Shooting for the Moon—Our Extraordinary Moment of Transformation in Healthcare

Unity Stoakes, President and Co-Founder of StartUp Health, believes no goal is too ambitious when it comes to reinventing global health.

If you’ve been focused on the healthcare debate in the Unites States over the past few years, it might seem as though progress in healthcare is all but stagnated. Protecting the gains made by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been a near-constant struggle, and single-payer healthcare often feels like nothing more than a liberal fever dream.

But outside of the political realm, and outside of the United States, healthcare is advancing by leaps and bounds. At a recent What’s Now: New York event, hosted by Reinvent in conjunction with Capgemini (watch the full video here), StartUp Health President Unity Stoakes explained the unique nature of this moment in healthcare.

Just a few years ago, Unity noted, we started to see major mergers and acquisitions in the health space, like the proposed merger of CVS and Aetna. Now we’re increasingly seeing tech companies enter the health space, from Google to Apple to Amazon. Most of (Google parent company) Alphabet’s core products are tied into health in some way, Unity pointed out, and the Apple watch is basically a health device disguised as a fashion device. Amazon recently announced a healthcare initiative in partnership with JP Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway, the details of which are not yet public.

StartUp Health is part VC firm, part accelator, and supports more than 200 companies in 18 countries. StartUp health thinks of these companies as an army for good, Unity says. Since their founding in 2011, their goal has been to achieve 100 years of progress in one-quarter of that time, by bringing together a group of people who think differently and aren’t intimidated by large-scale global challenges.

In order to achieve this progress, StartUp Health has established ten interconnected categories of moonshots—goals that they believe are achievable, even if they aren’t quite sure yet how to achieve them.

10 Health Moonshots

  1. Access to Care Moonshots: Delivering quality care to everyone, regardless of location or income.
  2. Cost to Zero Moonshots: Radically reducing the cost of care by a factor of a million.
  3. Cure Disease Moonshots: Curing disease using data, technologies and personalized medicine.
  4. Cancer Moonshots: Ending cancer as we know it.
  5. Women’s Health Moonshots: Prioritizing women’s health, including preventive care and new research.
  6. Children’s Health Moonshots: Ensuring every child has access to quality care, particularly in underserved areas.
  7. Nutrition & Fitness Moonshots: Providing access to a healthy environment and supporting an active lifestyle.
  8. Brain Health Moonshots: Unlocking the mysteries of the brain to improve health, wellness and mental health.
  9. Happiness & Mental Health Moonshots: Connecting mind, body and spirit in the pursuit of happiness.
  10. Longevity Moonshots: Adding 50 healthy years to every human life.

Many of these moonshots may seem very far off in the future, if not altogether impossible. But Unity and StartUp Health aren’t dissuaded by the challenging nature of these goals. This is a moment of creative destruction in health care, Unity says, in which incumbents are finally being worn down and startups are making more progress more quickly than the general public is aware of.

There were 800 health-related startups funded in 2017, according to Unity, to the tune of $11.5 billion. He believes that the passage of the Affordable Care Act unlocked a logjam, referring to it as the “tipping point that unleased a wave of opportunity.” Four other factors that have brought us to this unique moment in the industry are globalization, the advent of digital health technology, the golden age of health entrepreneurship, and the rising prevalence and cost of chronic disease and aging populations.

The confluence of these five factors and the influx of capital into the space are leading to lowered costs and improved outcomes for every subsector of the industry, Unity says. He compares the current moment in the health space to 1995 in the Internet-era, with the 2015 Fitbit IPO analogous to the 1995 Netscape IPO. What may have looked like false starts over the last decade or so, Unity argues, in many cases represent behind-the-scenes progress.

Unity talked about challenges the industry faces during this period of disruption, not least of which is the fact that healthcare tends to be local and regionalized, and differs not only from country to country, but also from state to state. Another challenge, one which Unity hopes will be eradicated, or at least mitigated, by the transformation in the industry, is the problem of siloed data and fiefdoms in academia. Sharing data and medical advances between labs, and between countries, will be essential to achieving any of the moonshots that StartUp Health aims to tackle.

As with all other industries, incumbents have the most to lose from disruption, and so are the least inclined to encourage it. “Much of the legacy industry has been profiting so much for so long that they were very resistant to change.” But the changes brought about by the forces outlined above have become so powerful that incumbents are no longer able to ignore them—if they haven’t already, they will soon face no choice other than to adapt to our digital, global age.

Healthcare business models in India are five years ahead of those in the U.S., Unity says. The country is drastically rethinking price transparency, by starting to allow consumers to shop around and compare costs for services like MRIs. And in China, digital technology has revolutionized patient/physician interaction to a much greater extent than it has in the United States.

Unity believes other major health innovations might be much nearer on the horizon than many believe. Dr. Craig Venter mapped the human first genome in 2003, at a cost of about $200 million. That process now costs less than $1,000, and according to Unity, could drop to less than $100 in the next two years, allowing millions of people around the world access to their entire genomes.

Even a cure for cancer, that long-sought-after goal of the healthcare industry, doesn’t seem quite so impossible when you consider that many of the over 200 types of cancer are being transformed into manageable chronic diseases.

Rather than thinking about healthcare as a cost, Unity encourages us to shift our mindset from a reactive one to a more proactive one, by focusing more on prevention and wellness. Many of the innovations he mentioned aim to do just that—often at a speed which regulation struggles to keep up with.

The genie is out of the bottle, and incumbents don’t have the option to deny the existence of the Maker Movement, which allows people to make prosthetics and synthesize drugs in their garage. We need to rethink how the pace of regulatory progress matches up with the pace of innovation. “We need regulation in healthcare,” Unity says. “In no other industry is it as important. We’re talking about peoples’ lives.”

Watch the full What’s Now: New York presentation, including an audience Q&A.

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