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Taking health tech to the world | Ian Lessem chats to Brainstorm Magazine

Updated: Jul 19, 2022

South African venture capital firm HAVAÍC is putting its weight behind a number of local innovative startups hoping to help heal the world.

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The application of digital health interventions to prevent disease and boost quality of life is vital to improving healthcare across the board. Health tech is a rapidly growing space; according to Deloitte, almost $23 billion has been invested in companies in this area in 2020-2021. Digital tools are giving patients far greater control over their own health, while at the same time offering providers a more holistic view of patient health through greater access to critical data.

For entrepreneurs with strong tech skills, new digital health solutions offer many tangible opportunities. These encompass areas such as the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases, patient monitoring and health management, and improving medical outcomes and enhancing efficiency.

Moreover, we know South Africans are good at solving challenges particular to the developing world – we simply enable them to take such solutions to the rest of the globe as well,” he says.

Ian Lessem is managing partner at HAVAÍC, a venture capital firm that has invested significantly in health tech businesses, among others. He says the company recognises the potential for digital solutions and applications to solve many of the problems faced by a developing nation such as South Africa.

“We invest in early-stage, high-growth technology businesses, offering access to local investments with global prospects. Our investment philosophy is driven by identifying innovative technology products, processes or platforms – particularly those with disruptive growth potential – that have the power to effectively scale both locally and internationally.”

While many of these solutions are designed to solve real issues in our country, scale is important, because ultimately, healthcare is a global issue, he says.

“We’ve experienced strong success with a number of locally-developed healthcare technology solutions, which we believe have the potential to have a significant impact on the industry.”

Taking control of your health

The first of these technologies is known as hearX, which he describes as a solution that enables members of the public to conduct a hearing test on themselves, using a smartphone.

“These are the kinds of tests often conducted by an audiologist. What makes this technology so exciting is both its simplicity and the fact that there’s not only a dearth of audiologists globally, but the equipment needed to conduct such a test is expensive, which means the cost of the test is too,” says Lessem.

“Members of the public can conduct their own tests with this app, but hearX has also partnered with the World Health Organisation, which has since used the solution to perform over a million tests in developing nations. This provides a significant social service for those in need, while the data collected from these tests is utilised to produce reliable algorithms to help with the development of the next generation of hearing aids.”

The solution, Lessem says, revolves around a two-minute test that helps determine a person’s ability to perceive speech against background noise. The user receives their results within minutes, and results are accurate, clinically validated and published in scientific journals. Moreover, adds Lessem, hearX’s AI-driven flagship hearing aid Lexie offers an affordable and accessible solution to those with hearing challenges.

A second technology, developed by 3X4 Genetics, allows medical practitioners to assist users in taking greater care of their own health.

Developed by Yael Joffe, a renowned geneticist from Cape Town who specialises in DNA pathway analysis, it offers a genetic testing solution that goes beyond simply finding out more about your origins. It actually considers how different strands of DNA influence specific instances in specific individuals.

“A good example here is how some people can overindulge in alcohol and feel fine the next day, while others are far more hungover – studying this at the DNA level may, for example, demonstrate that one person processes toxins like alcohol far more effectively. And if you can understand these kinds of issues, it becomes easier to do something about them.

“Where this gets interesting is that once you have identified certain deficiencies, such as a predisposition towards a certain type of cancer, medical practitioners are able to recommend changes to your diet or lifestyle to mitigate the potential for this to occur,” he says.

“We invested in this company because we recognised the value such a solution offers in bringing the power of genetic testing into medical practices, enabling them to provide patients with personalised and actionable insights that allow them to take control of their health.”

Medical specialisations

The third firm in which HAVAÍC has invested is Vula Mobile, which connects healthcare workers, providing them with a safe and secure platform to refer patients to specialist services and departments, as well as to share advice.

“Basically, even if a doctor in a more remote area has no access to a specialist to consult with over a specific patient’s issue, they can use the Vula solution to connect to one. Perhaps it’s a patient with an eye problem; the healthcare worker can simply take a picture of the retina and connect to an eye specialist, who can quickly give their opinion.

“The technology is customisable for all medical specialisations, and allows for easy transfer of structured patient information and images. Its true value can be seen in how a review of Vula showed an average reduction in unnecessary referrals of 31%. Not only does this save the patient a lot of effort in trying to access a specialist, but, crucially, it helps optimise the use of scarce specialist medical resources,” says Lessem.

He adds that HAVAÍC has also invested in businesses with solutions designed to improve efficiencies for both patients and doctors.

“BusyMed is a solution that could be described as being similar to UberEats, but for pharmacies. It allows patients to order medication from the nearest pharmacy and have it delivered to their door. More than this, though, it can automatically load the script into the system and choose the most affordable meds, to ensure the user obtains the best value for money.

“Remember that if you need medicine, you’re generally too ill to travel to a pharmacy and stand in a queue. The goal of BusyMed is to have medication or health supplies delivered within 60 minutes. It also offers a safe environment for a patient to obtain advice from their pharmacist, via a secure online chat.”

The last healthcare solution Lessem mentions is RecoMed, which he describes as the largest and fastest growing online healthcare booking platform and marketplace in South Africa. It’s designed to connect practitioners, patients and other stakeholders in the healthcare ecosystem.

“RecoMed’s marketplace offering connects health providers directly to a variety of medical schemes, life insurers, websites and other channels. It also allows patients to check how well-recommended a specific doctor is, allows them to make after-hours bookings for appointments and even check whether there will be any payment shortfalls from their medical aid.”

From Africa to the world

One of the reasons for HAVAÍC’s focus on healthcare is the understanding that healthcare is a basic right, and solutions like hearX empower many citizens who otherwise wouldn’t have had access to a specialist before.

“We’re obviously committed to having an impact in SA and other parts of Africa, but healthcare is a universal challenge, and solutions like these can have an impact everywhere.

“Our investments in local startups in the healthcare and other critical sectors are driven by our understanding that South Africa has a wealth of unique innovation, many strong entrepreneurs and plenty of technical skills and capabilities. Moreover, we know South Africans are good at solving challenges particular to the developing world – we simply enable them to take such solutions to the rest of the globe as well,” he says.

This article was originally published on (14 March 2022).

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