Healthtech startups are being corralled by the NHS and the government to point their talents at the COVID-19 pandemic, while other firms are volunteering services to help stymie the spread of the infectious new disease.
It’s an extremely uncertain moment for businesses large and small across the country, perhaps the most uncertain in many of our lifetimes. High-street mainstays are already folding under the new pressures, and the crisis has exposed the difficulties of running just-in-time operating models, such as those seen across the country’s food supply chain.
Inherently risky endeavours such as loss-making technology startups are fraught with difficulties in the best of times, let alone amplified under these strange new conditions.
Nonetheless, there are myriad ways in which nimble startups may be better poised to solve big problems than resource-rich enterprises and governments.
A little over a year on from when it was first unveiled, the purpose of the NHSX healthtech initiative is being put to the test. One such project is Techforce 19, a new £500,000 funding pot for ‘innovators’ to find new ways to fight the effects of social distancing, with a focus on mental health support and social care.
The umbrella group has also partnered with other health organisation for a ‘hack from home hackathon’ to tackle the impact of COVID-19 and collaborate on technology to solve problems related to its social and economic effects.
Health secretary Matt Hancock, who himself has tested positive for the coronavirus, said that Techforce19 would “mobilise the UK’s incredible reservoir of talent to develop simple, accessible tools that can be rolled out quickly and help tackle the effect of social isolation”.
Funding of as much as £25,000 will be awarded to successful applicants, who can submit their pitches through the Techforce19 portal.
Matthew Gould, the chief executive of NHSX, added that the competition is “focused on the problems created by isolation, which lend themselves to digital solutions”.
“It will allow NHSX to accelerate the development of those solutions, so within weeks they can help those in isolation suffering from loneliness, mental health issues and other problems,” Gould said.
Data account management startup Dataswift, which last year raised £1.6 million in a seed funding round led by IQ Capital, has meanwhile spearheaded a “global virtual hackathon” oriented towards solving the many problems posed by COVID-19.
To be held remotely on 4 and 5 April, the effort is organised by HAT-LAB and brings together academics and health professionals from organisations including NHSX, Case Western Reserve University, the University of Warwick, Cleveland Clinic, and Yonsei University Health System, as well as groups like the Samsung Medical Center, Hanwha, and Asan Medical Center.
Together they hope to launch as many as 25 applications over the weekend focused on the themes of citizen science, community health, and mass coordination. Dataswift says that “viable solutions will be offered funding and professional developer support”. Anyone can sign up to the event and join the Slack channel through this link.
The British government’s London Office for Rapid Cybersecurity Advancement, LORCA, usually based out of Plexal in east London, has also announced an open call for cyber scaleups – the organisation’s fifth such programme.
While it will not centre solely on tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, LORCA notes that the global outbreak highlights the risks associated with remote working and other practices that have been quickly adopted to mitigate the impact of the crisis.
The call is open until 4 May, and the 12-month accelerator programme will focus on themes around tackling disinformation and the “need to secure the digital citizen”. In light of the pandemic, the programme will be “digital-first” – meaning course curriculum and events are expected to be delivered virtually for now. The cohort will begin the programme in July 2020.
Successful applicants will receive mentorship and engineering assistance from partners Deloitte and the Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT) at Queen’s University Belfast.
Startups to the rescue?
Venture capital firms are scrambling to model the impact of the pandemic on their portfolios, but some are also mobilising this talent for good. Draper Esprit, the high growth digital tech VC firm, says that it is “actively modelling the potential impact” of COVID-19 on its portfolio, and that a number of its companies are already playing a role in provisioning online health services, as well as communications and entertainment.
Push Doctor, for example, is working with the NHS to assist in the increase in demand for telehealth services for general practitioners during the outbreak. Ieso Digital Health is offering more services to patients for remote mental health support and therapy, while call centre software provider Aircall and automation platform M-Files are seeing increased demand for services due to more employees working from home.
Separately, other healthtech vendors are offering their services for free. Hospitals that use Alcidion’s Patientrack tool for paperless patient observations will also now have access to the firm’s Covid-19 assessment tool. The assessment tool can be customised to each hospital’s requirements to track patient records and alert professionals if action needs to be taken around infection control or assigning respiratory doctors, for example.
Clinical AI company Sensyne Health, meanwhile, has made its GDm-Health remote monitoring system available free of charge across the NHS, to help manage diabetes in pregnant women.
Remote GP service Babylon Health has released a free symptom tracker app, and Zoe Global, the nutrition startup, has partnered with KCL as well as Guys and St Thomas’ Hospitals for a symptom tracking app that garnered nearly a million downloads in a week, largely via word of mouth on social platforms like Whatsapp.
And Pando Health – renamed from Forward Health after a €4.5 million funding round led by Skip in January 2020 – is offering its collaboration app for free to NHS organisations, which includes secure messaging, forums, patient lists, and image capture for clinicians.
Sifted has drawn together a comprehensive list of European startups that have pointed their efforts towards fighting the pandemic, including fertility wearable startup Ava, which aims to make its data available to researchers, and temporary staffing platform for hospitals Patchwork, which has made its system free for every NHS Trust for the following four months.
On the security side, domain and DNS threat intelligence company DomainTools has released a COVID-19 Threat List – to assist in determining risky domains, where opportunists are leveraging the crisis to conduct cyber attacks.
Due to the ongoing nature of the coronavirus outbreak we will be regularly updating this feature with new examples of UK startups aiding in the fight against the pandemic.