Spotlighting opportunity and innovation in digital health
In Fall 2022, RockHealth.org launched the Equitable Investments Initiative to elevate the challenges that underrepresented and underfunded (UUDH) digital health innovators face when attracting venture investment resources, amplify the impact and work of UUDH innovators, and catalyze increased investment for these leaders. To kick off this initiative’s work, we released our inaugural publication—Reimagining Opportunity and Innovation in Digital Health.
Alongside the Reimagining Opportunity and Innovation in Digital Health Advisory Committee, we identified a set of six near-term opportunities that are uniquely positioned to increase support to UUDH innovators:
1. Developing the “building blocks” needed for field-wide discussion
2. Acknowledging underrepresented and underfunded innovators as critical drivers of digital health innovation
3. Expanding investment criteria and sourcing strategies for digital health innovators
4. Demystifying the venture investment landscape
5. Promoting continuous learning about underrepresented and underfunded innovators and their innovations
6. Creating opportunities for innovator-focused, peer-to-peer learning
We believe that these opportunities are uniquely able to provide common language and grounding principles to support UUDH innovators, suggest tangible milestones to assess progress, and catalyze broad-based action among a wide array of digital health stakeholders. Across the digital health field, there are already countless individuals and organizations who are making significant strides within each of these opportunity areas.
We invite the digital health ecosystem to reflect on the groundbreaking work of these leaders. Our hope is that their examples can serve as inspiration to expand the flow of resources (including financial capital, strategic support, and broader network access) to UUDH innovators. The success of UUDH innovators is directly linked to the success of digital health as a field. By harnessing the collective wisdom of all innovators, we will increase both the diversity of leaders within digital health and the possibility that digital health can address the needs of all.
Developing the “building blocks” needed for field-wide discussion
The field does not currently have a unified set of approaches, and therefore data, that illustrates challenges faced by UUDH innovators. One way to provide a holistic view of these challenges is to establish “building blocks’’—grounding terminology, supporting data, and emerging business models/practices—needed for deeper awareness, understanding, and discussion. These “building blocks’’ are critical to identifying and addressing missed opportunities across the digital health industry.
- Kevin Dedner, Founder and CEO of Hurdle Health, is incorporating innovative approaches to build a new digital mental healthcare model that is specifically designed for overlooked and underserved communities. Hurdle’s unique model is rooted in dynamic cultural humility training for therapists, frequent clinical rounds and consults, consistent patient feedback, and ongoing support to ensure individualized care. 30 million Americans currently have access to Hurdle, and each patient completes an average of 12 sessions, which is 3x the national average. As a result, patients are able to access mental healthcare where culture is the first priority.
- Piraye Yurttas Beim, Founder and CEO of Celmatix, is bringing women’s health into the 21st century by defining a new therapeutic category focused on ovarian health. Digital health innovations have primarily been based on scientific discoveries that were made in the early 20th century, despite the vast opportunities that exist within women’s health. Celmatix has raised $100 million in funding, and currently has 6 pre-clinical pipeline programs in development working toward next-generation therapies.
Per Kevin, “Digital health should not be about how many customers we can get and how much we can charge them. I’m thinking about how we can help people be healthier, happier, and live longer lives.” His recommendation to the ecosystem: “Listen to founders who have firsthand, lived experience with the problems they’re solving.”
Piraye’s recommendation: “Women’s health does not impact 50% of people on the planet—it affects 100% of people on the planet. Although only a fraction of funding goes to ovarian health, fertility, and pregnancy care, we’re actually well-positioned to catch up and capitalize on the opportunity in 2022…Hire female check writers, let them write checks to female founders, and empower female founders to innovate for women. Everyone will benefit.”
Acknowledging underrepresented and underfunded innovators as critical drivers of digital health innovation
Despite their growing numbers and critical contributions, UUDH innovators are rarely elevated within industry-wide discussions. When included in the conversation, they are often positioned solely as equity plays or quasi-philanthropic endeavors, which is a restrictive and sometimes misleading frame. While there are dedicated efforts to highlight the integral contributions of UUDH innovators—particularly those exploring new issue areas or serving increasingly diverse populations—additional momentum to elevate these innovators is needed.
- Ashley Edwards, Founder and CEO of MindRight Health, is a driver of innovation who should be elevated further in industry-wide conversations. She is meeting the unique mental healthcare needs of underserved communities—especially students and teens. In 2020, she became the first Black woman to raise over $1M+ in venture capital in New Jersey. MindRight Health provides culturally-responsive, personalized mental health coaching over text messaging to adolescents. They offer mental health coaching services seven days a week and they experience a 90% member text message response rate. Additionally, MindRight has already seen demand from Medicaid MCOs with payers partnering with them to provide services in multiple states. MindRight is paving the way for mental health support to be radically accessible and inclusive.
Ashley notes, “We’re already seeing the effects of underinvestment—communities are dealing with intergenerational trauma and compounding factors like food deserts and violence, which are system-level problems. Without more system-level solutions, these challenges will be perpetuated.”
Expanding investment criteria and sourcing strategies for digital health innovators
Investment and partnership criteria are used by funds and enterprises to gauge promising organizations. However, these criteria have often been developed without diversity in mind and have in turn adversely impacted UUDH innovators. To support an increasingly diverse pool of innovators these criteria should be revisited and developed through new lenses. Doing so will support UUDH innovators access investment resources while also providing new opportunities for funds and enterprises to expand their pattern recognition and address an increasing array of health challenges.
- Maria Velissaris, Founding & Managing Partner of SteelSky Ventures, strives to address the gaps in women’s health funding. SteelSky Ventures is built on the belief that women’s healthcare is a global market opportunity, primed for entrepreneurial innovation and growth. The fund’s unique positioning centers on ensuring representation, meeting the needs of all women, and forming close relationships with strategic limited partners (LPs) and advisors. 94% of their portfolio companies are led by at least one female, Black, Brown, or AAPI founder. The SteelSky team recently moved their headquarters to Atlanta to engage with the local talented (and also overlooked) innovation community there that has yet to be truly tapped into.
- Kathryne Cooper, Partner at Jumpstart Nova, has dedicated her professional life to improving patient outcomes at scale. Jumpstart Nova is a $55M venture fund designed to invest exclusively in Black-founded and led early-stage healthcare innovation companies. The fund’s thesis is rooted in the belief that traditional investors are missing out on significant innovations, ideas, and returns by ignoring founders from overlooked communities. The team has made seven investments to date. Jumpstart Nova has developed a unique geographic base (Nashville and Los Angeles) and network of strategic LPs with deep experience across a range of healthcare institutions. These strategic partners create a competitive advantage for the fund’s portfolio companies.
Maria’s recommendation to investors: “If you want to see different solutions, you have to invest differently. You have to be open to investing in founders that may not look like you or be a part of your academic or social networks. The VC ecosystem is ripe for disruption and diverse founders and funders are going to change the landscape in a way we’ve never seen before.”
Per Kathryne, “If funding continues as it is currently distributed, we’re leaving women and the Black community behind—which means we’re leaving innovations and money on the table…It’s simple—if folks want to invest in underrepresented founders and fund managers, they should invest in them with capital. Because capital in my opinion is what drives the needle. It’s a significant driver of innovation. Things go where money goes.”
Demystifying the venture investment landscape
Venture capital deals frequently take place behind closed doors. The industry is well-known for its insular culture, where deep connections are often required to identify leads and unlock capital. Given that UUDH innovators have historically been excluded from venture networks these realities disproportionately impact their ability to grow and scale their startups. Building on existing efforts, more can be done to demystify the norms that inform venture investing activities for UUDH innovators and prepare them to navigate the often complex venture landscape.
- Erika Seth Davies, CEO of Rhia Ventures, is working to create a strong U.S. market for sexual, reproductive, and maternal health with equitable outcomes for all. Inequities in maternal and reproductive care are among the most glaring concerns for the U.S. healthcare system. Rhia’s model places women of color and birthing people at the center of investment conversations and leverages capital to generate systemic change. By incorporating The REAL framework for impact investing, Rhia Ventures is embedding equitable principles into its investment decisions and collaborations with founders. Currently, 2.5 million women have been served by products and services within RH Capital’s portfolio.
- Deena Shakir, Partner at Lux Capital, invests in founders and companies that are creating a more equitable healthcare system. The fund’s approach is designed to support founders in navigating the healthcare and venture landscape, leveraging the expertise and relationships of trusted partners (i.e., LPs). Lux has invested over $75 million in women’s health-focused companies. The team believes that pursuing a combination of social and financial returns “takes a village” and requires resources beyond capital. Lux acts as a convener for a broad group of stakeholders, connecting founders to a diverse network of science, technology, and business leaders.
Erika advises, “Just do something—don’t get stuck conceptualizing. Begin by learning about the amazing things that others with lived experience and diverse perspectives have done. Then, leverage your role in the ecosystem and support founders and initiatives focused on equity. No matter your role, you have influence and can impact the system.”
Deena notes, “For investors: Continue to focus on equity as a real opportunity for value creation. For startups: find yourselves investors who can align the overlay of value creation and equity—find investors who truly understand your space.”
Promoting continuous learning about underrepresented and underfunded innovators and their innovations
Greater attention must be paid to ensure that the digital health industry amplifies the work led by UUDH innovators and their impact upon target populations. The California Health Care Foundation has noted that well-defined and executed amplification efforts can widen the “artificially narrow band” of innovators that investment resources have historically been funneled to. Leveraging existing or new platforms can increase learning and awareness of the many ways that UUDH innovators are building game changing digital health startups.
- Shruti Kothari, Founder of Women of Community (WOC) and Black Healthcare Founder Spotlight, celebrates women of color who are contributing to the health of their communities. WOC hosts community events, distributes newsletters, and launches social media advocacy campaigns to elevate the voices of women of color and improve representation in healthcare leadership. The platform also leverages video interview series and unique storytelling to reach their 5,000+ community members.
Per Shruti, “You need more diverse perspectives. Full stop. Healthcare is for everyone, but the biggest challenges exist for overlooked communities who need real solutions…Have a bias toward action. Start with something concrete like collecting and analyzing data to identify disparities. If you’re an investor, ensure that your boards, C-suite leaders, and contracts are representative. If you’re an industry leader, look at the diversity of your suppliers and recruiting pipeline. Start with your universe—set goals and achieve them.”
Creating opportunities for innovator-focused, peer-to-peer learning
Continuous learning with peers can enable UUDH innovators’ ability to grow throughout their entrepreneurial journeys. Through learning and connection opportunities, UUDH innovators can discover new tactics for startup development and growth from peers, mentors, and industry leaders.
- André Blackman, Founder and CEO of Onboard Health, is dedicated to creating a more inclusive workforce. Onboard Health utilizes a unique model which includes two pillars of business: executive search and advisory services. Onboard leverages their talent network of over 7.5 thousand BIPOC and LGBTQ+ professionals, who work across venture capital, business development, operations, health equity, design, and data science. Onboard’s two-sided model results in companies recruiting diverse leadership and creating cultures centered on equity and inclusion.
- Javier Evelyn, Founder and CEO of Alerje, is also a Founding Team Member of MedTech Color. The organization aims to build the world’s largest network of Black and Hispanic medtech leaders (currently at 1,700+), increase representation in clinical trials and medical device development, and help create 100 new Black and Brown CEOs by 2030. MedTech Color advances early-stage medtech companies founded by Black and Brown professionals through funding and mentorship opportunities awarded during its annual Pitch Competition.
André advises, “People expect companies to evolve—not just pay attention to equity—but actually change for the better…As leaders, take a step back and assess. Sometimes you need to get out of your own way and look around at the marketplace. Learn from what the creative, new companies are doing and decide how you want to contribute and evolve. After a self-assessment, invite a trusted partner to come in and help you identify organizational blindspots.”
Javier’s recommendation: “As Black and Brown populations will be the majority groups in the coming decades, it will be critical not only for those communities, but also for the entire country, to build tools and reprogram systems for inclusivity. This allows space for innovators with cultural context and awareness to build the tools and solutions that we will need tomorrow.”
We hope that you feel inspired to reflect upon these individuals’ groundbreaking work and examine how you can contribute to expanding the flow of resources to UUDH innovators. At RockHealth.org, we look forward to building upon the foundation of the Equitable Investments Initiative. We also invite you to read more about the near-term opportunities in our inaugural report—Reimagining Opportunity and Innovation in Digital Health—and to join us as we work to ensure an equitable digital health future for all.