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Can digital therapeutics solve the global obesity problem?

As the US, and the world, record growing levels of chronic illnesses, the ever-innovative healthtech sector may have a solution. Omada Health CEO Sean Duffy explains.

Sean Duffy always thought he would become a doctor.

His mother’s medical background made an impression on his choice of career and come 2006, Duffy was graduating having studied neuroscience at college.

The time however, was pre-credit crunch and financial crisis, when Silicon Valley “was on fire” and the magnetism that the Californian tech capital exudes proved too much for Duffy to ignore.

Nearly a decade later and Duffy is CEO and co-founder of Omada Health, a digital health program launched in 2011 aiming to help employers, health plans and at-risk individuals tackle chronic disease.

The brand combines mobile and wearable health-tracking tools with an online peer group to foster better exercise and better eating habits.

“[Seeing Silicon Valley] I had a realization that you didn’t have to choose between medicine and tech, there was a way to choose both.”

Which is firmly where Duffy has placed his company. To be more specific, Omada Health is carving out its own niche: digital therapeutics.

The core idea behind the startup centres around stark facts, that 40% of adults in the US will develop Type 2 diabetes in the near future costing the US $245 billion annually in treatment and lost productivity.

“Everyone knows it’s preventable and [our] programs can help: they provide heavy artillery to a growing problem using tech to help people digitally.”

There are, and have been, other programs tackling chronic diseases – Omada Health is somewhat specialist in diabetes for example – but Duffy and his colleagues are unique so far in digitizing these prevention programs as a digital therapeutics brand.

“Digital therapeutics is much more receptive to scalability and efficiency, we’re now at a position where we can handle tens of thousands of participants already.”

Omada Health tackles 4 of the costliest and riskiest chronic conditions: high blood sugar, high blood pressure, high blood fats and obesity and in order to pass the Medical Directory – and provide weight behind the advice provided – the digital therapeutics brand has to continue to publish clinical studies.

These studies, and their outcomes, have allowed Omada Health to start commercializing its service which created the niche they are now operating in.

“We ran economic analyses for the health plans and incorporated a medical benefits design in the same way the launch of a new drug would work; we were operating a unique pathway and we realized digital therapeutics was the closest label we could find.”

It’s good to know exactly where your company lies within a sector; the tech scene is (in)famous for its dynamic and highly changeable effects and the addition of health services only compounds those issues.

“It’s so much fun being in healthtech, but it’s incredibly complicated because the US has a very interestingly structured system which you have to learn to navigate.”

The reward for working your way through the maze however makes the journey worth it according to Duffy.

“It’s the most exciting time in history to be a healthtech entrepreneur.”

The health sector has been one of the more receptive markets of tech within the past 5 years. There’s an appreciation that tech is a key piece of the solution for companies here and its addition has allowed many companies to form partnerships and relationships that has kickstarted a leap in medical innovation.

“…it’s now as hot, as sexy a place to work in as being in engineering in Silicon Valley.”

So why are niche markets like digital therapeutics and wide, sweeping sectors like healthtech experiencing such hype and buzz?

Software is eating the world’ by Marc Andreessen was a tipping point for appreciation of tech’s influence.

Marc Andreessen is of course one half of the founding team of the prolific investment firm Andreessen Horowitz (A16z), which has now made numerous investments in digital health. One of which is Duffy’s Omada Health ($23 million to be specific), and A16z’s interest in the sector is reflective of a wider trend.

“Everyone started to see opportunities [in healthtech]: engineers and designers felt at home and found an identity, and for us, because of my past in Silicon Valley, I knew how to value them and how Omada Health could benefit from them.”

Culture is sometimes forgotten when creating a team that can survive the test of time, but it’s important for digital therapeutics companies to be able to rely on their employees to operate in a unique area.

Healthcare in the US is a controversial topic. With the launch and subsequent backlash of Obamacare, private companies are having to tread carefully – although for Duffy, it had the opposite effect. Omada Health credits the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with helping to discover its business model.

These new launches are improving the private market landscape by increasing the delivery of services such as Duffy’s.

It’s also a difficult area to scale in as healthcare systems differ from country to country.

That being said though, “…most of the people that are successful in digital health are in the enterprise side; there are no shortcuts here, you have to be able to navigate the system to work it.”

Navigation however has helped Omada Health pinpoint a 3-step process of moving their digital therapeutics brand forward.

“Driving our research agenda forward is the first step, as it’s very important for health companies to be able to prove their results, before building and expanding our infrastructure to encourage partners to get on board…”

Third is, predictably, growth. Omada Health is expanding into the UK as Duffy looks to expand his platform to help fight obesity-related diseases on a global scale – and their $2 trillion impact on global GDP, according to the consultancy McKinsey.

The digital therapeutics firm has relied upon the vision of its CEO, but his words of wisdom encourage more tenacity rather than imagination.

“Ask an entrepreneur what made it work and most likely they’ll say determination because you’re fighting gravity whatever you do – but it’s a privilege despite its all consuming nature.”