For Some of Healthcare's Most Vexing Problems, a Venture Capitalist Looks Outside the Industry

Ryan Black
FEBRUARY 28, 2018

There’s no question that there are fundamental problems with clinical trial recruitment: Finding patients can be expensive, delays are rampant, and many trials even have to be cancelled due to a lack of participation.

“Study site centers and pharma sponsors react when they’re already falling behind schedule, and then there’s a dearth of native, captive audience for a study site center panel,” Enmi Kendall told Healthcare Analytics News™ in an interview. “The default mode for these drug developers is on a per-lead basis, so there’s no performance guarantee or anything. You’re already overpaying and you don’t know what the actual conversion into a trial is.”

Kendall’s a founding partner at Healthy Ventures, a healthcare industry venture capital firm. She thinks that if there’s a solution to the clinical trial problem, it will come from outside of the healthcare industry—and her fund is betting on SubjectWell.

The company works to cast a wider, earlier net for clinical trial recruitment, building a time-delayed marketplace of potential participants and educating them on the benefits. It was founded by a pair of lead generation marketing veterans. It claims to take the trial-and-error out of trials, creating a technology-driven, no-risk system for pharma companies.

This week, Healthy Ventures put their faith in the 6-year-old startup, leading a $1.8 million seed round. Kendall said her fund made the move because the industry’s early reception to the platform has been warm, and because the concept of no-risk clinical trials is “fairly mind-blowing in this industry.”

The backgrounds of the company’s 2 founders, Ivor Clarke and Joel Lucas, also played a big part in the decision.

“Both of them don’t come from healthcare, but they’re fast students and they have partnered with very landmark, tier-1 reference clients very early,” she said. “That ability to remove risk is only afforded by someone who truly understands lead generation marketing. That could not be done by someone who came up in healthcare first.”

That rings true for the investor herself. Kendall comes from a general tech investment background, which she said is significantly different from the health-tech space. Her partner at the firm, however, is Anya Schiess, who previously led strategy and business development for Cardinal Health’s medical services, distribution, and laboratory businesses, and spent time with Medtronic before that.

Kendall says her outside experience allows her to observe models in other industries more clearly, creating a “1-2 punch” with Schiess’s healthcare expertise. For outside investors and would-be entrepreneurs alike, however, the medical sphere has a steep learning curve. A lot of it has to do with how money flows through the healthcare industry.

“Healthcare’s like the coffin industry, to use a macabre comparison: The end user isn’t the person who buys it,” she said. “It leads to a lot of nonobvious payment flows and even some perverted behaviors. I think tech natives don’t audit that as assiduously as they should.”

That’s why Healthy Ventures doesn’t go for the startups and technologies that Kendall calls “shiny” and “buzzy,” and avoids end-user medical technologies, like clinical decision support, which she thinks has yet to show outcomes that justify the amount of money thrown at it.

The fund instead prefers to invest in infrastructural health tech solutions that know how to partner with the right companies rather than trying to build their entire solutions from scratch—which Kendall believes often results in subpar tech. And they seek their partners out actively, rather than waiting around to be wooed.  

“We won’t sit back and wait for an entrepreneur to come find us,” she said. “We reached out to SubjectWell, they came on our radar as we did a deep, thorough scrub of folks who had innovative takes on clinical trial recruitment.”

SubjectWell is now the 15th company in Healthy Ventures’ portfolio.

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