Consultations are only one part of people’s relationships with their doctors that are migrating online.
There’s also increasing demand from practitioners and patients for ways to easily monitor their health at a distance in between appointments. And the coronavirus pandemic, as well as regulatory changes in the US, are acting as accelerators.
“Both patients and their doctors are showing appetite for a shift in healthcare practices: to more remote, but also more regular tracking,” says Mathieu Letombe, the chief executive of healthtech startup Withings, which makes devices to track blood pressure, weight, heart rate, body temperature and other medical metrics useful for monitoring chronic diseases. “There’s increasing demand for high-end connected products with medical features.”
Withings is one of the companies trying to answer this need for people to seamlessly measure and exchange reliable data day-to-day with their doctors. It's out to prove that Fitbit type devices aren't just for fitness fanatics — they could also play a huge role in cutting down high blood pressure and other chronic diseases.
The Paris startup said on Tuesday it’s raising $60m from investors including Gilde Healthcare, Idinvest and Bpifrance to accelerate its shift from consumer gadgets to more sophisticated healthcare devices approved by authorities including the Food and Drug Administration in the US.
It’s especially focusing on the US market, where regulation has been a driver and insurance companies are subsidising doctors to do more patient tracking using connected devices from scales to blood pressure and sleep monitors.
In a way, this is chapter three in the life of Withings.
The French company started out in 2008 and made a name for itself with consumer devices, like activity trackers, that strike a balance between packing the newest technology and keeping to more traditional design and feel. Its first product was a connected body scale, upgrades of which still rank among the company's best-sellers today.
In 2016, Withings caught the eye of Finland’s technology giant Nokia, which splurged €170m to take over the startup, in an attempt to revive its own failing brand with consumers as well as exploit Withings’ connectivity knowledge for devices.
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Things didn’t quite work out though and, two years later, Withings founder Eric Carreel was buying his company back to go it solo.
In chapter two, Carreel kept the initial strategy of simple yet sophisticated products going.
For instance, steering clear of the digital screens of the Fitbits and Apple watches of this world, Withings’ activity tracking devices have kept the look and feel of a classic watch, while still measuring steps, sleep cycles and monitoring heart rates.
The battery life on Withings’ smartwatches is up to 18 months, without the need to recharge daily. Price tags for the watches in Europe range from €70 to €300 depending on models.
Catering to health professionals
“With things like long battery life and design, we built a reputation with consumers as makers of high-end products,” says Letombe. “This opened doors for us with doctors and hospitals, and we pivoted towards medical.”
For the past year now, Withings has been trying to differentiate by addressing not only what consumers want, but also what medical professionals need to help with their monitoring.
Chronic diseases in particular, like diabetes, high blood pressure and sleep apnea, call for this kind of monitoring.
The company launched a segment dedicated to businesses (doctors, hospitals, insurance companies…), which it aims to grow to about 20% of its sales by year-end, with consumers making up the rest.
Mostly, it hired doctors to participate in its research and development activities, and experts to take its products through the complex approval procedures of the FDA and other regulators in Europe and Asia.
Its thermometer and blood pressure monitor have already landed regulatory approval in the US; so has one of its electrocardiogram-enabled smartwatches and sleep monitor in Europe.
Covid accelerated an already existing trend.
“We were contacted by a lot of doctors, hospitals and medical research programmes because of Covid,” says Letombe.
Withings’ upcoming smartwatch model, with oxygen level monitoring, is due to start selling to consumers in September, but it’s already being tested in some hospitals with coronavirus patients, he says.
“Heart monitoring data too is very rich: it can help identify a fever pitch before it happens, for instance,” says Letombe. “Data from our devices could help with everything from detecting Covid to fertility cycles. Who knows where this will take us.”
The company is planning to use some of the fundraising money to hire 100 people by the end of the year, to reinforce its commercial activities in the US as well as bolster its R&D labs in France.