Cancer progresses differently in each patient, and many of these patients make this journey feeling alone. Information mainly comes from a physician, yet much of what a patient experiences occurs outside of clinical settings, said Jessica Thurmond, co-founder of Athelo Health. The startup is developing a software tool that will be a constant companion to the patient at each step of the cancer journey.
“Some models focus on the clinic side of things, which is fantastic and we appreciate them,” Thurmond said. “But we come at this with a patient-first perspective.”
For Thurmond, the endeavor is a personal one. Her mother died from inflammatory breast cancer in 1999. Along the way, Thurmond said her mother lacked information and resources about her disease, which affected her patient journey. Thurmond said she was motivated to develop a tool that can help patients like her mother.
Athelo was one of the startups that presented during the Pitch Perfect contest at the recent MedCity INVEST conference in Chicago. The company was judged the co-winner in the pharmatech category. Jeff Weness, head of digital opportunities and business intelligence at Otsuka Pharmaceutical Companies and one of the judges in the category, found Athelo’s model a compelling one for patient care.
“I was impressed by Jessica and her commitment to helping all women going through the many unknowns of cancer treatment,” Weness said. “Athelo’s virtual model should improve accessibility and lower costs.”
Thurmond and her co-founder Monica Schmiede met while working at a contract research organization. There, they saw no shortage of tools for remote patient monitoring. The problem is that these tools reach only the approximately 8% of people who participate in clinical trials, Thurmond said. But even then, these tools are geared toward the pharmaceutical industry and clinicians. Thurmond and Schmiede talked about ideas for a company that could offer patient-oriented tools. Last year, they formed Athelo with a focus on helping women with breast and gynecological cancers.
Launching a startup during the pandemic offered the benefit of highlighting where and how technology can help patients in new ways. As people avoided in-person visits, telemedicine gained wider adoption. That trend also shone a spotlight on the need to address workforce challenges in healthcare. Thurmond noted that the industry faces a shortage of oncologists, which makes it more difficult for institutions to meet patient needs. Technology can help.
Athelo’s technology is a mobile app that patients are meant to interact with throughout the day. The software is an information source, providing scientific articles that have been reviewed and summarized for lay readers. Athelo also connects with wearable consumer devices, such as smart watches, gathering biometric data. Measures of heart rate, temperature, and sleep are collected forming a baseline form which progress can be measured. For example, if a patient has trouble sleeping or is experiencing headaches, the app can recommend how to manage those problems.
More than offering personal suggestions, the Athelo technology is designed to help patients feel connected to their clinicians and to other patients. Users are placed in peer communities, pods of five to 10 women matched according to traits such as religion and stage of diagnosis. A chatroom for these pods offers women a way to form a support network.
From the standpoint of clinicians, Thurmond said there is sometimes a communications gap between oncologists and primary care physicians. The information gathered from Athelo can give these doctors a common reference point for seeing what’s happening with the patient. It can also help patients better understand what’s normal and what’s an emergency. Thurmond offered the example of a patient experiencing a side effect. The Athelo app can tell patients whether the symptoms warrant more pressing immediate attention. That way, the technology can help avoid unnecessary emergency room visits, Thurmond said.
Athelo was initially bootstrapped by Thurmon and Schmiede, and then later raised some pre-seed funding. Thurmond said the company plans to raise a $5 million seed financing in the third quarter of this year. In the nearer term, Athelo is preparing to launch the app in coming months. It will be a soft launch in a group of about 200 patients. That group will help provide feedback to fine-tune the offering and make sure everything is in good working order, Thurmond said. Patients wishing to participate in the soft launch may sign up on the Athelo website.
While the app is patient focused, Schmiede said that the startup learned from other healthcare apps that trying to generate revenue from patients or insurance companies would be challenging. Athelo will never cost a patient anything, Schmiede said. The company is talking with pharmaceutical companies that will be Athelo’s customers, paying for the app as a way to improve patient education about their treatment. Pharma companies will pay a monthly fee based on the number of users.
Though Athelo is starting in breast and gynecological cancers, Thurmond said the company may expand to other cancer types in the future. As the company grows, she said it will always remain cancer focused. Many of the currently available patient-focused tools are indication agnostic, Thurmond said. The cancer specificity of Athelo’s offering is what makes it compelling.
“This is new to the oncology space. It’s a model that’s worked effectively in other therapeutic indications,” Thurmond said. “The pandemic has been a big reason that people have seen this as a shifting point that we can do something indication specific.”