A social networking platform developed for people with chronic illnesses such as autism and breast cancer has raised more than $1.7 million in seed funding, and has attracted investment from some investors who hadnot previously allocated funding to the digital health sector. The sites are designed to help individuals connect with each other to recommend services, share experiences and get questions answered from a community with which they can identify.
The oversubscribed financing round was led by private equity investors Adams Street Partners. The funding will be used to scale San Francisco-based MyHealthTeams’ business, add to its team and get the word out for its social networks and mobile apps. Other investors include 500 Startups and angel investors associated with their consumer technology and life science investments.
MyHealthTeams‘ strategy has been to build slowly. Its MyAutismTeam site, which it beta tested in June of last year to a 30-member group in San Francisco, has grown to 27,000 parents since it went live in the U.S. and Canada in December. The platform also has a list of 30,000 providers cultivated from partners that is searchable by city and state. Parents can find other parents by location, their child’s diagnosis and age.
“We have quickly become the Yelp of autism communities,” Eric Peacock, CEO and co-founder of MyHealthTeams, told MedCity News. It recently added a free iPhone app. A breast cancer social network is expected to go live next month.
Peacock said its members’ motivation for using the site is to get questions answered that can’t be resolved with a Google search. It also helps them draw comfort from sharing insights and experiences with people who understand exactly what they’re going through.
The way people have used it resembles a combination of Facebook and Pinterest, said Peacock. Pinterest is a social website on which users can pin up pictures to communicate a particular theme. Hospitals, for example, have used the site’s bulletin boards for recommending healthy foods for diabetics to highlighting their programs.
Peacock said the company drew lessons from the patient community models that have gone before. “We looked at every health play out there before we wrote one line of code and many have failed.” He said a Q&A framework wasn’t desirable because users often don’t know who is answering their questions. He added many online patient communities lack the depth of personal relationships he wanted to foster with the network.
Following customer demand, it launched a mobile app for the autism website last week. Adding a mobile component helps add value and increase content generation — people can take a picture and post it in the group, for example.
In five years’ time, its goal is to have 100 of these social network platforms prescribed by physicians. Why physician prescribed?
“Until now, physicians have not had a resource like this to guide patients towards,” Peacock said. “When you are embarking on a therapeutic regimen, having people to guide you can really help.”
About one in 88 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. About 133 million Americans, almost one out of every two adults, had a chronic disease, according to 2005 stats from the CDC, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and heart disease being among the most common.
“It’s a huge market. Everyone knows someone with a chronic illness. About 30 percent of American adults are caregivers and they are woefully underserved. Think about MyAutismTeam — for a significant percentage of parents, there’s a range of other services and products these people want,” Peacock said.
Since the launch of MyAutismTeam, the company has fielded lots of inquiries for disease-specific platforms and requests to expand access to other countries, but Peacock said he wants to focus on the North American market first and continue to build the platforms that already exist.
Launching platforms for new conditions is relatively easy, but the company wants to take slow, deliberate steps to ensure it puts the effort into developing the right audience to grow each chronic illness network. “Unless you have the glue of the social network, you just don’t get the passionate users.”
“Parents of children with autism have very different needs and have massive numbers — they need a dedicated network just for them,” Peacock said.
There are competitors in this space, as Peacock mentioned. Autism Speaks is one of the most established parent resource sites, launching in 2005 and offering a family resource team, resources, lobbying efforts and its own online parent community.
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