Author

Bailey Amber

Since this pandemic began, more and more businesses have been pushed to find other “work place” avenues in order to not only avoid clashing with health regulations, but to provide employees with peace of mind. Working from home is now a viable option for a large number of businesses.

So, this far in, what do we think? Work vs. Home? Let’s talk…

Jason Toshack, General Manager ANZ, Oracle NetSuite

I think I’m still somewhat traditional, so I still prefer the camaraderie of the physical office. As culture is very important to us at Oracle NetSuite, I enjoy in-person interaction with my team. The office is great for impromptu chats, sparking collaboration or giving new starters a chance to learn from their peers.

At the same time, the past year has taught us that remote working is indeed a viable option. Thanks to cloud-based technology tools, people can work from wherever makes sense for them – that could be home or the office, but it might also be from a restaurant or construction site if that’s your line of business. As businesses look to move towards hybrid models, I believe the key to managing teams is setting clear goals and communication. While I might prefer the office, it appears that younger workers are more than capable of staying productive at home. Leaders should aim to align teams on goals that will keep everyone focused and working collaboratively. 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Working from home offers flexibility, can promote a healthier work/life balance, and reduces time spent in traffic. Ultimately, the key is to ensure your team feels supported and identify tactics to keep them motivated.

Lara Owen, Director of Global Workplace Experience, GitHub

The pandemic has compelled organisations to think about remote operations and flexible work arrangements in ways that they weren’t a year ago. Whatever the chosen operational path, from hybrid to digital by design, clarity on core cultural priorities and business needs before making tactical changes and investments, is crucial. 

Our decade of experience with a distributed workforce tells us that offices are not going away. We will see a rise in hot-desking and a reduction in office footprints. Offices will be designed for collaboration: team deep-dives, customer and community events, celebrations, planning and design work. Successfully building a distributed team demands deliberate changes in the way people work. That requires a shift in the way companies train, empower and support people to work in new ways. 

Companies with a clear mission and purpose, an invested leadership team, and a willingness to let go of parts of the past which do not serve them, will truly thrive and usher in the new future of work. In every crisis there is opportunity – and this is a huge opportunity to embrace a better way of working for the future.

Amy Burton, Managing Lawyer at Everyday Justice, John Monash Scholar

I’m a big believer in flexibility. I personally love having a physical office. I’m a mum of a 1 year-old, so travelling into work is my opportunity to dress up, escape my messy house and spend the day having adult conversations and drinking quality coffee. At the same time though, I love that my legal practice has embraced phone and video-conferencing tech to provide free legal advice to those with disabilities or people in more remote areas who can’t travel to a physical office. 

I also think it’s important for more businesses to offer remote internships now, as we do. I’ve developed great working relationships with my interstate interns over video-conference and they’re getting the opportunity to develop their practical legal skills without needing to be in the same physical office as me.

Anton Schiavello, General Manager, Nura Space

For most of us, our work is fundamental to our identity and sense of self. A core part of this notion is the ‘place’ known as the office, that physically houses and cultivates the organisational culture, relationships, and functional performance outcomes such as collaboration.
 
The pandemic has shown us that the digital environment is able to support connections between people, but merely as an extension of the physical environment and interaction. In my opinion, the physical office can never be replaced entirely by digital tools, as it’s a place where teams come together and build essential relationships – which benefits both morale and productivity.

As a result of the global pandemic, we now know that the remote working model is here to stay. Workers are empowered to work with more choice and greater flexibility. This means that coming into the physical office will be right for some people, but not for others.

Alex Hattingh, Chief People Office, Employment Hero

Our Remote Working Survey last year found that workers loved remote work and preferred avoiding the daily commute. At the same time, employees missed the social aspect of office life and found it harder to switch off at home.

This is reflective of how increasingly sought-after the hybrid working model and flexible working conditions are becoming. Society’s rapid shift to remote work has revealed the benefits of telecommuting, but has also highlighted the advantages of being in a physical workplace — particularly for mental health, culture, and creativity.

For companies providing on-site facilities, the cultural benefits are endless — being amongst your colleagues or in the midst of a co-working space will certainly help to boost creativity and collaboration, nurture and develop your company’s culture and vision, and have a positive effect on staff’s mental health.

However, organisations that are continuing down the path of full-time remote work, a plethora of tech tools and innovative software exists, which can help to nurture the important social aspects of being in an office. These might include tools for social reward and recognition, team collaboration, and mental health support, that will help to increase employee engagement, regardless of where your staff is working from.

Billy Tucker, CEO, Oneflare

Our team, like many, delivered brilliantly during the crazy period of lockdown last year. However, I’m a big proponent of the need for a physical office and believe that cracks will start to show if it’s completely taken away. 

One argument for not having a physical office is the money businesses will save on rent, but for our business, the numbers simply don’t stack up. The majority of our employees are based in a Sydney office, single-level with water views, with the usual trappings such as a ping pong table and free breakfast. Rent is equivalent to just under 7% of our total labour cost. Add another couple of points for utilities, free food and some office management, and you’re still well under 10%.

Rounding the costs up to one-tenth of our total labour cost means that losing just 4 hours of weekly productivity from each employee as a result of virtual working will leave us worse off. That’s before accounting for a loss of valuable collaboration and other hard-to-measure factors, such as employee churn from those who don’t enjoy working from home. 

May Samali, Professional Coach, Venture Partner & John Monash Scholar

The past year has taught us that face-to-face interaction is critical to our mental and emotional wellbeing. The benefit of a physical office is that it fosters human connections that are almost impossible to replicate online.

It is also a work environment equaliser.

The same cannot be said for remote work — for some, it translates to working from a large home office or holiday home in Byron Bay, and for others it means taking Zoom calls from a closet in a small noisy apartment filled with children.

The ideal is to provide people with a mix of options including a physical office and remote work. There is no one-size-fits-all.

Ultimately, work should not be seen as somewhere we go, but something we do. It is a verb, not a noun. This perspective encourages work-life integration and allows people to “work” whenever, wherever and however is best for their circumstances.

Robert Coorey, Co-Founder, Archistar

If there’s one thing that 2020 has taught us, it’s that we don’t always need a physical office space to be productive and get our jobs done. I think it’s important, however, that employees are given the option. Our office is now a complete hybrid environment – our team can come in on the days that they like, and work from home on the others.  

On the pros of working from home, flexibility is the first thing that comes to mind. Pre-COVID, I hardly ever picked up my kids from school. I was often flat out and would feel guilty leaving the office in the middle of the day. Now, I can occasionally take out 30 minutes to pick up my kids and not miss anything important.

On the flip side, it can be hard when school finishes! During a recent client video call I had to excuse myself temporarily as my 7-year-old son was crying. When I came back into the room my son was on the camera making funny faces to the client! I have now learned to always lock my computer when I leave the room.

Laura Corbett, Office Manager, JobAdder

As many businesses slowly emerge from lockdowns and return back to the physical office, some leaders are still torn about whether to enforce an ‘office-only rule’ or adapt to a flexible, hybrid model. 

If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that the modern workforce can successfully and seamlessly work from home, and adapt to a more remote, digitally-connected world, whilst still remaining productive. Businesses reaped the benefits while working remotely, by reducing overheads on physical spaces, including maintenance, insurance, furniture, utilities, storage space, and equipment costs. Other benefits include the streamlining of recruitment, and the ability to hire and grow, without the restraints of office space or desk availability. 

In saying this, there are also many benefits that come with physical space, from better team collaboration and engagement, to be being able to mold and nurture the company’s culture. Although digital work offers a number of conveniences, it’s clear to see the social element of working suffers when the only face-to-face engagement teams receive is via Zoom calls. 

If considering a return-to-office approach, it’s important to look at what value a physical office space offers your company, and most importantly, ensure the decision reflects the values of the business and the needs of workers.

Dionne Niven, Chief People Officer, SiteMinder

Blanket rules for team culture are no longer effective, and the same goes for the workspaces that employees work in and the values that drive how those workspaces are designed and managed. There is no point in enforcing blanket rules where all people need to work remotely, go to a physical office space, or adopt rigid hybrid models. Everyone’s needs and circumstances are different, and this has proven to be worth particularly considering since the pandemic, as research highlights it has impacted each person, family, and community differently.

We have adopted an approach we call Open Working, whereby our teams are given the autonomy to determine the best ways of working for them. This encourages staff to minimise the stress of commuting, optimise the benefits of collaborating, and connect with their teams on platforms and in environments that suit their preferences. Not everyone wants to start work at 9am, but almost everyone does want to feel connected and part of a team no matter when or where they’re working, and making that a reality every day will look different for every employee.

Roger Carvosso, Strategy and Product Director, FirstWave Cloud Technology

Thousands of Australians are taking advantage of the opportunities to work from home, which many businesses have trialled and benefited from throughout the pandemic. As well as businesses being able to cut rent costs, and employees being able to save time on commutes, many teams are also experiencing a heightened sense of trust and transparency. 

Meanwhile, a company-wide shift to working remotely has led to a rapid rise in cybersecurity threats and scams throughout 2020, which is an urgent area that needs executives’ attention. As professionals have flocked to working more online, rapidly increased their use of social media and web browsing, and have even further merged how they use technological devices across their personal and professional lives, cybercriminals have had more opportunities than ever to impersonate executives in emails, gather personal information via social media platforms, and trick employees into making payments into the wrong accounts. Consequently, for business leaders planning for a remote workforce in 2021, cybersecurity needs to be a significant part of the business strategy. 


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A major concern during the Covid-19 pandemic has been that Americans, especially those with underlying conditions, will delay necessary care. New survey results show this concern is not unfounded.

As of last September, about 40% of Americans with one or more chronic health conditions reported delaying or avoiding care, according to a new report from the Urban Institute and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Report authors analyzed data from the second wave of the Urban Institute’s Coronavirus Tracking Survey, a nationally representative survey conducted Sept. 11-28, 2020. The survey polled 4,007 adults, ages 18 to 64 years.

About 36% of Americans said they delayed or did not receive healthcare due to a fear of exposure to the coronavirus or because a provider limited services during the pandemic, the report states. Black adults (39.7%) were more likely than white (34.3%) or Hispanic/Latinx (35.5%) adults to report delaying or forgoing care because of concerns about virus exposure.

About four in 10 adults with one or more chronic health conditions (40.7%) said they delayed or avoided care because of the pandemic, as compared with 26.4% of adults with no chronic conditions.

In addition, more than half of adults with both a physical and mental health condition (56.3%) reported delaying or avoiding healthcare due to the pandemic. About 43% of this group also reported delayed or forgoing multiple types of care.

The impacts of delaying or avoiding care were acutely felt by those with chronic conditions, the report shows. An estimated 23.2% of these adults reported that going without or delaying care worsened a health condition, 21% said it limited their ability to perform daily activities and 15.2% said it limited their ability to work.

Further, the report shows the kinds of care that Americans were avoiding. Dental care was the most common type of care adults delayed or did not receive because of the pandemic (25.3%), followed by seeing a general doctor or specialist (20.6%) and receiving preventive health screenings or medical tests (15.5%).

“Tackling unmet healthcare needs requires effectively assuaging fears about exposure to the coronavirus,” report authors concluded. Providers need to reassure patients that they are following public health guidelines and that these precautions can effectively prevent virus transmission.

“More data showing healthcare settings are not common sources of transmission and better communication with the public to promote the importance of seeking needed and routine care are also needed,” the authors wrote.

Photo: YinYang, Getty Images

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Monday, 22 February, marks the official start date of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Australia as more than 142,000 Pfizer vaccines touched down at Sydney Airport – an endeavour that has been dubbed Australia’s biggest peacetime operation.

The shipment, delivered by Singapore Airlines cargo, is the first of 20 million doses that the Government has secured as part of the COVID-19 Vaccine and Treatment Strategy.

“It was March the 11th last year that the pandemic was declared and now on Aussie soil we have the Pfizer vaccine and it’s ready to go,” Pfizer’s Medical Director Krishan Thiru told the Today show this morning.

“Our focus is on delivering the vaccine to the points of use where the Government asks us to deliver them. That’s what we’re focused on and that’s what we’ll do.”

The vaccine rollout is due to begin next week with the first Australians to begin receiving the vaccine from 22 February.

“The vaccine has landed and we’re stepping up our fight against the pandemic,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

“Once the final safety checks are completed we can start rolling out the vaccine to our most vulnerable Australians and to our frontline border and health workers.

“The hard work of Australians has meant we’re in an enviable position in our fight against the pandemic, so we’ve been able to take the time to properly assess our vaccine decisions and give our world-class regulator the time they need to review the safety of the jabs.

“While we’re taking the time to get the rollout right, I am confident all Australians who wish to be vaccinated against COVID-19 will receive a vaccine this year.”

Who gets first dibs on the vaccine?

As part of the ‘Phase 1a’ vaccine rollout, 80,000 doses will be administered in the first week. 50,000 doses have been allocated to quarantine and border workers and frontline healthcare workers, while 30,000 are reserved for aged care and disability care staff and residents. 62,000 will be set aside for second doses which will be given 21 days after the first dose.

Supplied: Australian Government

The Government’s goal is to eventually deliver 150,000 jabs per day and have the entire adult population vaccinated by late October.

The vaccine will be administered in hospital ‘hubs’ across Australia as well as in residential aged care and disability facilities.

How will the vaccine be stored?

Logistics company DHL has stepped in to tackle the complex task of getting the vaccine to Australians around the country.

The company will employ a network of 200 portable ultra-low-temperature freezers to ensure the vaccine, which needs to be stored at minus 70 degrees, can be delivered safely.

Dr Thiru said the vaccines had been shipped to Australia on specially-designed thermal shippers and were kept in refrigerated containers.

“Our company has a rich heritage in cold chain vaccine storage and distribution. We’ve so far got a 99.9% success rate from delivering the vaccines from the factory door to where they’re used with the quality and integrity interact,” he said.

Will the vaccine stop virus transmission?

Although the vaccine is designed to protect against COVID-19 and its variants, it is too early to tell if it will stop the transmission of the virus.

“You’d need to see a larger proportion of the population vaccinated before you can tell whether it’s going to stop transmission or not and whether you’re going to see a downturn in the rates,” Dr Thiru said.

He explained that laboratory testing results were promising and indicated that the vaccine could be effective against some of the newer COVID-19 strains including the UK, South African, and Brazilian variants.

“If sometime in the future it becomes apparent it’s not effective, you can easily tweak the formula for the vaccine.”

Why has the vaccine rollout taken so long?

When asked why Australia has been slower than other countries in the vaccination rollout, Dr Thiru explained that “every country’s situation is different.” A vaccine, he said, could not start production until it was given the go-ahead by certain authorities.

“Vaccinations can’t start until the vaccine has been fully and thoroughly evaluated by the independent regulatory agency and approved,” he said.

“The TGA is one of the world’s most respected agencies. They get a full evaluation.

“They didn’t have that emergency situation we’ve seen in some other countries.”

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is conducting batch tests on the first of the Pfizer vaccine arrivals to ensure they meet quality standards before they are deployed next week.

“Australians can be reassured this vaccine has gone through rigorous, independent testing by the Therapeutic Goods Administration to ensure it is safe, effective, and manufactured to a high standard,” Minister for Health and Aged Care Greg Hunt said.

“These vaccines will now go through further batch testing to further check for quality and efficacy, ensuring all Australians have confidence in the vaccines they receive.”

Why did Pfizer get first preference?

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is the first to be provisionally approved for use in Australia by the TGA with a 95% efficacy score from a clinical trial last year.

Despite the promising results, there have been ongoing concerns over the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.

33 Norwegian officials aged 75 and older died a short time after receiving the Pfizer vaccine in mid-January and other countries have since reported further deaths and side effects.

A World Health Organization (WHO) committee said this was “in line with the expected, all-cause mortality rates and causes of death in the sub-population of frail, elderly individuals” and that the risk-benefit balance of the vaccine “remains favourable in the elderly.”

The TGA said that, although no concrete link has been established between the deaths and the vaccine, it would work with international authorities and Pfizer to get more information.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Brendan Murphy told Nine News that he was not unduly concerned about the Pfizer vaccine rollout, which he says is part of a “diversified vaccine strategy.”

“That’s why we’ve bought more than one vaccine and I still think the Pfizer vaccine will be okay but we just have to wait and see,” he said.

In addition to the Pfizer vaccine, Australia has approved 53.8 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses and 51 million Novavax vaccine doses.

The Government has also signed up to the international COVAX Facility which provides access to a range of vaccines to immunise up to 50 per cent of the Australian population.

The full press release for the vaccine rollout can be found here.


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Paula Soteropoulos

Gene therapy may offer potential cures, but its promise comes with a price. Some experimental approaches require a multi-step process to prepare stem cells for the procedure—a burden to a patient and to the healthcare system, according to Paula Soteropoulos, executive chair of startup Ensoma.

Soteropoulos’s company is proposing an alternative. The Boston-based biotech is developing technology that won’t require hospitalization in a specialized medical center. Furthermore, the Ensoma technology does its therapeutic work in vivo—inside the patient. These features could make genomic medicine more accessible, turning a lengthy hospital process into a single visit to a doctor’s office.

“Our hope with our technology is to be able to do it outpatient,” Soteropoulos said. “It’s an injection that can be done anywhere, it doesn’t require specialized centers.”

Ensoma emerged last week with details about its technology and $70 million in Series A financing. The company also revealed something unusual for a preclinical startup coming out of stealth: a research partnership with a large pharmaceutical company. Takeda Pharmaceutical is collaborating with Ensoma on up to five disease targets.

Soteropoulos, the former CEO of rare-disease drug developer Akcea Therapeutics, said Takeda and others that want to be in gene therapy are looking for in vivo innovations. Ex vivo approaches, in which a patient’s cells are removed and manipulated in a lab before being reintroduced, pose complexities and challenges for companies trying to commercialize them and to healthcare facilities that will provide them, she said.

Gene therapies reach target cells as cargo carried on engineered viruses. But these viruses come with limitations. Adeno-associated virus (AAV), a commonly used vector, can trigger an immune response. AAV also has limited capacity, which makes it hard to deliver a therapy consisting of a larger gene.

An alternative vector, lentivirus, has more capacity but is still limited in its ability to carry a big payload. This approach requires collecting a patient’s stem cells and engineering them outside the body. Before the stem cells are reintroduced, patients must undergo conditioning, comprised of chemotherapy. This step helps the stem cells carrying a therapeutic gene to be taken up by bone marrow, where they will proliferate. But conditioning can lead to side effects such as greater susceptibility to infection and bleeding. Avrobio and bluebird bio are among the biotechs developing lentiviral stem cell gene therapies that require patient  conditioning.

Soteropoulos describes Ensoma’s engineered adenoviruses as “gutless.” On the inside, they’re stripped of viral DNA or RNA that could trigger an immune response. On the outside, the viruses are engineered to specifically target hematopateic stem cells in the bone marrow. They can also target the cells that arise from these stem cells, such as T cells, B cells, and myeloid cells.

There’s another benefit to Ensoma’s gutless viruses. Removing their DNA or RNA creates more room for the genetic payload—more than three times as much as what the viruses used to deliver the current generation of gene therapies can carry. With that extra space, Ensoma’s vectors can carry larger genes as well as gene-editing tools, such as CRISPR or zinc finger nucleases.

“It allows us to do things that other gene therapies cannot,” Soteropoulos said.

Ensoma’s science is based on 20 years of research from the company’s scientific co-founders, Hans-Peter Kiem of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and André Lieber of the University of Washington School of Medicine. In the past five years, that research started forming the foundations of a company. In 2017, the scientists published research showing how their cells were taken up by the bone marrow in a monkey study. Last year, they published study results showing how their approach corrected two genetic disorders, beta thalassemia and sickle cell disease, in mice.

Ensoma was founded about 18 months ago, backed by seed financing from 5AM Ventures, Soteropoulos said. The startup licensed technology from Fred Hutch and UW, then added to the research, building on the intellectual property surrounding it. She said the research reached the point where additional financing was needed to support the next step of selecting which diseases to pursue.

Along the way, the startup drew interest from larger companies that had followed the science of its founders, Soteropoulos said. One of those companies was Takeda. In addition to investing in Ensoma’s Series A financing, the Tokyo-based pharmaceutical giant is also a research partner. The collaboration grants Takeda an exclusive global license to Ensoma’s technology for up to five rare diseases. That alliance could lead to up to $100 million in upfront and preclinical research payments to Ensoma. If all five programs reach the market, Ensoma could receive as much as $1.25 billion in milestone payments plus royalties from sales.

The Ensoma technology offers the potential to go beyond rare diseases. Soteropoulos said that the in vivo approach does away with all the complexity of working with a therapy outside of the body, making these therapies simpler to manufacture and easier to administer. She added that the fact that these therapies won’t require conditioning or stem cell donors helps extend the reach of these genetic medicines to common diseases.

Ensoma is pursuing rare diseases first. The technology is new, so regulators will need time to understand it, Soteropoulos said. Takeda and Ensoma aren’t disclosing the disease targets they have in mind and Soteropoulos said it’s too soon to say when the technology will reach human testing. But she added that because Ensoma’s approach holds promise to address many diseases, there are plenty to choose from. The startup may look for other collaborators in the future but in the near term, the company will focus on developing its own therapies in addition to working with Takeda.

“There are some rare diseases where there is already validation from being able to make these modifications and cure,” Soteropoulos said. “We would be working off of that for our first indications and then see how we can explore other areas.”

5AM led Ensoma’s Series A financing. Besides Takeda, the new round of funding included the participation of F-Prime Capital, Viking Global Investors, Cormorant Asset Management, RIT Capital Partners, Symbiosis II, and Alexandria Venture Investments.

Photo by Ensoma

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MedCity News will host its annual INVEST conference online, April 19-23. INVEST is a premier international healthcare investing event hosted in partnership with MHIN, a Midwest healthcare investor organization. The conference brings together active investors and promising startups in biopharma, diagnostics, medical devices, health IT, and health services.

INVEST will address six broad themes through a mix of live and pre-recorded sessions:

  • Public Health and Health Equity
  • Healthcare Delivery
  • Healthcare Investing & Financing
  • Empowering Patients
  • Behavioral Health
  • Employer Health

Among the confirmed speakers so far are:

  • Ellen Herlacher, Principal, LRV Health
  • Dennis Depenbusch, Director, New Ventures, BCBS Kansas
  • Austin Duke, Senior Venture Associate, UnityPoint Health Ventures
  • Christina Farr, Principal, OMERS Ventures
  • Ami Bhatt, MD, Director, Outpatient/TeleCardiology & Adult Congenital Heart Disease Program, Massachusetts General Hospital
  • Harsh Vathsangam, PhD, co-founder and CEO, Moving Analytics
  • Kevin Dedner, Founder and CEO, Hurdle
  • M Daniele Fallin, PhD, Chair, Department of Mental Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
  • Morgan Cheatham, Investor, Bessemer Venture Partners
  • Tina Hernandez-Boussard, PhD, Associate Professor of Biomedical Informatics and Surgery, Stanford University School of Medicine
  • Sahil Choudhry, Managing Director, Cigna Ventures & Strategy

Click here to register now


Pitch Perfect Startup Competition

As in previous years, promising startups will get the opportunity to present to investors directly as part of the INVEST Pitch Perfect competition. In order to apply to get selected, startups must fulfill one of the following criteria:

  • Have raised at least $1 million, or
  • Have raised a Series A round, or
  • Have one qualified institutional investor or a strategic investor that they can name

There is no application fee. The deadline for submissions is Feb 28, so please click here to apply now.

Ask the Investor

One new feature of the conference will be intimate sessions to give startups an overview of investment strategies for leading healthcare investors and provide them the opportunity to engage in a Q&A with them. Each session will feature one investor who will outline his or her investment philosophy and area of interest, and 10 startups will be able to participate. Startups who choose to register for this session will be asked to provide company and contact information that will be shared with the presenting investor to facilitate interaction after the session.

Space is limited to 10 startups per meeting. Please register here.

If you are a VC or corporate investor and want to be considered for a judging role, or you’d like to speak on one of our panels at the event, please click here.

To learn about sponsorship opportunities, contact Stephanie Baum, Director of Special Projects, at sbaum@medcitynews.com or email the sales team at advertising@medcitynews.com.

For general information about the conference, contact Laura Kittredge, Director of Events at lkittredge@medcitynews.com.

Illustration: DrAfter123, Getty Images

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Building small businesses, institutional relationships and creating more home ownership leads to a ‘thriving community,’ says Isaac Olowolafe Jr.

Postmedia may earn an affiliate commission from purchases made through our links on this page.

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When Isaac Olowolafe Jr. was 15, his family moved from Toronto to nearby Woodbridge, Ont., where he recalls seeing what a tight-knit community could build: thriving small businesses, widespread home ownership, institutional relationships and the accumulation of wealth.

By the time he embarked on an economics degree at the University of Toronto a few years later, the now 37-year-old businessman says, he was already set on bringing that formula to the Black community.

“Since then, I’ve been sort of planting the seeds to do what I can from an economic (point of) view,” said Olowolafe Jr., founder of Dream Maker Ventures, a venture capital and real estate company that focuses on startups led by diverse founders.

Olowolafe Jr. is one of a number of Black business leaders who are bringing their expertise to the BlackNorth Initiative, a group founded by Bay Street veteran Wes Hall that is seeking to use the power of business to end anti-Black systemic racism in Canada.

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Olowolafe Jr. is head of the group’s housing committee, and is also championing entrepreneurship through plans for a Black Business Development Hub.

“The Hub will be the centrepiece and physical space which the Black community can leverage to increase access to institutional relationships like banks and universities and government,” Olowolafe told the Financial Post in a recent interview.

The project is a twist on a plan that was already under way when he was recruited to join BlackNorth.

The mixed-use development near Toronto’s main airport will feature more than a dozen working rooms, hotel and event space, and a commercial kitchen — all of which will be used to incubate and develop Black-owned businesses.

Now a partnership between BlackNorth, the Dream Legacy Foundation and Ryerson DMZ, the plan is to raise $10 million in funding to expand the hub from 13,000 square feet to 30,000 square feet, Olowolafe Jr. said.

He says he hopes the business hub will open this summer and ultimately be able to provide services to more than 100 Black entrepreneurs.

Encouraging entrepreneurship through the hub will lead to more successful small businesses and help build institutional relationships, such as with banks, he said. This, in turn, will generate more income and opportunity for home ownership, a pillar of wealth creation.

“Home ownership leads to other ripple effects (that help individuals and communities) over a long period of time,” he said.

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To that end, the BlackNorth Initiative’s housing committee is embarking on an effort to create a $65-million fund to provide bridge financing to bring up to 200 working, lower-income Black and racialized families into the homeownership game.

The committee is in talks with all three levels of government about contributing to the home ownership bridge program. A handful of well-known developers including Tridel, KingSett, DiamondCorp, and The Daniels Corp. and other potential donors have also been approached.

“They’ve all raised their hands to say: ‘How can we help and support and give to this housing initiative?’” Olowolafe said of the developers. “I think that that is a great sign.”

Home ownership leads to other ripple effects (that help individuals and communities) over a long period of time

Isaac Olowolafe Jr.

The idea behind the BlackNorth Initiative’s homeownership bridge program is that prospective home buyers would be assessed for mortgages based on the usual criteria of income and assets, with the difference between the mortgage they qualify for and how much credit they need to buy a home “bridged” by a pooled fund.

The bridge financing would, in some ways, be treated as a second mortgage. When repaid by the homeowner, either after the regular mortgage was paid down or when the home is sold, the money would go back into the pool. The homeowner and the pool would share in any gains on the home’s value when sold, with the ratio determined based on how much of the bridge financing the homeowner had paid down.

The intention is to keep the fund rolling, in order to get more people into homes, Olowolafe Jr. said, noting that even if the homeowner were just able to get their own money out of the home it would be more equity than they would have accrued over the same years renting a home.

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While Olowolafe is a supporter of initiatives undertaken by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to get more Canadians into affordable housing, he stands firm on the idea that ownership — not rental options — will be the key to greater success for the Black community.

“I’ve always known that for the Black community as a whole to be able to be an economic leader there were some major things we needed: institutional relationships, building small businesses, and creating more home ownership,” he said.

“All that leads to a thriving community.”

Financial Post

• Email: bshecter@nationalpost.com | Twitter:

In-depth reporting on the innovation economy from The Logic, brought to you in partnership with the Financial Post.

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Humana and IBM Watson Health are collaborating to provide the insurer’s Employer Group members with access to a conversational AI solution.

The solution, called the IBM Watson Assistant for Health Benefits, is an AI-enabled, cloud-based virtual assistant. The AI assistant gives users information about member benefits, coverage, claims, referrals and healthcare cost estimates, said an IBM Watson Health spokeswomen, who declined to be named, in an email.

The solution will be made available to all members of the Louisville, Kentucky-based payer’s Employer Group, which includes 1.3 million medical and 1.8 million dental members.

IBM is not the only tech giant that is using AI chatbot technology to make inroads in healthcare. Microsoft, for example, has been popular among insurers and providers alike, launching triage chatbots and other AI technology. For IBM, it also affords the chance to prove its value in offering AI services dedicated to healthcare — it stumbled in 2017 in its loftier vision to use the technology to one day revolutionize cancer care and more recently in 2019 when it abandoned the AI product meant to speed up drug discovery.

But Humana believes that IBM Watson Health’s AI assistant will provide several benefits to health plan members, said a spokesman for the insurer, who declined to be named, in an email. Specifically, it will provide personalized answers to questions from members.

“Customers want us to make it easy, meet on their terms, and save them time,” he said. “The Watson [Assistant for Health Benefits] offers immediate answers to the majority of customer questions without [them] having to call in for help.”

In addition, the solution can aid in the move toward price transparency, which is now a part of federal regulations for insurers. Beginning Jan. 1, 2023, insurers must disclose negotiated rates and provide estimates of patient out-of-pocket costs for 500 services and items per a federal rule finalized in October. Payers must make that information publicly available for all items and services starting Jan. 1, 2024.

The IBM AI assistant’s cost transparency tool, which uses historical claims and provider data to calculate cost estimates for members, will help the insurer comply with the federal rule.

This is not the first time Humana and Armonk, New York-based IBM Watson Health have partnered on AI technology. The companies developed the Provider Services Conversational Voice Agent with Watson, which was made available to healthcare providers in 2019.

“Given the success, both parties see considerable value in investing in the co-creation of a new, cloud-native, healthcare-specific product,” said the Humana spokesman. “IBM has the technical experience to optimize the AI platform and Humana has the business expertise to bring forward the desired customer experiences.”

The collaboration between the payer and technology company is coming as the use of AI chatbots is soaring.

Though interest in AI-powered digital assistants was growing prior to 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated its use. Companies, like chatbot and voice bot company Syllable, found themselves overwhelmed by demand, and health systems like Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and Springfield, Illinois-based Memorial Health System quickly developed and deployed the technology.

AI-powered chatbot use is expected to grow and continue to shape healthcare in 2021.

Photo: Gerasimov174, Getty Images

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Digital health startup Sharecare plans to go public through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company. Photo credit: Sharecare

Digital health startup Sharecare confirmed reports that it plans to go public through a merger with a blank-check company. The Atlanta-based startup plans to merge with a special-purpose acquisition company created by Alan Mnuchin, CEO of Falcon Capital and brother of former Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

The deal would value Sharecare at $3.9 billion and add $400 million to its balance sheet. It plans to use the funds to  grow its business, build out its salesforce, and help pay for its recent acquisition of healthcare artificial intelligence startup Doc.AI.

Sharecare was founded in 2012 WebMD creator Jeff Arnold and TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz. Started as a health and wellness social media platform, the company later began working with heath plans with its acquisition of Healthways’ population health services business in 2016. It has raised $450 million in funding to date.

“We started Sharecare to leverage innovations in consumer technology – specifically the smartphone – to create a frictionless experience that engages people across the dynamic continuum of their healthcare needs,” Arnold said in a news release. “By integrating fragmented point solutions and bringing together stakeholders across the healthcare ecosystem into one connected virtual care platform, we believe that Sharecare is uniquely positioned to transform the way people access, providers deliver, and employers and health plans administer high quality, cost efficient healthcare.”

Blank-check company Falcon Capital Acquisition Corp. will bring $345 million of cash held in a trust to the deal. Private investors including Koch Strategic Platforms, Baron Capital Group, Eldridge, Woodline Partners LP and Digital Alpha will contribute $425 million in a private investment in public equity (PIPE).

Anthem will also make a direct investment into Sharecare for an undisclosed amount after its chief digital officer, Rajeev Ronanki, recently joined Sharecare’s board of directors. 

“Through this relationship, we will leverage human-centered design and digital technologies, including artificial intelligence, that increase consumer engagement, deliver more affordable healthcare, and achieve better health outcomes through services such as next generation personalized healthcare concierge and advocacy services,” Ronanki said in a news release.

After the acquisition closes, Falcon will own roughly 20% of the company. Mnuchin and Jeff Sagansky, an independent director of Falcon, will join Sharecare’s board.

Sharecare has a hodgepodge of features, from pharmacy discount cards to a smoking cessation app to a tool that’s supposed to detect a user’s stress levels from listening to their voice. So far, the lion’s share of the company’s business is  its work with health plans, which are expected to bring in more than half of its revenue for 2021, an estimated $227 million, according to the company’s investor presentation.

For example, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Arizona began offering the app to its members last year, including rewarding them for tracking their steps. Users are also instructed to answer a lengthy survey for suggestions to improve their health. Some of Sharecare’s other customers include Anthem, Centene, Humana, Walmart and StateFarm.

Another portion of the Sharecare’s business is focused on offering solutions to payers and clinicians, which brought in roughly $80 million last year. For example, it acquired claims review company WhiteHatAI last year, and it also acquired medical records company BACTES, which it rebranded as Sharecare Health Data Services.

Sharecare also has an advertising business, which brought in roughly $56 million last year. Controversially, that included sponsored health advice in Q&As; the company offers condition-specific marketing to pharmaceutical companies and touts its “real-time health profiling engine” in investor slides. But it cannot target ads to users who access the app through their insurance, only those who download it for free, according to its privacy policy.

In the last three years, Sharecare’s revenue has declined slightly, from $347 million in 2017 to $340 million in 2019. Its expected revenue for 2020 is $330 million, with the company attributing the decrease to reduced physician visits and fewer visits at its in-person diabetes clinics, according to an investor presentation.

It reported a $40 million net loss in 2019, compared to a $55 million net loss in 2018.

Still, the company said it expects to bring in $512 million in revenue in 2022, and has “multiple paths” to more than $1 billion in medium-term revenue.

The deal is expected to close next quarter, with Sharecare trading on Nasdaq under the ticker “SHCR.”

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The Covid-19 pandemic spurred the use of technology, but with growing use comes new challenges.

Southfield, Michigan-based Beaumont Health experienced this firsthand at the end of January, when an unknown user took advantage of an Epic scheduling tool vulnerability. But the incident served as a teachable moment, with the system quickly working to safeguard its vaccine scheduling process, said Beaumont Health Chief Information Officer Hans Keil in a phone interview.

The user publicly shared a link to the scheduling module for the clinic providing Covid-19 vaccines. This allowed 2,700 people to register for an unauthorized vaccine appointment, all of which had to be canceled.

Keil believes that the high level of demand for Covid-19 vaccine is what ultimately led to this incident.

“We had challenges with demand,” he said. “We had to triple our server capacity to be able to support the public and their high interest in getting vaccinated.”

When the vaccine rollout began, Beaumont was leveraging technology already available via its Epic EHR system. It had previously used this technology to schedule influenza vaccinations and conduct serology testing last April.

But the Epic system did not have the ability to send out randomized invitations for vaccinations, Keil said. It was important for the health system to be able to randomize that process to ensure it was administering the vaccine equitably. So, Beaumont set up that capability themselves and improved its server capacity to field the high level of demand. But that still left a gap in the process within the Epic EHR.

The vaccination scheduling process was running smoothly until the unknown user found a way to exploit that gap, short-circuit the registration and go straight to the scheduling tool, Keil said.

It was a sudden spike in traffic that alerted the health system’s IT team to the breach. The health system shut down its Covid-19 vaccination registration and scheduling services, for close to 24 hours.

Now that nearly two weeks have passed since the incident was discovered and addressed, Beaumont is focused on preventing this from happening again.

In the short term, the health system is monitoring its IT traffic and making sure every pathway coming through is legitimate, said Keil.

In addition, Epic now offers the capability to randomize vaccination invitations within their EHR. Going forward, the health system will use that capability as well as other enhancements that Epic has made to make sure it is “one individual, one ticket, one opportunity to schedule,” said Keil.

Keil does not envision any further IT issues arising in scheduling upcoming Covid-19 vaccinations. But high demand remains a concern.

“We just need to make sure that we maintain the integrity of this process and we be as fair as possible,” he said. “These tools, these platforms were never meant for this kind of demand. Epic didn’t think about that way, we didn’t think about it that way. But it’s different now.”

In some ways, the pandemic has sharpened the focus of the health system’s IT team.

Beyond the rollout, Keil and his team are thinking about how to help get the system’s surgery volumes up to help with financial recovery. This will include creating end-to-end experiences around surgery services and increasing the level of digital engagement among patients.

“You can get spread thin on lots of priorities,” Keil said. “This [public health crisis] makes it a lot more crystal clear as to what’s most important…to make a difference for the experience of patients and the financial health of the system.”

Photo: bsd555, Getty Images

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Canadians would invest in better alternatives if they could

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The Canadian love affair with homeownership continues despite the pandemic-mandated lockdown in many parts of the country, with year-over-year sales volume and housing prices in the Greater Toronto Area rising 50 per cent and 15.5 per cent, respectively, in January.

That sales and prices grew at rates significantly higher than during comparable periods before the pandemic reveals how much Canadians value investing in housing.

As a result, forecasts of a double-digit drop in housing prices have grudgingly given way to optimistic outlooks. The Toronto Regional Real Estate Board is predicting that the average home price in Toronto will for the first time cross the $1-million mark during 2021.

The gold rush in housing is not just confined to the biggest urban regions. Smaller towns such as London, Ont., are also witnessing unprecedented demand. Housing prices there rose in January by more than $50,000, an increase of 9.4 per cent in just a month.

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But some pundits believe this sustained love of real estate spells trouble for the economy and may pose significant financial risks to the households.

“We’ve resumed, after a brief cooldown, plowing a ridiculous amount of money into assets that do nothing to improve the country’s ability to generate wealth,” Financial Post columnist Kevin Carmichael recently wrote, adding that instead of investing in digital technology, like the rest of the smart world, Canada is investing in housing.

Furthermore, such high growth rates in housing prices are not sustainable. Yet households are not dissuaded by the possibility of overpaying for an asset that may stop appreciating or lose value in the future.

The increased investment in housing is neither accidental nor speculative. Canadian households are responding to incentives by investing in sectors of the economy that allow them high leverage. Canadians can borrow millions to invest in housing by putting down just 20 per cent of a dwelling’s purchase price. First-time homebuyers can borrow up to 95 per cent of the price.

Both borrowers and lenders feel encouraged to be part of the market as housing prices have steadily risen over the past few decades, but what is the alternative to investing so much in housing? Should Canadians invest less by buying cheaper (smaller) properties or forgo homeownership altogether and adopt the renter-for-life model?

A quick look at the demographics reveals that the average household income of renters lags far behind homeowners. Furthermore, the forced savings of homeownership accumulate as equity that provides an additional cushion at retirement. The lure to be a stakeholder in the housing market is, therefore, too strong to ignore.

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Perhaps the reason why predictions of a housing market decline have failed to materialize is that the pundits have underestimated the innate desire for homeownership.

Housing prices and sales have accelerated even during the pandemic in and around Canada’s populous urban centres, where immigrants are the dominant population growth source. To expect that immigrants would travel thousands of miles to be renters for life is likely one assumption that has misdirected housing market forecasters.

Furthermore, research has demonstrated that investing in housing enables immigrants to close the wealth gap with the Canadian-born population in a span of only 17 years.

To present the decision to either invest in housing or technology as a binary choice is also not practical. Households are familiar with the housing markets, since they are already invested in the market as either owners or renters. But housing is not merely an investment: households consume shelter. The same cannot be said of investing in tech stocks, sometimes listed on exchanges located in distant lands.

Before the Great Recession in 2008, financial institutions would cold call Canadians inviting them to invest in registered retirement savings plans (RRSPs). They would mail brochures about the gravity-defying growth of investment vehicles with charts depicting lines only heading upwards.

But the Great Recession wiped out trillions of dollars of investments and swept away the confidence that retail investors had in stock markets. Since 2008, the cold calls have all but stopped.

It is due to this lack of better alternatives that Canadians have turned en masse to housing. They would invest in better alternatives if such existed, but until then they will likely continue to seek the shelter and financial safety of housing.

Murtaza Haider is a professor at Ryerson University. Stephen Moranis is a real estate industry veteran. They can be reached at info@hmbulletin.com.

In-depth reporting on the innovation economy from The Logic, brought to you in partnership with the Financial Post.

Comments

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