health records. Here are a few of the ways that Notable says its platform can provide value:
And hospitals are buying. Notable recently announced its virtual voice assistant would be adopted by CommonSpirit, a 142-hospital healthcare system across 21 states.
Virtual Assistant for Home Care
In our article on using AI and robotics to help monitor and care for elderly people at home, we came across smart devices that ensure patients are taking their medication on time. That’s pretty much the proposition from Boston-based Pillo Health, which was founded in 2015 and has raised $12.9 million. Most of its funding came last year in an $11 million Series A led by Stanley Black & Decker (SWK) and that included Samsung Electronics (SE). In fact, Black & Decker offers the pill-popping robot on its website for $699.99, including a free six-month subscription ($9.99 thereafter) to access mobile apps, video calls, and other features.
Dubbed Pria, the bright-eyed robot can dispense up to 28 medication doses and uses facial recognition so the kiddies can’t steal grandpa’s heart medication.
Many of these AI healthcare startups deploying virtual assistants are backed by some high-profile investors, including many directly involved in the healthcare industry such as insurance companies. On one hand, that leads us to assume that they know a good deal when they see one. On the flip side, you always wonder about the motivation behind deploying new technology. Is it to provide better service or save more money? Of course, it’s possible to do both simultaneously. The virtual voice assistants, if they work as advertised, can certainly make a difference by allowing doctors to spend more time with patients. The value in virtual assistants as the first line of defense for screening patients also makes sense, as long as users are receiving reliable information and paying for a service that also saves them money in the long run – and not just insurance companies and employers.
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