- Five years ago, there were hardly any investments in healthtech. With greater awareness of healthcare issues, rising healthcare spending, and greater trust in digital solutions, there’s more momentum for healthtech startups and this has attracted US$1.1B in funding in the first half of 2021.
- With mental health consumer spending tripling from 2019 to 2020, there is clear demand for these solutions, but according to Intellect CEO Theodoric Chew, there “are not enough players that are making a big enough dent in Asia in mental health care.”
- Creating a brand of trust, educating the market, and building a comprehensive platform are key to building a successful healthtech, and at the core of this are founders who understand the local nuances of their target markets.
Last Friday, Bloomberg’s Yoolim Lee wrote about our founding managing partner Yinglan Tan’s thoughts on healthtech as shared in Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore:
“…Insignia Ventures Partners is doubling down on health-care technology startups as the pandemic has boosted demand on everything from personalized test kits to mental wellness services.
“Five years ago, investors hardly even looked at healthtech in Southeast Asia,” Yinglan Tan, founding managing partner of Insignia, said in an interview at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore on Friday. “In these past two years, thanks to greater awareness of health-care issues, rising health-care spending, and greater trust in digital solutions, the inertia has made way for the momentum of healthtech startups to grow.”
In 2021 alone, the Singapore-based firm invested in three startups in the sector: mental health company Intellect, women-focused Ease Healthcare as well as Vietnam’s Medici. Insignia manages two early-stage VC funds and a newly closed vehicle designed to inject capital into some of its portfolio companies likely to hit the $1 billion valuation mark.
In the first half of this year, a record $1.1 billion of venture capital went into healthtech startups in Southeast Asia, compared with about $800 million in all of 2020, according to the latest Google, Temasek, Bain report on the region’s internet economy…”
In this article we expand on these insights and go deeper into our healthcare investments, and while we have covered them separately already on our podcasts and in analyses from our investment team, this juxtaposition will shed light on the larger patterns we see in the healthcare industry especially in Southeast Asia. This insights below were curated with senior content strategist Paulo Joquino.
If you are an unstoppable founder building game-changing technology company for healthcare, especially for Southeast Asia, reach out to us!
Pandemic-Induced Momentum for Healthtech Adoption
Pulling the Curtain on Long-Standing Healthcare Issues
The pandemic has changed the game for healthtech adoption in the region in three critical ways. First, the healthcare issues and needs of everyday consumers and even employees were put into the spotlight, even those that have been considered taboo or stigmatized by society like mental health and sexual and reproductive health.
At Intellect, CEO and founder Theodoric Chew saw the shift not just in awareness but also how leadership at large organizations began to recognize the connection between individual well-being to economic impact and even business growth.
As Theodoric shares on the On Call with Insignia podcast, “It was not long ago, two or three years back, mental health…was a nice-to-have piece. Now, it’s become very clear that if companies don’t actively look after employees’ wellbeing, the ones that get affected are the companies themselves. So I think it’s become quite clear that workforces are looking at this in a way where, “It’s my people first,” but also…“How does this affect my business? And my bottom line as well?” So we actually can show very strong correlations that better well-being leads to better outcomes for companies.”
That said, the issues being solved by healthtech startups did not just come out of the pandemic but have been long-standing structural gaps and inefficiencies, typically revolving around three core issues: underserved segments, high costs, and inaccessibility.
For example in Vietnam, according to Medici CEO and founder Duc Anh Ngo, the doctor-to-patient ratio in Vietnam is one of the lowest in the region at 1:1000 and people in tier-2 and tier-3 have become used to opting for self-medication rather than doctor prescriptions due to high healthcare costs. These were just some of the pain points he observed during his time at Grab talking to drivers and growing up as a doctor’s son in Vietnam that led him to starting Medici in before the pandemic.
Even in Singapore, the founders of Ease Healthcare experienced firsthand the struggles to access stigma-free women’s health services before the pandemic.
As Ease co-founder Guadalupe Lazaro shares on the podcast, “We came up with the idea for Ease back in 2019, actually. It was inspired very much by our own personal experiences with facing stigma or barriers when trying to access sexual and reproductive health services in Singapore, from uncomfortable encounters at the clinic including feeling judged or receiving unwanted advice to spending hours just queuing up for a birth control refill. So [Ease stemmed from] my personal experiences [in] the space.”
Ease’s founders then went around talking to people who shared similar experiences and realized just how widespread and long-standing these issues were in Singapore. With the pandemic limiting access to sexual and reproductive health services even further, they decided to launch their initial platform mid-2020 to meet the urgent needs of women in the country.
Greater Trust in Digital Healthtech Solutions
Second, apart from greater awareness, the pandemic-induced acceleration of digital adoption across sectors have made people more comfortable and trusting when it comes to using these platforms in various aspects of life and business, including healthcare. And when it comes to healthcare, building this trust is the bottomline, regardless of the focus of the company.
For example, with Intellect, they were able to leverage the viral popularity of their B2C mental health app to make headway in securing partnerships with tech MNCs and Forbes 500 companies at scale.
As Theodoric shares on the podcast, “We use B2C as a very strong growth channel for our core business. And in this year by having 2.5 million users, and then having won one of Google’s best apps of the year last year, it creates a lot of trust as a young brand. That helped a lot with how we could reach partners and clients [at scale]. We also get a lot of clients that come in initially as users themselves and are either HR or are themselves, someone who wants to bring Intellect to their workforces.”
For Ease, their approach to building trust has been to build an online community around educational content for women’s health, which has now reached over a million people on social media and recently found a home in their newly launched app.
As Guadalupe shares on the podcast, “Having a community has been key…to scale [the] business [and retain] people in the community and [create] loyalty to the brand because people trust and appreciate you as a brand and as a community. And they don’t want to move out of it. It also helps with user acquisition as well. It creates excellent word of mouth. And lastly, it helps you improve your services because your community is very vocal about their user experience and what they want to get out of this experience.”
Medici in Vietnam also took a community-based approach to building trust, leveraging on their local team’s deep market understanding to build online and offline networks with influencer doctors and community leaders.
Duc Anh shares on the podcast, “Vietnamese are community-based. When it comes to health issues, they may ask around their trusted circle first, instead of a doctor. Therefore, we have made great efforts to penetrate their trusted circle. We build friendly, wise, professional influencer doctors and supportive health care communities for chronic diseases and general health on social media, and [up to this day] we have received thousands of engagements every day. We know our efforts [have] paid off when supplement orders via our influencer doctors and online communities finally arrived, and [continue to] increase tremendously month by month. We also made local community leaders, such as village heads, heads of women’s unions, as our representatives to introduce our products & services such as supplements [and] insurance to their neighbors.”
Increased Healthcare Spending
Finally, there’s the increased spending on healthcare over the pandemic, not just for curative solutions, but more importantly, for preventive and wellness solutions as well. We’ve noted an increase in spending across various types of healthcare products and services over the pandemic. It’s not just spending on healthcare products that cure or address present illnesses, but products that are also preventive in nature or contribute to one’s overall wellness. For example, spending on personalized testing in the APAC region has nearly tripled from 1.6B to 4.5B from 2019 to 2020, and we expect it to more than triple in the next five years.
Southeast Asia Trends reflect Global Shifts
These shifts in awareness of long-standing issues, greater trust in digital solutions, and higher healthcare spending (buffeted by higher incomes as well) are not just confined to Southeast Asia or even APAC but have also been highlights for healthcare on the global stage.
A large part of why we began investing in healthcare in Southeast Asia was that we saw a greater spotlight being placed on healthcare globally, specifically solutions targeting wellness, healthcare consumables, personalized testing, and mental health. We saw the likes of Calm and Headspace thrive in the mental health space, as well as Noom and hims & hers in the wellness space. We then found that there are healthtech startups taking advantage of similar tailwinds but catering more to the Asian and Southeast Asian market, where the pain points tend to revolve more around inaccessibility and social stigma and therefore require a more localized approach.
Going Local Meets the Biggest Gaps in Healthcare
This localized, differentiated approach is core to Insignia’s investments in healthcare. When we first invested in Intellect we saw that they had an experienced team of founders, as well as a profound understanding of the mental healthcare landscape and user perspective in Asia. They understood the barriers to care as well as what it would take to overcome it quickly, which we recognized would be important for them to build a significant moat in the space.
While Intellect has users in more than 150 countries across the globe, Intellect’s focus has very much been to win Asian markets, where Theodoric saw the gaps in mental health needs which drove him to start the company in the first place.
As Theodoric puts it on the podcast, “There are many great companies in the US and North America and Europe that tackle it in different manners and approaches. What I see is that there are not enough players that are making a big enough dent in Asia in mental health care…For us, it’s how do we double down on this piece here, then get really hyper-localized but at the same time with the potential for scale globally, but really winning in Asia today. It’s the biggest need for the region here.”
While Intellect’s digital therapy programs are live in 11 languages, localization goes beyond content translations on their app. The company also has therapists on-the-ground in twelve countries across APAC. This makes them flexible in catering to the employee mental health needs of multinational companies, which take up a bulk of their business.
With pre-pandemic mental health spending in APAC more than tripling from US$100M in 2019 to US$310M in 2020, and projected to hit $US620M in 2025, Intellect sees massive opportunity in providing this hyper-localized solution built for Asia. It’s a view and vision shared by their early investors. Insignia Ventures doubled down on the company later in 2021, leading in Intellect’s post-YC round.
Regardless of the focus, localization is key to building an effective healthcare platform, even if the company serves multiple markets and goes global. It also serves as a moat against larger competitors.
Even in the women’s health sector, where Ease Healthcare operates, there are subtle differences that make the execution of tech solutions different in Asia, or even individual markets like Singapore or the Philippines, different from the rest of the world. These range from the depth of the pain points, like the level of healthcare education, level of stigma, and costs, to the branding and messaging of the solution.
As Ease Healthcare co-founder Rio Hoe explains on the podcast, “In terms of the Asian market versus elsewhere, we do see clear differences in terms of how FemTech startups approach health in Asia versus markets like Europe and the US. So while the products and services are similar, the pain points are a bit different. So for example, in Asia, there is a greater demand amongst women for discreet access, judgment-free experiences and education due to the existing landscape, whereas in Europe and the US, the key priorities tend to be centered around affordability and convenience. At the same time, the branding and messaging and appeal to Asian women is different as compared to elsewhere, bearing in mind the cultural differences.”
Finding Founders Who Know the Nuances
As investor interest continues to grow for tech solutions Southeast Asia’s healthcare industry, for Insignia Ventures, it boils down to backing founders who understand the specific needs of their market and the best way to make these needs more accessible and affordable.
What we’ve learned is that driving a scalable healthtech platform, regardless of the sector, boils down to three elements: developing a trusted brand, distributing information or education in an engaging way, and providing a convenient and comprehensive platform for customers to access services being offered. At the core of these three elements are founders who deeply understand the nuances of their industry.
For Intellect, this has meant building a brand with their viral application, educating their users about how to take care of their personal mental well-being through that same app, and then scaling by offering comprehensive and localized services to multinational companies like Carousell, Shopback, and foodpanda and the hundreds or even thousands of employees they have.
For Ease, their brand took off with their fresh approach to distributing much-needed women’s health products as well as the consistent content they produced for their growing community of users. Their newly launched app has brought all these services, content, and more new offerings onto one platform.
The same dynamic applies to Medici. They built a strong brand in healthcare in Vietnam, and are building a brand in insurance as well through Medici Insurance. Their telemedicine platform and social media engagements enable more than a million community members to connect with Medici’s portfolio of more than 100 in-house and partner doctors. Then they’ve made it easier for Vietnamese, especially in rural areas, to access their services through partnerships with top corporations, insurance providers, and leading private hospitals in the country.
It’s just the beginning for healthtech in Southeast Asia, and like many other venture-backed sectors, its growth will be a critical confluence of talent and capital.
As we’ve seen with other tech industries in Southeast Asia, the combination of great talent and venture capital can be a catalyst for the creation of even more startups within that space. We’re proud to be early investors not just in Intellect, Ease, and Medici but in the healthtech space in general. Another important aspect from the consumer side is that with greater education and community building being done by these companies, we can expect more adoption of these types of services and greater demand will also be a critical push factor to encourage founders to effect change in Southeast Asia’s healthcare industry.
If you are an unstoppable founder building game-changing technology company for healthcare, especially for Southeast Asia, reach out to us!
Yinglan founded Insignia Ventures Partners in 2017. Insignia Ventures Partners is an early-stage technology venture fund focusing on Southeast Asia and manages more than US$350 million from sovereign wealth funds, foundations, university endowments and renowned family offices. Insignia Ventures Partners is the recipient of two back-to-back “VC Deal of Year” awards for Payfazz (2019) and Carro (2018) from the Singapore Venture Capital and Private Equity Association and its portfolio include many other technology leaders in Southeast Asia. He also co-hosts the On Call with Insignia Ventures podcast, where he chats with portfolio founders and regional investors. An author on venture capital, startups and innovation, he recently published his fourth book, Navigating ASEANnovation (World Scientific, 2020). He also serves on the International Board of Stars – Leaders of the Next Generation, the Singapore Government’s Pro Enterprise Panel and is a Board Member at Hwa Chong Institution.