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An app with every drug?
UK healthtech star Huma in deal with AstraZeneca
Big news this morning from Huma, one of Europe’s fastest growing healthtech businesses. The UK-based digital medicine startup, which specialises in the use of smartphones for patient monitoring, has announced a partnership with the drugs giant AstraZeneca.
The press release announcing the deal says the partnership will “scale innovation for digital health” and the two companies will launch “Software as a Medical Device (SaMD) companion apps targeted at several therapeutic areas and will partner to help accelerate adoption of decentralized clinical trials.” All a little opaque, so I got on the phone with Huma’s founder and CEO Dan Vahdat to try to get a better understanding.
Dan, who I first met when I came to film a project about Parkinson’s when the company was known as Medopad, was buzzing with excitement. “This is our biggest day,” he told me.
Huma’s workforce has almost doubled to 300 over the last 18 months and it’s supplying smartphone apps, which for instance monitor the condition of heart patients before surgery, to more than 3,000 hospitals in the UK, Europe and the Middle East.
Now its partnership with AstraZeneca, which was investing heavily in digital health, would move both companies to a different level. He said AstraZeneca, with its recent history of developing a Covid-19 vaccine and offering it on a non-profit basis, was an ideal partner: “They prioritise patients over profit, “he said, “and they're super committed to do that across every therapeutics by pushing and driving tools like digital that are not expensive. They're accessible to everybody.”
So what might they do together? He gave as an example helping patients with severe asthma: “We're going to make sure that hopefully one day almost every patient that has severe asthma will benefit from a digital tool that tells them what to do, when to do it,” he explained. “How to make sure that they have less attacks, make sure they get the right dosage, and they're more productive, so they suffer less and they can manage the disease better.”
Apps could also help in research into various conditions and in monitoring people involved in clinical trials. Did that mean, I asked, that from now on there would be an app for every drug?
“I think there will be a pattern that, for every disease that you might have, there will be an application to help you to go through that disease. And that application might be treatment or drug agnostic, or it might have some links to the drug itself.”
Dan Vahdat also revealed that the deal involved the pharmaceutical giant taking a stake in Huma, which was said last year to be on the verge of hitting the $1 billion valuation which would give it unicorn status. No details yet on the size of the stake or what AstraZeneca has paid for it.
Dan told me this was a big day not just for the two companies but for the wider healthcare sector: “This is the beginning of a movement to make sure that ‘digital first’ delivery of care and research is top of the agenda of every executive of every life science pharma company, but more importantly healthcare system.”
One intriguing question about this partnership - and about the whole smartphone revolution sweeping through healthcare - is who owns the vast amount of data generated by all these apps, and who profits from it. Is it the companies, the hospitals or the patients?
Huma is still a tiny company and may end up being swallowed by the Anglo-Swedish giant to which it may appear as little more than a tasty snack. But its success is a gratifying sign that the UK remains a great place to build the healthcare businesses of the future.