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Kaia Health raises $10 million to treat chronic pain with AI


Chronic diseases affect the lives of millions of people around the world. Over 16 million adults in the U.S., for instance, have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an inflammation of the lungs that obstructs airflow. And researchers estimate that 80 percent of people in the U.S. will experience back pain several times in their lives. Making matters worse, the treatments tend to be expensive — in 2010, the total annual cost of COPD and back pain in the U.S. was projected to be $50 billion and $240 billion, respectively.

Kaia Health, a four-year-old firm founded by former Foodora CEO Konstantin Mehl and Manuel Thurner, claims its digital therapeutics solution — apps that tap artificial intelligence (AI) and motion-tracking technology to help manage pain — is not only cheaper than prescription drugs and in-person consultations, but more sustainable in the long term. Kaia has empirical evidence on its side: In a clinical study conducted at the Technical University of Munich’s Center for Pain Therapy and other “leading” institutions in Germany, the startup’s app-based approach reduced lower back pain by 40 percent.

Kaia launched in the U.S. in September 2018 following successful pilots in Germany and the U.K., and it has generated a fair amount of buzz, managing to rack up more than 250,000 downloads in three years and 100,000 in Germany alone in its first year of availability. Riding high on that momentum, Kaia Health today announced that it has raised $10 million in a Series A financing round led by Balderton Capital, which follows a $4 million seed round in June 2016. The new capital brings its total raised to  $14 million and will be used to fund further clinical studies and to open a new office in New York.

“Over the last twelve months, we’ve demonstrated a universal, unmet need for affordable and accessible digital therapy products, such as our world’s first computer vision-powered back pain app,” Mehl said. “These improve treatment paths for patients and reduce costs for payers in health care around the globe. Balderton’s investment will support the next stage of our journey, as we expand across the U.S., undertake further clinical studies, and cement our position as a global leader in the digital health care market.”

Kaia’s iOS and Android apps were developed with advisement from “physiotherapists,” “pain management physicians,” “orthopedic surgeons,” and “clinical psychologists,” the company claims, and are registered as Class 1 medical devices with the Food and Drug Administration. Their video portals contain clips covering basic back and COPD pain information and step-by-step physiotherapy exercises, in addition to psychological strategies, such as mindfulness and muscle relaxation.

During any one of the over 120 15-minute exercises, in-app computer vision models track connective points on the body through a device’s front-facing camera while an on-screen wire frame model illustrates the steps. Audio feedback informs users whether they’re performing exercises correctly and how they might improve, and a built-in chat tool allows them to consult with a physiotherapist or sports scientist on questions related to specific moves.

The apps aren’t free — subscription plans start at $24 for three months after a seven-day trial — but thanks to reimbursement deals with German health insurance companies, including Barmer, Germany’s largest health insurance company, they’re available at no charge to about 20 million patients. And Kaia claims about 40 percent of first-time users continue to perform the exercises roughly 3 times a week for a minimum of six months.

Self-service meditation apps and services are all the rage lately. There’s Simple Habit, which competes with Headspace, Pause, Calm, Shine, BioBeats, and Digg cofounder Kevin Rose’s Oak — a few of which have a significant funding advantage. Calm raised $27 million at a $250 million valuation in June, while Headspace brought in a $37 million round last summer.

But despite their prowess for fundraising, few have been clinically validated, pointed out Dr. Mani Rafii, who sits on Barmer’s board.

“We have to deal with a problem such as back pain with easily accessible and effective care,” he said. “The bespoke training with Kaia is straightforward and applicable. Relaxation units and information modules can be used at home or on the go, making the holistic therapy ideal for everyday use.”

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