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In a COVID-impacted world where video communication is the new norm, Vpply is connecting job seekers with companies through a unique video-based job application experience that minimises the need for lengthy CVs and cover letters.

Vpply is a video job platform that allows job seekers to record and upload short videos, providing applicants with the chance to showcase character and people skills.

“The application process starts with a simple job search with filters which will take you to a list of job opportunities on Vpply,” CEO and co-founder Tom Lipczynski told Dynamic Business.

“From there, jobseekers can browse and select jobs they wish to apply for and simply record or upload a pre-recorded video introducing themselves and their interest in the job application.

“After reviewing their application, they can add in their career history and ‘Vpply’ (apply with video).”

The company says employers will also benefit from Vpply’s technology by having a shortened recruitment process and more consistent scheduling of interviews.

It starts with a vision

Vpply co-founders Alex Perry, Tom Lipczynski and James Farrell | Image credit: Tom Lipczynski (supplied)

Co-founders Tom Lipczynski, James Farrell and Alex Perry launched Vpply in July 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic with a mission to decrease the mass unemployment being caused.

Tom, who has prior experience working with search giants Indeed and Adzuna, met Alex at a stockbroking firm in 2014. In 2019, James joined the duo and the three of them bonded over their shared business background and passion for video.

Related: 3 mind hacks to help you build your dream business

The founders say the technology behind Vpply was spurred by a lack of human connection in job search and a growing demand for video-based technologies and applications such as Zoom and Google Meet.

Studies show that video now accounts for more than 80% of all online traffic and is 1,200% more likely to be shared online than text or images.

“The shift to video as an everyday tool is already here accelerated by the global pandemic,” Mr Lipczynski said.

“I see video as an important tool for the future and wanted it as the core of Vpply. I was also looking for a new challenge with an idea that is fresh and exciting.”

The sectors on board

In January 2021, Vpply listed more than 6,000 jobs in industries including hospitality, retail, administration, recruitment, sales and marketing and is currently expanding.

The platform gained over 2,000 unique users in January alone, most of them between 24-34 years old – an age group that Mr Lipczynski says “suffered the most” as a result of the recession.

Related: Women and young adults among those hit hardest by COVID-19, Queensland survey finds

Even though the overall unemployment rate in Australia dropped down to 6.4 per cent in January this year, it increased to 13.9 per cent for young people at the same time.

“In October, employment among Australian youth 15-24 was 4.4 per cent below its level in March and represents the largest drop of any age group,” Mr Lipczynski said.

“As the unemployment of Australian youth has been the most impacted during COVID-19, Vpply’s platform has been most adapted and used by these age groups, showing a demand for jobs and more innovative ways to apply.”

What about CVs and cover letters?

Mr Lipczynski says job search companies that use mostly traditional application methods “may employ wrong culture fit” due to the restrictive nature of CVs. Vpply’s aim, however, is not to eliminate CVs and cover letters but to have video application as the first step towards recruitment.

“Various jobseekers have worked very hard on their career history and have amazing CVs, so we do not want to take away from showcasing those achievements.

“It is however the same jobseekers that are finding it very hard to get a foot in the door, even to gain experience in unpaid internships, so Vpply is an option to try a different method to get hired.”

The company says it will work with various associations to provide fair solutions and experiences for job seekers and employers, but it is ultimately up to the hiring party to choose an individual based on their CV/video, video interview and/or face to face interview.

An ‘opportunity for innovation

For the Vpply team, 2021 is all about research and development. The company says its aim is to improve the jobseeker experience while finding new ways to scale and generate revenue streams – especially in areas like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

“We are sitting on a unique product in the market with the opportunity for innovation and using various forms of AI,” Mr Lipczynski said.

Related: Let’s Talk: Automation – To be or not to be for your business?

Vpply currently integrates with Seek-owned JobAdder and is working with partners that will allow automatic postings in Australia and New Zealand.

“AI in video can pick up on so many pieces of information that cannot be gathered from CVs and this will be the new trend in the next few years – from simple cues such as lighting and length of application time,” Mr Lipczynski explained.

“Machine learning can be applied to tone, body language and various other points that Vpply will work with jobseekers to give them a larger chance of success in landing their dream job.”

Tom’s tips for a top video application

Mr Lipczynski says job seekers should be confident and willing to showcase their unique personalities while being mindful of factors such as lighting, audio and talking pace in their video applications.

“Although videos allow for greater creativity and range in applications, it is important for jobseekers to remember that they are part of a formal application process. Therefore, looking presentable and keeping videos at a considerable length – recommended 30 seconds to one minute – are all tips to filming a great application.

“The beauty of Vpply is that we allow retakes. However, the first take is often the best – so best not to overthink!”


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AppliedVR’s program includes a feature for users to go through guided breathing exercises, which are visualized in a 3-D nature scene. Photo credit: AppliedVR

For the past six years, AppliedVR has been distributing VR headsets to hospitals to see if it could help reduce pain and anxiety during what for many patients can be a stressful experience. Now, the digital health startup is testing its platform to see if it can have a similar effect in a home setting.

The Los Angeles-based company shared the results of a pivotal trial showing its VR program was effective in helping people manage chronic lower back pain at home. The results of the randomized controlled trial, published Wednesday in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, showed that users reported a 42% reduction in pain intensity, though the study had certain limitations.

“We were ecstatic with the results we got,” CEO Matthew Stoudt said in a phone interview, adding that he plans to make a submission to the Food and Drug Administration this year.

“Our long-term vision has always been, how do we bring this into the home?” he added. “Ultimately, we are a doctor-prescribed payer-reimbursed model. We’re focused on building a body of evidence.”

Last year, AppliedVR got Breakthrough Device designation from the FDA after publishing results showing early successes in using its program to help people manage fibromyalgia and lower back pain at home. The designation could help accelerate the company’s pathway through the FDA and, thanks to a recent regulatory change, could even lead to a short path to Medicare coverage.

The most recent study tested whether the digital program was effective in reducing lower-back pain for people that went through an eight-week program. Unlike some other virtual programs, it’s focused less on physical therapy exercises and more on cognitive-behavioral therapy for pain management.

Called EaseVRx, the self-guided course walks users through pain education and guided breathing exercises with a nature scene that responds to their breathing. For example, wind blowing in the background might calm as a user slows their breath.

“We’re trying to help people acquire key pain management skills, and the way we can enhance learning and encoding of information is to provide rapid biofeedback in an immersive environment,” said Beth Darnall, AppliedVR’s chief science advisor, who co-authored the study.

Separating immersion from intervention
The double-blind study was also designed to answer questions from the FDA on how much of the therapeutic effect was from merely wearing a headset versus interacting with AppliedVR’s program. To test this, the company created a “sham” VR program that consisted of 2-D nature scenes, designed to hold users’ attention but without a specific therapeutic effect.

While the intervention group reported their average pain intensity decreased from 5.1 to 2.9 after eight weeks, the control group saw a more modest decrease, from 5.2 to 4.

“It’s exciting that we substantially exceeded the effect of the sham,” she said.

Participants that used EaseVRx also reported reductions in pain interfering with their activity, sleep, mood and stress levels.

Study limitations
That said, the study still had some significant limitations. An important one: The vast majority of the 179 adults who participated were white, female and college-educated, representing a narrow demographic.

Since the study was not linked to medical care, all data were self-reported, other than participants’ use of the VR headset. Because of this, “…there was no ability to confirm pain diagnoses or analgesic prescription information,” according to the paper.

About 90% of users stuck with the program, which Stoudt attributed to years of work to make the headset easier to use.

In addition to seeking FDA clearance, AppliedVR plans to build a system into the headset that would capture users’ breathing rate, so that no other devices need to be connected for them to receive feedback while going through the program.

“We have a ton of scars on our back from a lot of things we’ve done wrong in terms of sending devices into the home,” he said. “Ease of use is going to be the biggest barrier to ultimate adoption.”

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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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Question mark heap on table concept for confusion,

The MedCity INVEST conference, scheduled for April 19-23, is offering new ways for healthcare startups to connect with investors at the online event. Ask the Investor sessions will provide a way for startups to get insights on investment strategy and to pose questions about funding and more.

Ellen Herlacher Principal, LRV Health, is one of a handful of investors taking part in these sessions. She will be joined by Dennis Depenbusch, Director New Ventures, BCBS Kansas and president of Mid-America Healthcare Investors Network (MHIN) and Austin Duke, Senior Venture Associate, UnityPoint Health Ventures.

Ellen Herlacher, LRVHealth

Although registration to INVEST is free, startups will be asked to pay $99 to participate in Ask the Investor sessions.  Each virtual meeting will include one investor and last for 45 minutes. Following the investor’s presentation on their investment strategy and area of interest, startups will be asked to provide a 1-minute company overview. There will be an opportunity for Q&A. Investors will receive executive summaries for each startup with contact information.

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

Herlacher said she decided to participate in the Ask the Investor session in part because the last year has been so tough on entrepreneurs. The lack of in-person meetings in the past year has meant fewer opportunities for them to network and meet potential partners, customer, employees, or investors.

“I can relate because, as an investor, I’ve missed being able to have chance encounters and thoughtful conversations with talented entrepreneurs, too. I’m really looking forward to the Ask the Investor session at INVEST because it will help fill that void a little bit.”

In response to emailed questions, Herlacher noted that LRVHealth is a venture platform that invests exclusively in early stage digital health companies.

“Our investment dollars are 100% strategic, which is to say that our investors are a mix of healthcare systems, payers, and  large healthcare IT vendors. We draw heavily from their perspectives as well as from our collective experiences as healthcare operators to invest in companies that improve the delivery and administration of healthcare and make people healthier.”

Asked what kinds of criteria LRVHealth considers when deciding whether to work with a startup, Herlacher noted that strategic alignment with the investment themes the firm has developed through close counsel with its network, based on their current and future priorities, is the most important consideration.

“On top of that, I also look for thing like quality and aptitude of the team, size of the market and competitive dynamics, business model, and go-to-market strategy.”

Herlacher said healthcare startups should work with LRVHealth because the firm is interested in developing deep and meaningful partnerships that are backed by industry experience and a network of healthcare leaders, decision makers, and buyers.

“We have a track record of success that extends over two decades.”

Photo: bernie_photo, Getty Images

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For decades, scientists have known that viruses can kill cancer cells. The challenge has been harnessing that power safely and effectively.

Buoyed by advances in immunotherapy and drug discovery, a new wave of researchers and companies is poised to make a run at that challenge over the next few years with a class of therapies known as oncolytic viruses.

“We’re just on the brink of some really exciting developments in our field,” said Charlotte Casebourne, CEO of Theolytics. Based in Oxford, England, the company hopes to move its lead oncolytic virus candidate into clinical trials over the next two to three years.

The field is based on a relatively simple premise. A virus is injected into tumor cells; the virus replicates and blows up – or lyses – the tumor cells; the immune system recognizes the remaining tumor cells and clears them out.

The premise was discovered decades ago in patients who came down with viruses alongside cancer. The viruses attacked the cancer but they also could harm patients.

Early research focused on attenuated viruses, which generally proved too weak to do much. Recent advances are solving that challenge while addressing new ones, such as preventing the immune system from turning on the virus.

“Right now, it’s about finding that Goldilocks, that perfect happy medium,” said Greg Delgoffe, a cancer immunologist and associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

The field got a shot in the arm in 2015 when Amgen won approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for an oncolytic virus therapy called T-VEC. Based on a genetically modified herpes simplex virus and marketed as Imlygic, it is used to treat melanomas that cannot be surgically removed.

“We have this example which provides us with really nice clinical proof of concept that efficacy is possible with oncolytic viruses as a technical approach,” Casebourne said in a Zoom interview.

T-VEC, however, is injected directly into a tumor. Some of the newer therapies are designed to be injected intravenously, allowing them to move through the body to clear cancer.

Theolytics’ lead candidate is TheoAd281, an adenovirus-based therapy that targets ovarian cancer. Clinical trials will focus on its safety and efficacy as a monotherapy, delivered intravenously, before delving into its potential in combination with other therapies, Casebourne said.

The company was founded in 2017 by Casebourne and researchers Margaret Duffy, Kerry Fisher and Len Seymour. It raised $6.8 million in a Series A round in early 2021 led by Epidarex Capital and Taiho Ventures, with participation from existing investor Oxford Sciences Innovation.

In addition to Amgen’s approved therapy, the field has benefited from advances in drug discovery and gene sequencing, Casebourne noted. Theolytics uses a proprietary phenotypic platform to figure out which virus variants might be effective against particular tumors, Casebourne said. The platform speeds up the discovery process to between 12 and 18 months, she added.

Valo Therapeutics also is banking on a platform approach. Its platform incorporates peptides to create oncolytic viruses that do not linger in the body after they turn the immune system against tumor cells. Its lead candidate, PeptiCRAd 1, is expected to enter phase 1 trials this year, most likely for treating melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer, according to Paul Higham, CEO of Valo, which is based in Oxford, England.

The use of peptides is based on research by Vincenzo Cerullo, a professor and head of the drug research program at Helsinki University in Finland.

“Because it’s actually a simple process to attach peptides on the surface of the oncolytic virus, we can be extremely flexible in terms of what we attach to the viruses,” Higham said. “We can select all different kinds of peptides to stimulate all different kinds of immune responses.”

Different tumors may require different peptides, he said. “The most effective therapies in the future are going to be those that are most specific to the patient being treated, and our platform really allows to do that.”

Another contender in the space is CG Oncology, based in Irvine, California. In December, the company raised $47 million in a Series D round led by Kissei Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. CG’s main oncolytic virus candidate, CG0070, is being examined in several clinical trials.

A phase 3 trial is testing the candidate as monotherapy for a form of bladder cancer. A phase 2 trial is studying CG0070 for the same indication but in combination with Merck’s Keytruda, a checkpoint inhibitor. The candidate is injected directly into the tumor.

Checkpoint inhibitors release the brakes on the immune system while the oncolytic virus strengthens the immune response, said Arthur Kuan, CG’s CEO. “I think oncolytic viruses will continue to emerge as one of the best combination partners with checkpoint inhibitors.”

The company is planning to move into other cancers this year, Kuan said in a phone interview. He and others expect that future oncologists will have a range of viruses to choose from based on a range of factors, including the type and location of the cancer.

It may be years before therapies win approval, Kuan said. But he believes the oncolytic virus field is coming into its own.

“We’re definitely in a rising-tide environment with many catalysts coming up in the next 12 to 18 months,” he said.

The field’s challenges over the years have made investors somewhat leery, said Dr. Mark McCamish, CEO of San Diego-based IconOVir Bio.

For its part, IconOVir was able to overcome investor skepticism by explaining how the field has overcome some of its earlier challenges, McCamish said. Those challenges have included creating an oncolytic virus that could escape detection by the immune system and confer lasting immunity against a tumor. IconOVir Bio raised $77 million earlier this year in Series A funding to advance its platform for creating oncolytic virus therapies. The platform is based on more than a decade of research by company co-founder Clodagh O’Shea of the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences.

“It’s data-driven. It’s not just a story,” said McCamish, who previously led immune-oncology company Forty Seven before it was bought last year by Gilead Sciences.

IconOVir is hoping to start clinical trials of its lead candidate, IOV-1042, in the first half of 2022. Derived from the common cold virus, IOV-1042 has been shown in preclinical research to infect and kill a range of tumor cells, including head and neck, bladder, lung and breast.

“I think it’s an exciting field and an exciting time,” said McCamish. “And if the science comes to fruition, it’s a great opportunity.”

Photo: Main_sail, Getty Images

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contest, spotlight

Given that we are still practicing physical distancing, the annual MedCity INVEST conference is launching a novel way to facilitate interactions between innovative startups and investors looking for the next new thing. INVEST is scheduled for April 19-23 and will take place virtually.

Called “Ask the Investor” these intimate meetings with healthcare and life science investors throughout the week will provide startups a unique opportunity to connect directly with traditional VCs and Corporate VCs, hear about their investment strategies, and ask questions. Each virtual meeting will feature one investor and last for 45 minutes. Following the investor’s presentation on their investment strategy and area of interest, startups will be asked to provide a 1-minute company overview. There will be an opportunity for Q&A. Investors will receive executive summaries for each startup with contact information. Space is limited to 10 startups per meeting. Please register here

These are the following health tech investors who will present their strategies from their respective perspectives as a traditional VC, payer VC and provider VC and more will be added to INVEST’s agenda page as we confirm speakers:

Ellen Herlacher Principal, LRV Health
Ellen is a healthcare investor with over a decade of experience in investment management, healthcare operations, and corporate strategy. She joined LRVHealth in 2020 and was previously director of Tufts Health Ventures (corporate venture arm of Tufts Health Plan), manager of Emerging Businesses at athenahealth, investment manager at Goldman Sachs, and consultant at Bain & Company. She holds a B.A. from Cornell University and M.B.A. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dennis Depenbusch, Director New Ventures, BCBS Kansas Dennis is responsible for the direction, coordination, evaluation, and management in developing and leading strategic investment for BCBS Kansas. The focus of the initiative is to develop a portfolio of investments that, as a whole, focus on improving the Kansas (and national) healthcare market, enhance the core business of the company and generate revenue. These strategic investments are expected to be integrated into the company as part of its overall long-term strategy. Dennis brings more than 20 years of experience in creating, building and leading high growth enterprises in the United States and abroad. He most recently served as CEO/president of Ulterius Technologies in Wichita. Previously, he was in leadership and board roles for various technology and health-related start-ups in the USA and Europe. He holds two degrees from the University of Kansas: a bachelor’s in business and a master’s in business administration. Depenbusch is the outgoing president of the board of trustees for Bishop Seabury Academy, Lawrence, Chairs the MBA advisory board for KU’s School of Business, and is the current President and Board Member of MHIN.

Austin Duke, Senior Venture Associate, UnityPoint Health Ventures
Austin Duke currently serves as Senior Venture Associate at UnityPoint Health Ventures where he helps lead all investment activities including sourcing, diligence, execution and post-investment support. Austin brings more than 10 years of biomedical research and development experience along with a deep understanding of the opportunities and challenges presented to startup companies.

Prior to joining UnityPoint Health, Austin served as Chief Science Officer at Nexeon MedSystems Inc, where he led scientific, clinical and regulatory activities in support of the development and commercialization of Nexeon’s neurostimulation technology platform. Prior to Nexeon, Austin served as Vice President of Emerging Therapies at Rosellini Scientific and co-founded Nuviant Medical. Austin obtained his PhD in Biomedical Engineering from Vanderbilt University and his B.S. in Biomedical Engineering from North Carolina State University.

More investors within other healthcare sectors will be added soon. Space is limited to 10 startups for each “Ask the Investor” session. Please register here

Photo: Adam Taylor, Getty Images

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Before they ever make a dime, biotech startups incur steep costs to research and develop new therapies.

But despite a business model that relies heavily on upfront capital, biotech is no riskier than other industries, at least as measured through the lens of initial public offerings, or IPOs.

That’s the conclusion of a study published this month in PLOS ONE by a team of researchers at the Center for Integration of Science and Industry at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Biotech firms may not be making money. But they are still generating value, said Dr. Fred Ledley, the center’s director and a professor in the departments of management and natural and applied science at Bentley.

“These companies are creating real value by doing what they do, by advancing the science, by advancing the pipeline, by establishing the foundation on which real, traditional value will be recognized at some point,” Ledley said in a phone interview.

The study examined 319 biotech companies that went public between 1997 and 2016, a period that covers advances in genomics, precision medicine and other fields. The companies were compared to a similarly sized control group of non-biotech companies that went public on the same dates.

The biotechs made fewer sales, lost money and spent more on research and development, the study found. But the stock market did not value them much differently over time.

The market capitalization of biotech companies overall grew by $127 billion during the study period, while the control group’s market cap rose by $133 billion. And the two groups had relatively similar records when it came to producing high-value and low-value companies.

Among biotechs, 134 companies reached a valuation of $1 billion, compared to 129 in the control group. Failures, defined as companies whose market cap fell below $100 million, totaled 45 among biotechs and 41 among non-biotechs.

The non-biotech group, however, did better when it came to delivering net value, defined as a company’s end valuation relative to net capital. Net capital is the total capital raised by a company minus capital returned to shareholders as dividends or stock buybacks. The control group’s net value grew by a combined $411 billion, compared to $93 billion for the biotechs.

The difference reflects the heavier capital requirements of biotech companies, the study said.

Other differences arose in the traditional metrics used to evaluate companies.

Biotech companies generated significantly lower sales, for example. Median annual revenue for biotechs was $10.1 million, compared to $192 million for the control group, according to the study.

The difference could be explained, in part, by the fact that biotech companies with successful products are often bought before they generates significant sales, the study said. Only four biotech companies in the study period reached $1 billion in annual revenue: United Therapeutics, Jazz Pharmaceuticals, Biomarin Pharmaceutical and Horizon Pharma. Only one cracked $500 million, Acorda Therapeutics, according to the study.

Annual R&D spending also was much higher: a median of $32.9 million for biotechs compared to $1.6 million for the control group. In addition, biotechs lost a median $36.2 million per year, versus a median profit of $2.86 million for the control group.

“Together, these data point to the institutionalization of a distinctive business model for public biotechnology companies in which the measure of company success is less likely to be sustained revenues or profits, but rather acquisition,” the study concluded. “In this model, the risk of investment is mitigated both by pursuing multiple product opportunities and through a portfolio that includes some products in later-stage development.”

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

Ask the Investor

Additionally, MedCity News is hosting intimate sessions that will allow startups to understand the investment strategies of leading healthcare investors and give 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.

Confirmed Speakers (more to be added): Ellen Herlacher, Principal, LRV Health

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 January 31, so please click here to apply now.

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.

Picture: Rawpixel, Getty Images

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Digital therapy startup Talkspace plans to go public in a blank-check deal that would value the company at $1.4 billion. The company, founded in 2012 by husband-and-wife team Oren and Roni Frank, lets users text or video chat with therapists.

The company will go public through a merger with a subsidiary of Hudson Executive Capital, the firm founded by former J.P. Morgan CFO Doug Braunstein. It will be listed on Nasdaq under ‘TALK’.

Last year, special-purpose acquisition company Hudson Executive Investment Corp. raised $360 million in an IPO. Private investors also poured $300 million into the deal, including Federated Hermes Kaufmann Funds, Jennison Associates, Woodline Partners and Deerfield.

Talkspace will get $250 million in growth capital after the merger closes. The deal is expected to close in the first or second quarter of 2021.

Here are four takeaways from the company’s IPO plans:

Employers were a big source of growth during the pandemic

Like other mental health startups, Talkspace saw a surge in users during the pandemic. In the last year, it saw the number of cash-paying users increase from 20,000 to 28,000.

But partnerships with companies like Blackstone and Google, and insurers such as Humana and Cigna, have been an even bigger source of business for Talkspace.

“Large employers are aware of the gap in the market that needs to be filled to allow more people to access behavioral health care,” CEO Oren Frank said in an investor presentation on Wednesday.

Companies had started to take notice of the shortage of mental healthcare providers before the pandemic. But the problem became even more pressing in the last year.

This led to a number of companies looking for ways to offer more mental health services—including those provided by Talkspace. In the last year, the company saw the number of covered lives increase from 2 million in the first quarter of last year to 39 million.

Talkspace CFO Mark Hirschhorn said Covid-19 had driven “tremendous unsolicited inbound interest in our commercial offerings.”

The startup forecasts its profit will double

Talkspace appears to enjoy large margins from its text-based therapy business. In 2019, the startup brought in $20 million in profit at a 51% margin, according to a slide shared with investors. For 2020, the company expects $47 million in profit with a 63% margin.

The startup also expects its revenue to nearly double, from $38 million in 2019 to $74 million in 2020.

Talkspace’s users currently pay $65 per week to be able to text a therapist or for audio messaging. For live video, the cost rises to $79 per week.

At the same time, the business model used by on-demand therapy platforms has come under fire as therapists report low pay. Therapists also are required to respond within a certain timeframe, or face docked pay, according to the New York Times.

Data about text-based therapy is limited

Although users have flocked to text-based therapy, it’s not clear whether it’s as effective as talking to a therapist face-to-face.

A small study published in 2015, funded by Talkspace, indicated an improvement in patients’ well being after four months of text therapy. But there is still little peer-reviewed research on the subject.

On one hand, a text-based approach makes therapy available to more people. Frank said more than 60% of the company’s users have never been to any form of therapy before.

On the other hand, a text message misses many important visual cues, such as a person’s body language or expression. From a convenience perspective, however, the model is likely here to stay.

“People will reasonably have a lot of questions. It is disruptive and part of a broader approach to telehealth,” Enrico Picozza, a partner at HLM Venture Partners, wrote in an email. “We were one of the first investors in Teladoc at a time when other investors were running from the company because of many challenges preventing early-adoption.  It was unclear if telehealth would work at that time but we saw the long term potential. Patients as well as physicians need to get comfortable with new technologies and modalities. Once that occurs and reimbursement is clarified, it is off to the races. We see that happening with text-based care in the near future.”

Other mental health startups see growth

Though Talkspace is a well-recognized brand, with celebrity backers like Demi Lovato and Michael Phelps, other therapy startups have seen a boom in activity over the last year. One of its competitors, Lyra Health, recently was valued at $1.1 billion, and has brought on clients including Starbucks and Morgan Stanley in the last year. Ginger, another startup that offers text-based therapy and coaching, also recently raised a large funding round.

Telehealth companies have also seen more patients seeking out therapy. Earlier this year, MDLive said behavioral health visits were its fastest-growing segment.

Photo credit: Microne, Getty Images

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