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In what could be the first step in the development of a significant new line of business for the telemedicine prescription provider Ro, the company is finally announcing the general commercial availability of weight loss product, Plenity.
Developed by Gelesis, a biotech company that makes treatments for gastro-intestinal disorders, Plentiy is a weight loss treatment that uses citric acid and cellulose to create a non-toxic paste that makes people feel more full after they ingest it. Taken before meals, the pill becomes a substance that expands to take up about 25% of the stomach, so people eat less.
The product has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is available for a much broader segment of the population than other weight loss products. While most prescription medicines are intended for people who are obese, the Gelesis product is made for people who are overweight, too.
“That’s adults who have a BMI from 25 up to 40. That’s 150 million Americans,” according to Gelesis chief commercial and operating officer, David Pass.
Plenity received FDA approval last April and Gelesis started working with Ro soon after, according to Pass. The idea was to craft a strategy that could get the treatment, which is classified as a medical device and not a drug, in the hands of as many patients as quickly as possible.
For Ro, the agreement with Gelesis is a sign of potential things to come. The company is the exclusive online provider of the Plenity treatment and Ro founder Zachariah Reitano said that there’s an incredible potential to engage in more of these types of deals.
“We would love to be able to partner with pharmaceutical companies to decrease the cost of distribution,” said Reitano. “We were excited to build an exciting treatment solution for weight management. Our high-level mission is to be the patient’s first call.”
With the Gelesis partnership Ro can add another highly desirable treatment to its roster of therapies — and one that can be a contributing factor to increasing the severity of other conditions that the company already provides treatment for, Reitano said.
“There are a few conditions that we currently treat that are exacerbated by a patient being overweight or obese. People who struggle with weight management will also experience ED. Obesity can lead to heart failure stroke, coronary heart disease, hypetension, depression,” Reitano said. “The breadth of the label is interesting. Only FDA approved with a BMI from 25 to 40. FDA approved treatment have been between 30 and 40. [It] makes the treatment more accessible to a wider variety of people.”
As the only online provider of the treatment, Ro has developed an onboarding process to ensure that the Plenity therapy isn’t abused by people who suffer from eating disorders.
“During our onboarding we not only ask questions to patients about their weight management. There’s a consecutive set of images that need to be uploaded and taken with the provider. That’s something we’ve taken a lot of time and energy to make sure about,” said Reitano.
Like the other treatments Ro offers, Plenity is a cash pay prescription, because the weight loss treatments aren’t typically covered by insurance, he said.
The benefit of working with an online pharmacy like Ro to provide distribution for a new therapy was obvious to both startups.
“We turned this market on its head by putting the consumer at the heart of everything we do,” said Pass. The treatment costs $98 per month, compared to other therapies or branded medications that could be as much $300 and $350 per month, according to Pass.
One reason that Gelesis is able to reduce the price of the drug is that it won’t have to hire a massive sales force to pitch it. The company has Ro for that.
“Normally you have a pharmaceutical company that would have to hire a sales force and go door to door and it increases the cost of a new drug. [Ro] can make a new, innovative treatment available, like Plenity, available nationwide,” Reitano said.
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The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday updated and expanded its list of who is at risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19—emphasizing that it’s not just the elderly who suffer from the disease.
Most noticeably, the CDC removed the specific age threshold of 65 and over for those considered at risk of severe COVID-19—that is, those requiring hospitalization, intensive care, ventilation, or those who die from the disease.
Now, the agency emphasizes that there is a gradient of risk based on age. In other words, there is some risk at any age, but that risk increases with age. A 50-year-old will have more risk than a 40-year-old, and a 60-year-old is at higher risk than someone in their 50s. The greatest risk is seen in those aged 85 and over.
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Higi, which was founded back in 2012 per Crunchbase, has built out a nationwide network of “health stations” located at retail locations such as groceries and pharmacies within 5 miles of 73% of the US population, where users can check their blood pressure, pulse, weight and BMI for free.
It also offers apps for users to track health measurements and input fitness data — giving it access to rich data streams that can inform healthcare workflows for its partners.
Higi says its kiosks have been used by 62M people in North America to date, conducting more than 372M biometric tests. Babylon’s investment in the company will go on supporting the expansion and “enhancement” of this network, including further development of digital capabilities, assessments and programs, the pair said today.
Babylon is not disclosing the size of its strategic investment in Higi’s Series B. Existing investors from the latter’s Series A also participated, including 7Wire Ventures, Flare Capital Partners, Jumpstart Capital, Rush University Medical Center for Health and William Wrigley Jr.
A spokeswoman for Babylon said it’s the first official US investment it has made but said it’s hopeful that “more strategic investments and partnerships” will follow to help extend its reach in the US.
“By offering a bundled care solution that combines Babylon’s symptom checking and remote digital health tools with Higi’s consumer reach and assessment capabilities, the companies will together be able to offer a more end-to-end solution to meet the needs of payers, providers and retailers on the front lines of care delivery,” the pair said in a press release.
“Higi’s Smart Health Stations are already located in thousands of towns across North America, and by integrating Babylon’s digital first healthcare services into Higi’s station experience, we can make the healthcare services that people need that much more accessible and affordable across North America,” said Babylon CEO and founder Dr Ali Parsa in a statement.
He goes on to talk up the tie-up as supporting “the everyday support of a person’s health and wellbeing” — claiming it places “greater emphasis on prevention and tackling issues earlier [by] helping millions of people proactively tend to their health and connect them to the information and medical support they need”.
“With Babylon as one of our investors and strategic partners, we are beautifully positioned to drive real change in the delivery of primary care across the U.S.,” added Higi CEO Jeff Bennett in another supporting statement. “Our commitment is to provide consumers, anywhere they might be in, with smart medical tools like unique diagnostics to support their health and wellbeing.
“Our partnership with Babylon broadens our clinical capabilities and ability to support consumers with acute medical problems or those with chronic conditions like hypertension, diabetes, and obesity, thereby allowing us to better meet the needs of payors, retailers and health systems. The U.S. healthcare system has many virtues, but it is simply too expensive and hard for consumers to access care. Together, we will get patients to the right care, faster and far less expensively.”
Babylon begun a push into the US market this year, launching officially on January 1. Currently it provides access to “healthcare services” via its app to members of certain health plans in Missouri, New York and California. Earlier this month, for example, it partnered with Mount Sinai Health Partners to offer an insurance-covered telehealth option for New Yorkers which includes video consultations with physicians.
Last month, Business Insider reported that Babylon had furloughed 5% of its staff in response to the coronavirus pandemic, tapping into a scheme which sees the UK government covering up to 80% of the pay of furloughed workers.
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Using a combination of machine learning and computer vision, Yes Health claims it can cut costs and improve adherence for behavioral-based treatments targeting diabetes, obesity and other chronic conditions.
Those claims, and the company’s technology based approach has netted the company a new $6 million in funding led by Khosla Ventures .
The company’s technology automates patient’s reporting requirements by allowing them to take a picture of their meals rather than entering their daily food intake into a system. The company’s software recognizes meals from the images and converts that information into data that physicians and patients can use to monitor their progress.
If the ease of use for patients is one selling point, then the company’s automated messaging service is another. Using computer generated prompts instead of human consultations reduces the cost of the service and ultimately the price that folks have to pay.
Founded by Alexander Petrov, a former PayPal executive who is, himself, pre-diabetic, Yes Health takes the therapies that have been pioneered by companies like Virta Health and Omada and makes them easier for patients to manage.
“The biggest difference is that we have a level of personalization that then translates into engagement that is very unique,” says Petrov. “We are doing it through what we call an image-based in-the-moment approach… We capture analyze and share data not just through text but through images.”
The company, which launched six years ago, is working with Blue Shield of California and other healthcare partners. Yes Health has tens of thousands of paying members, according to Petrov, and the vision is to reach millions of people.
Yes Health sells through both healthcare plans and direct to consumers — and the market the company hopes to address is huge. Roughly 34 million Americans had diabetes in 2018, according to data from the CDC and another 88 million are considered pre-diabetic. The cost of caring for these conditions in the US is an astonishing $327 billion each year. Healthcare costs for these patients can also reach more than 230% of the average American’s healthcare expenditures.
These issues take on new significance given the COVID-19 epidemic. Conditions like diabetes or obesity are linked to increasing chances of fatality from COVID-19 infection, according to reports.
“Americans are more conscious than ever about their health, and digital health has become one of the most important markets for innovation,” said Samir Kaul, founding partner and managing director of Khosla Ventures, in a statement. “Yes Health is proven to tackle difficult and costly chronic conditions through an AI-augmented and all-mobile solution, aligning it with our firm’s thesis in healthcare.”
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