Harry Leeming caught coronavirus in 2020, like millions around the world — but he was one of the unlucky ones who's dealt with symptoms for months after the infection, a condition known as long Covid.
“Long Covid has turned my life upside down,” he says. At times he could “barely think straight”.
And just as pharma companies leapt to develop a coronavirus vaccine, so are startups jumping in to find treatments for long Covid — including Leeming’s London-based Visible. The team has just raised a $1m pre-seed round led by the UK’s Octopus Ventures, healthtech-focused VC Calm/Storm and US-based Hustle Fund.
Visible is one of the first startups focusing on the condition to pop up. One of the few others is Europe's HealthHero, which is also today announcing the launch of a long Covid symptom checker on its online triaging software, which it sells to public and private insurers in Germany.
What does Visible do?
Visible has developed an app to help users measure and track their long Covid symptoms, with the dual aims of helping patients better manage their condition and of contributing to research efforts by sharing data with scientists.
The scale of the problem is huge. One study estimated that 100m people have long Covid worldwide, but there’s been very little work done on finding cures or treatment so far. According to an estimate by HealthHero the condition could cost UK businesses £18bn over the next year.
Users enter data on Visible’s app about their physical and emotional exertion, menstrual cycle, medication and crashes, alongside using fitness tracking software on smartphones to track heart rate. The aim is to allow users to understand potential triggers for post-exertional malaise (PEM) — a condition associated with long Covid and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) — and take steps to stop it by limiting how active they are at specific times. It’s a strategy called “pacing”, says Leeming.
Users can also choose to share their data with researchers and scientists, to address the research gap around long Covid. In the US, only 6% of US medical schools fully teach post-viral conditions like CFS.
Leeming is keen to point out that the app isn’t just for long Covid, and can also help people suffering from post-viral fatigue caused by other illnesses.
The startup is looking to launch a freemium model early next year — the app will be paired with a wearable armband that tracks a number of digital biomarkers like time spent standing upright. While pricing is still being worked out, the premium tier will cost around the price of a subscription to Fitbit or Netflix, says Leeming.
The funds will also be used to build out the data team and undergo clinical trials on the product — which are hugely important when looking to partner with other organisations. “While the company is direct-to-consumer right now, eventually we want to work with partners like the NHS in the UK and we need to be able to show evidence of the product working to do that,” says Leeming.
What’s the market like?
HealthHero founder and CEO Ranjan Singh says the company recently signed an exclusive deal with a university hospital in Germany — which it can’t yet name — to use the data it’s collected over the course of a two year long research project in its triaging software. It’ll look to roll the tech out in its UK and French markets early next year.
“The biggest challenge to launching the product was getting reliable clinical data and there’s not enough clinical research on long covid,” says Singh. “It largely hasn't been covered by startups yet because it’s such a new problem.”
But Leeming is hopeful for the future. “Public institutions aren’t moving quickly enough, but startups have the ability to bring a lot of money to the sector quickly,” he tells Sifted. “I think we’re eventually going to see a similar situation to other chronic condition sectors like diabetes [where there are a number of apps and platforms designed to help people manage the condition].”
In the US there are more startups looking to tackle the issue — although still very few considering the size of the problem:
- There’s Y Combinator-backed RTHM, a telehealth platform that was founded earlier this year by two people suffering from long Covid.
- There’s also nonprofit startup Long Covid Research Initiative, which emerged from stealth in September with $15m backing from Ethereum co-creator Vitalik Buterin.
- Other like breathing exercise app Stasis and telehealth platform Love Health are also looking to add treatment for long covid to their platforms.