PatientsLikeMe has spent the past 13 years building a vast online network of patients with chronic diseases—more than 500,000 people with over 2,700 conditions—who share experiences and health information with each other and with healthcare professionals.
The idea is to connect patients and help them better understand their diseases and perhaps find ways to improve their health. Meanwhile, the company aggregates and shares that data with healthcare providers, researchers, and companies, who use it to improve their medical services, drugs, devices, insurance plans, and so on.
The company sits at the intersection of several growing trends in healthcare: an explosion of healthcare data (more and more of it shared digitally by patients), the “consumerization” of healthcare, and personalized medicine.
Now, PatientsLikeMe wants to provide patients with a deeper understanding of their health, through technologies that span biology and software. And the Cambridge, MA-based company has a lot more cash to pursue its goals.
On Thursday, PatientsLikeMe announced it received more than $100 million in funding led by China-based health data analytics firm iCarbonX and including a contribution from earlier PatientsLikeMe backer Invus. PatientsLikeMe declined to share how much venture capital it has raised to date, but it had previously received at least $25.5 million from investors, SEC filings show.
The new investment gives iCarbonX an unspecified minority stake in PatientsLikeMe and is part of a wide-ranging partnership between the two firms. PatientsLikeMe is now a key member of iCarbonX’s “Digital Life Alliance,” a group of healthtech and software firms that are working to collect “comprehensive” biological data from patients and analyze it using artificial intelligence technologies. The idea is to help patients understand the full picture of their health—medical, behavioral, and environmental factors—so they can better fight disease and improve their wellbeing, according to a PatientsLikeMe press release.
“We will be working together with our alliance partners in terms of having access to these emerging, incredible technologies that understand the state of human biology and human health,” says Ben Heywood, PatientsLikeMe’s co-founder, president, and chief privacy officer, in a phone interview. “We want to enable patients to better understand their own disease experience, and through that, be able to make better decisions.”
The alliance partners include SomaLogic, a Boulder, CO-based firm that analyzes the body’s proteins to monitor health and wellness; San Ramon, CA-based HealthTell, which has developed a blood-based test for identifying and assessing diseases; Cambridge, MA-based AOBiome, which is developing microbe-based therapeutics and consumer skin products; General Automation Lab Technologies (GALT), a San Francisco firm developing instruments and tools for microbial research and product development; Imagu, an Israeli company whose software recognizes objects in images; and Robustnique, a China-based developer of recombinant enzymes and cosmetic products.
iCarbonX aims to provide personalized health analysis and services through data mining and artificial intelligence technologies. The firm was founded in 2015 by Jun Wang, a co-founder of BGI (formerly known as the Beijing Genomics Institute), one of the world’s leading centers of DNA sequencing. (Wang is pictured above on the right, with PatientsLikeMe co-founder and chairman Jamie Heywood.)
With the Digital Life Alliance, iCarbonX is “assembling these technologies together into a platform layer of measurement they can deploy in any environment,” Ben Heywood says. For patients and customers in China, iCarbonX is focusing more on health, wellness, and nutrition, while in the U.S. it’s focused on chronic disease, Heywood says.
“There’s been a lot of talk of the genomic revolution and, for the last few years, the consumerization of that,” Heywood says. “I think this is really the next generation of this, the next level.”
What Heywood means is that the genome can provide important information about a person’s health, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. He says PatientsLikeMe and its partners are also interested in collecting data about proteins; the immune system; bacteria in the gut, skin, and elsewhere; physical characteristics; environmental factors; and more. The iCarbonX-led alliance will bring together multiple technologies to help understand all of these aspects of “the state of the body,” Heywood says.
“It’s really the next wave of understanding” human health, Heywood says. “I think with this alliance we’re going to be really well-positioned to be ahead of the curve on that. I think we’ll further that work faster.”
Heywood didn’t share many details about how alliance members will work together or what specific projects they will pursue. But he says PatientsLikeMe will give an initial group of volunteers in its online patient communities the opportunity to access some of the alliance partners’ technologies in order to gather more data about their health. For example, a patient might have a blood sample taken and tested by SomaLogic and HealthTell, Heywood says.
That could lead to recommending a lifestyle modification or a change to a treatment regimen, he adds.
It’s still early days though, and PatientsLikeMe and its partners still need to prove that providing all this data to patients can lead to improvements in their health.
“Quite frankly we don’t know the impact,” Heywood says. “But as we’ve seen in genetics, more and more, this is going to be direct to consumer. I think that’s going to be an important thing that’s going to democratize information, and I think fundamentally change how the healthcare system works.”
PatientsLikeMe will use the new funding to grow its 160-person staff, hiring particularly in computational biology, informatics, and data science, a spokeswoman says. She declined to share how many people the company plans to hire.
PatientsLikeMe will also invest in the expansion of its online patient network, Heywood says.
“We’re excited to be able to invest in our communities and our platform in a big way,” he says.