Make room for yet another preventative health play: Spotify founder Daniel Ek officially confirmed rumors of his new “health tech” startup, Neko, Friday by quietly kicking off a body scanning service in Sweden (via Tech EU) after four years of stealthy development.
Ek has long expressed a personal interest in tackling a “screwed up” healthcare system, as he put it to the Financial Times almost a decade ago.
He has also put some money where his mouth is — investing in Swedish telehealth platform, Kry, for example. But dabbling as an investor evidently has not stopped him from wanting to get hands-on too — as one of two co-founders for Neko Health (the other being Hjalmar Nilsonne, whose prior startup focused on energy data analysis).
Neko declined TechCrunch’s request for an interview about what it’s building — saying it’s not doing any international media at this point. But in a post on LinkedIn, the startup announced the official launch of a proprietary “non-invasive” body scanning service at its first “health center” in central Stockholm.
The post bills the scan as an “extensive examination” of health, which is being aimed (initially at least) at people with skin and heart concerns.
Neko says the scan takes 15 minutes — and is “immediately” followed by an in-person doctor’s consultation to discuss the results (so the full visit would be longer, although it doesn’t say how long the customer gets with a doctor).
“The Neko scan is a truly personalized experience centered around you, and it seamlessly tracks changes over time — so you do not have to,” Neko added.
The startup’s broader pitch is a very familiar one: Preventative healthcare — with the stated goal of flipping the classically reactive healthcare model (of examining symptoms and treating disease) to one where regular health scans could be a pro-active tool to drive more positive health outcomes — via early detection of issues and the application of data-driven preventative measures.
“Current healthcare systems and primary care processes were designed over half a century ago — and have barely changed since. In addition, the cost of healthcare has increased exponentially in the past few decades, and we need to find a way to reverse this trend,” said Ek in a statement. “I have long believed that the future of efficient and affordable healthcare lies in proactive, preventative care. We service and inspect our cars like clockwork every year, but wait until our bodies crash before we act? That doesn’t make sense.”
This focus on proactive healthcare means Neko is joining a mass scramble to reimagine healthcare pathways and processes — and try to unlock new revenues (including by selling services to the worried well). This tech-driven movement (broadly) runs the gamut from telehealth platforms and chatbots (which aim to optimize access to human clinicians and thereby tackle resource scarcity); to a growing range of quantified health and fitness gizmos (which encourage consumers to self-monitor various biomarkers and typically nudge them to participate in beneficial lifestyle changes too); to genetics testing services (which claim to provide users with information on their disease risks); to digital therapeutics platforms, including some that are augmenting and spinning out traditional drug therapies; to other in-person preventative health care plays — like Forward or Zoi — which look most obviously similar to Neko since they appear to share a focus on rethinking the doctor’s office experience (and making the resulting care more ‘forward-looking’) via the application of more modern and/or cutting edge tech to transform patient care. (Or so runs the pitch.)
Details of Neko’s exact technology and approach remain pretty fuzzy, given it’s declining press interviews, so a lot of detail remains to be filled in. But its marketing material offers the general claim that its technology includes “the latest advances in sensors and AI” — further specifying that the sensing technology involves more than 70 sensors which it says can record 50 million data points and 15 GB of patients’ health data “in minutes”.
(Although, of course, obtaining health data is one thing — interpreting it intelligently and usefully is a whole other challenge. So it’s certainly notable that Neko’s service launches with human doctors very much in the mix.)
A part of the startup’s focus appears to be on technology that’s interpreting (or presenting) data on users’ behalf — since it says they will get access to a “summary” of their health data in its app. This app is also intended to let users “follow” their health trends — so it sounds like it’s aiming to do what Apple’s Heath app does for users of its sensing Apple Watch (but for its proprietary, in-person full body scans).
Its press release confirms there is a cost for the body scan. It notes a visit to the Stockholm center to get scanned costs SEK 1,500 (around $140) for “a limited time”. (The full price is reported as costing SEK 2,000.) While data-points the scan records are said to cover a range of cardiological measurement including ECG, murmur sound, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, arterial stiffness, pulse width, breathing and heart rate.
Neko’s PR also claims its body scan tech can detect skin changes as small as 0.2 millimeters — which teases the idea these data-centered checks could pick up things a normal visit to the doctor’s won’t. (Although, equally, it’s worth noting that the human body undergoes all sorts of changes throughout its lifetime which do not necessarily signify a negative health implication so simply having oodles of data does not necessarily translate into better healthcare.)
The startup’s marketing talks about wanting its “new medical scanning technology concept to make it possible to do broad and non-invasive health data collection that is convenient and affordable for the public”. Albeit, tech that requires a person to attend a bespoke clinic to access it is not obviously that. But the longer term hope, presumably, is for Neko to gain economies of scale and be able to reduce the cost per scan — i.e. if it can make sense of all the data it hopes to obtain from paying customers and then either identify monetizable patterns itself (or partner with others willing to pay for access to support medical research etc).
A report about Ek’s startup late last year, by Sifted, cited legal documents filed with the Swedish company registry stating the startup plans to sell “products and services in diagnostics as well as conducting examinations and health checks on the private market — which suggests it is planning for a B2B business to sit alongside direct-to-consumer clinics where people’s raw body data can be captured.
One major question for Neko’s approach is efficacy — both of its data capture technology; and of any AI-driven diagnostics the startup wants to flow from the data.
Neko’s PR notes that its sensing and AI technology is undergoing “multiple clinical studies running to show efficacy” — so much will rest on the outcomes of those studies. (None of which have been published nor peer reviewed as yet.)
Another issue which will need close attention is privacy — given how much sensitive health data these body scans will obviously capture. Neko will obviously need proper legal bases for each and every proposed use of users’ health data, which EU law classes as sensitive data — requiring the highest bar of explicit consent for processing. Security of user data will also need close care.
On top of that, there is the broad and vital issue of patient safety — and the question of how incoming EU AI regulation around potential harms might impact Neko. Since the startup is building (or applying) health data capture devices, and appears to be intending to develop AI for (at least) clinician support and/or medical diagnostics, a range of regulations are likely to apply, depending on where it wants to operate the service. Including the EU Medical Device Regulation and the incoming EU AI Act (since devices under the former fall under the ‘high risk’ category for the latter).
The EU AI Act, which was proposed back in April 2021 but is still going through the bloc’s co-legislative process, is likely to mean that in the coming years regional startups using AI for health will not only need clinical studies that can demonstrate the efficacy of their products but will also need to, more broadly, consider how to identify and mitigate potential harms — addressing issues like bias, for example, so they can demonstrate their technology is safe for everyone to use (not just for a subset of a given population) — with the threat of regulatory enforcement (including major fines and potentially even orders to withdraw a model from the market) for any failure to properly mitigate risks.
On top of that, attention to these sorts of risks and harms will be critical in the coming years as EU lawmakers are also in the processing of updating product liability laws so they cover harms caused by software and AI, which will also make it easier for EU consumers to sue the makers of cutting edge technologies should their products go awry.