The publication of last year’s list of the hottest companies in digital health in between the coasts—in so-called Flyover Country—now seems like it happened ten years ago. The coronavirus pandemic, which helped stretch 2020 into an interminable black hole, made it clear that healthcare innovation is a key to our survival as a species
And so as we now embark on the latest edition of our annual list of the hottest healthcare companies in Flyover Country, ahead of the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference (this year, not to anyone’s surprise, an entirely virtual event), we’re highlighting the ones our group of impaneled experts felt were doing exceptional work and creating extraordinary value in a healthcare milieu without modern precedent.
As in past years, we have assembled our kitchen cabinet of savvy health-tech venture capitalists, healthcare PE investors, coastal healthcare executives, and industry analysts to survey them about which companies they think are really killing it in the Midwest, Rockies and other places where every day is a good day for flannel or denim.
As in previous years, our list is not a ranking per se. All of the hundreds of companies considered for this year’s list are doing important work, helping to save lives, delivering better care, or creating a more efficient healthcare ecosystem. These are just the ones earning the most notice.
No sector within healthcare saw more explosive growth in 2020 than telehealth. Who would have guessed seeing your doctor from the comfort of your couch would be so easy? Known simply as ‘Zip’ within the industry, this Minneapolis company was in the right space at the right time when Covid hit in early March and primary care clinics began searching for ways to offload non-emergency consultations.
Zip is a white-label virtual care platform that powers the visits of more than 50 of the largest health systems across the country, handling tens of thousands of virtual visits in a given week making it the highest capacity virtual platform in the country. In March, at the height of the pandemic, Zip said its utilization rates increased by as much as 3,600 percent. Year-over-year virtual visits in 2020 were up nearly 800 percent over 2019 numbers—a testament to the staying power of telehealth as a new dynamic of how healthcare will be delivered.
Ohio-based software developer Olive enters 2021 having raised over $385 million dollars in venture capital in 2020, including a $252 million in financing in early December, en route to its jaw-dropping $1.5 billion valuation. Last year, despite being charged with the unenviable task of handling the mountains of administrative paperwork that come with working at a hospital, Olive’s artificial-intelligence backed machine workforce was successfully integrated into over 500 hospitals across the nation.
Even now, months into this pandemic, hospitals around the U.S. are struggling to keep up with the endless waves of Covid patients filling hospitals to capacity. Olive handles much of the necessary, but time-consuming administrative work enabling healthcare professionals to focus on what’s important: taking care of those who need it most.
When Covid hit hard in March of 2020, Learn to Live CEO Dale Cook was several steps ahead of his competitors in the heated digital mental health space. On the front end of the pandemic, Cook’s Minneapolis-based start-up had already launched CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) programs with live coaching to address critical areas in pandemic-specific mental health areas: grief and loss, educators under stress, and children’s mental health (both for children and their parents) who were suddenly tasked with homeschooling while attempting to work full-time jobs.
It was literally just what doctors across the country were ordering; a recent CDC Household Pulse Survey conducted during the pandemic found a fourfold increase in anxiety and depression. If Learn to Live was the early bird in providing solutions to deal with the wake of mental health issues caused by the pandemic, one might say that the company got away with not one worm but an astounding four million of them as its covered population nearly trebled since the beginning of the contagion.
4. Icario (Minneapolis, MN); Capital Raised: $37 Million
Icario, the offspring of the recent merger between healthcare communications and incentives leaders Revel and NovuHealth, is rewriting the way in which health plans think about how they interact and engage with their members. The company sports a client roster that includes seven of the 10 largest health insurance companies, combines state-of-the-art machine learning with sophisticated consumer marketing profiles to develop personalized messaging at scale. They know how to push your buttons to make sure you get a flu shot or, importantly in the year ahead, get vaccinated against Covid-19.
The company is taking on a very important role as the vaccination effort rolls out across the country. With clients like UnitedHealthcare, Centene and Humana, Icario is gearing up to deliver messaging and incentives programs aimed at targeting that last 20% of American holdouts, notably the anti-vaxxers and fake news junkies. Veteran healthcare CEO Steve Wigginton helms this powerful behind-the-scenes healthcare company.
5. Eyesafe (Eden Prairie, MN); Capital Raised: $11 Million
If you happen to be visiting the Consumer Electronics Show (like the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, also 100% virtual this year), one place you might consider popping in is at the Eyesafe Virtual Exhibition Pavilion, a specially curated area dedicated to the topic that is on every parent’s mind amid the global pandemic: screen time and the impact of all those hours on devices on our kids’ eyes.
Eyesafe is the company that serves as the all-important connective fiber between healthcare and consumer electronics when it comes to eye health. Its invisible low blue light filtering technology can now be found on major computer brands such as HP, Lenovo, Dell and Acer and is quickly emerging as the consumer-friendly seal of approval for anyone worried about what all that screen time is doing to your eyes. At this year’s CES Eyesafe is announcing, in partnership with LG Display, the world’s first Eyesafe television, a sign that the company has its eye on more than just laptops and monitors.
Dispatch Health is GrubHub for MDs. Instead of venturing out to see the doctor—a risky and sometimes impossible exercise in 2020 for non-emergency issues—Dispatch is in the business of bringing trained medical personnel to your doorstep to deliver an array of essential medical and mental health services. The Denver-based tech company provides on-demand care from certified medical crews who can deliver nearly all of the same services you would expect from your primary care physician. Importantly, during the pandemic, these services were early in adopting the option for testing for Covid-19. As the country adjusts to a new normal in the wake of the Coronavirus, look for Dispatch to be fanning its medical teams to neighborhoods across the nation.
Telehealth company SonderMind is saving lives in 2020, one socially-distanced appointment at a time. The company has raised over $30 million in its efforts to build a social platform that links up patients with therapists based on their specific needs and geographic location. SonderMind has signed reimbursement deals with heavy hitters such as UnitedHealthcare, Aetna, Anthem, Kaiser Permanente, Cigna, as well as several smaller regional insurers and employer networks. It’s one of the many telehealth platforms that flourished once in-person medical visits came to a standstill amid the pandemic.
Babson Diagnostics’ proprietary technology, available for use in retail environments around the nation, collects microsamples of blood for simple, precise diagnostic blood test results. Babson was among the first companies to produce a Covid-19 test that received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It was distributed free-of-charge to front-line pharmacy and grocery workforces. The test was designed to aid in identifying individuals who would have been previously infected by the coronavirus and had developed an adaptive immune response.
Texas-based Aunt Bertha company provides a free, one-stop resource for people seeking programs and service providers that provide mental and physical wellness resources to those hit hardest by the social, economic, and health impacts stemming from the pandemic.
Aunt Bertha’s platform lists more than 1,200 social services across every county in the U.S., making them the largest closed referral search tool available on a non-commercial basis. Aunt Bertha isn’t just making introductions, either, but is boosting patient visibility by giving caregiver teams a more complete view of a patient’s global support environment. 2020 proved to be a breakout year for Aunt Bertha, as the company passed the 4-million user milestone.
Lifesprk CEO Joel Theisen talks faster than MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson. For those who can keep up, Theisen is a guy operating several time zones ahead of everyone else in the geriatric care space. Lifesprk’s sells a suite of technologies to senior centers, health plans, and other providers, using both an array of traditional medical and atypical health inputs such as access to quality nutrition, transportation, and social networks to keep older Americans living longer and more fulfilling lives while staying independent.
For example, Lifesprk might discover that an elderly individual’s frequent hospital emergency room visits were being driven by a lack of transportation options to regularly visit his primary care doctor. By setting up the patient with access to a ride-sharing program, enabling him to see his doctor on a more regular basis, Lifesprk drastically reduced costly and — particularly during Covid – risky ER visits.
Central Logic provides real-time visibility and business intelligence to healthcare providers that are critical to helping hospitals maintain greater cohesion, increasing patient engagement, and maximizing resource optimization. Central Logic’s software platform and clinician-led consulting enabled faster approvals for transfers and hospital admissions while simultaneously preventing patients from being inadvertently transferred to facilities without available beds, inadequate equipment or insufficient staffing. Our experts lauded Central Logic’s active role in the logistics side of the fight against Covid.
12. Breathe99 (Minneapolis, MN); Capital Raised: Undisclosed
Unfortunately, Observer wasn’t the first major publication to figure out that Breathe99 is one of the hottest companies to spread its wings amid the global pandemic. Time Magazine beat us to the punch by earmarking the Minneapolis start-up as one of the Best Inventions of 2020. Their ergonomic, washable masks were tested at the University of Minnesota Department of Mechanical Engineering and are made from recycled plastic bottles and hold two replaceable filters that block 99.6% of particles from escaping.
Breathe99’s journey started when co-founder Max Bock-Aronson was living in Singapore and would regularly find his lungs burning from poor air quality. Fast-forward to 2020, throw in a global pandemic, and you have one of the hottest companies in the health space.
13. U Deliver Medical (Hopkins, MN); Capital Raised: Self-Funded
Observer’s panel of experts shared with us a surprising statistic: at any given time in the US, over 500,000 people are being tube fed for any number of reasons – many of these in hospital settings that eat up valuable square footage in real estate that should really be focused on triaging the patients with Covid-19. U Deliver played a critical role in 2020 by giving the tube-fed community better options for home-feeding with an array of devices and products to keep people at home and out of harm’s way in a hospital environment.
One of the biggest recurring issues to emerge from the pandemic is the toll it had on our nation’s frontline workers. Over-exhaustion and lack of resources had workers around the U.S. fighting a war of attrition against an enemy that, sans vaccine, could multiply its ranks ad infinitum. Enter: Carrus.
Carrus provides two digital education tools to their users: CareerStep, a student training platform for those seeking to enter and advance their career in the healthcare field, and CareerCert a certification-management platform for already-established medical professionals to continue their education. Carrus is ensuring we have a vibrant and well-trained corps of frontline healthcare workers – a group that is still bearing the blunt force trauma of the pandemic on a daily basis. Carrus has raised almost $50 million—a sign that is going places in 2021.
SteadyMD pairs patients with primary care physicians who not only match their health and wellness care needs but also match their particular experiences. For example, SteadyMD will connect a transgender marathon-runner with a physician who is also a transgender competitive athlete—in other words, someone who understands and is empathetic to a very specific set of life circumstances. The company caught the eye of the Observer’s panel of experts last year with what was then described as a “cost-efficient remote primary care model” – probably the reason CEO Guy Friedman had no problem closing on another $6 million round of funding in 2020.
The company really thrived during Covid, providing a telehealth platform that connected patients and physicians in a much more meaningful way. SteadyMd’s efficient healthcare delivery model fosters an empathetic connection between patient and doctor that encourages remote patient engagement over time, keeping patients away from primary care and other medical settings during the contagion.
16. Imanis Life Sciences (Rochester, MN); Capital Raised: Undisclosed
Birthed from within the Mayo Clinic’s venture capital ecosystem, Imanis Life Sciences is a trailblazer in the field of non-invasive imaging research in regenerative medicine, gene therapy, oncology, and oncolytic virotherapy. Led by virology experts Stephen Russell MD, PhD and Kah Whye Peng PhD, Imanis Life Sciences advanced two new market ready, virus-based tools used in the fight against Covid-19. Imanis scientists, working along with colleagues from sister company Vyriad (also helmed by Russell and Peng), developed the Immuno-Cov V2.0 test, which measures a patient’s blood for the neutralizing antibodies that block SARS-Cov-2 infection, and a new Covid-19 vaccine candidate that has shown potential after tests in primates.
Another example of emerging tech that is disrupting how patients receive care for the better is Chicago-based healthtech company SonarMD. According to a NYU Langone survey around 74 percent of Americans suffer from gastrointestinal-related health issues. It’s an eye-opening figure, especially considering that significant GI discomfort is a potential sign of a more serious issue, including Crohn’s disease, Ulcerative Colitis (UC) or celiac disease. Our panel of experts considers SonarMD’s survey-based GI remote monitoring health tracking platform to be an invaluable tool in a world where routine in-person medical check-ups came to a near standstill amid the pandemic.
Sandstone Diagnostics offers patients instantaneous blood processing when (and where) blood samples are collected. As healthcare continues to shift toward virtual and remote care models, Sandstone’s in-home blood labs are laying track for a post-pandemic environment in which decentralized access to tests and diagnostic settings becomes the new normal. No more needless trips to the clinic for needless blood workups – particularly for patients who have a habitual need to monitor their blood.
Sandstone’s small and portable Torq Zero Delay Centrifuge System easily fits in the palm of your hand and stabilizes high-quality plasma or serum at the point of collection rather than waiting for samples to arrive at labs.
19. Clearstep (Chicago, IL); Undisclosed
Covid-19 has made many of us second-guess routine seasonal colds. Those feeling under the weather might have a low-grade fever or chills, but not severe enough to get in the car to see a doctor can download Hartford HealthCare’s popular Symptom Checker, a chatbot that uses Clearstep’s AI-powered platform. It goes more in-depth to combine symptom-checking with screening for potential virus exposure by analyzing users’ responses to a few multiple-choice questions before determining if immediate care was warranted. Clearstep is processing approximately 10,000 symptom checks per day.
BuClearstep’s suite of agile AI-enabled healthcare solutions provide a wide range of healthcare services, with consultation on over 500 other healthcare services. Last year saw the company partnering with large hospital and healthcare systems across the country, providing Covid screener tests in locations across the nation. Amongst many partnerships, the tech was fully integrated within BayCare Health Systems, Tampa Bay’s largest hospital system. Since then, their user count has skyrocketed, and the Windy City-based company received our panel of experts’ thumbs up.
20. PhysIQ (Chicago, IL); Capital Raised: $26.4 Million
2020 turned out to be a watershed year for Chicago-based analytic software company PhysIQ. Chosen by the Department of Defense and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement Military Medicine to be a part of the nation’s Warp Speed initiative to address the pandemic, PhysIQ was awarded a $6.4M contract by the NIH to develop an AI-based Covid index for early detection infected patients.
NightWare (Minneapolis, MN): Capital Raised: Undisclosed
In normal times (i.e. any year not numbered 2020), the news that NightWare had become the first and only company to receive FDA approval to treat sleep disorders stemming from PTSD would have been front-page news. According to the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs, as many as 8 of every 100 adults in the US suffers from PTSD, a dangerous mental health condition that can lead to suicide and other severe mental health issues as well as directly impacting physical health; the rate of incidence of PTSD runs quite a bit higher among military veterans.
The NightWare groundbreaking digital therapeutic platform, which is delivered via an Apple Watch, detects nightmare occurrences during sleep, gently coaxing sufferers out of a nightmare without waking them, enabling them to get a full night’s sleep and awake, rested and rejuvenated.