• Matthieu Vallin

Health & Hygiene Rewired: The Opportunities Ahead in Consumer Health

Consumer health companies and startups can capitalize by rewiring our health and hygiene habits.
9 emerging consumer and technology trends, and startups leading the way.



Source: Work | Phantasm, Place | The Center for Contemporary Art, Ukraine


We are living through a health and hygiene revolution. Simple habits have rarely been so important: washing hands, using and disposing of tissues, and awkwardly slaloming as we walk through town. New habits not only protect ourselves and others around us, but also stand to limit the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 as we prevent future waves and wait for a vaccine.


The responsibility of the individual is fundamental to get through this pandemic - but the responsibility of Consumer Health businesses is even bigger. Fortunately, companies like Johnson & Johnson, Reckitt Benckiser, Unilever, and GSK are experts at creating new habits in our day-to-day. Now, more than ever, we need them to leverage their brand reach and behavioral science expertise to educate, reassure, and develop new products and services suited to modern-day health and hygiene demands.


The most agile consumer health companies will capitalize on the rewiring of our health and hygiene behaviors by pivoting their existing products, developing new digital services, and anchoring offerings in emerging consumer trends. Fortunately, consumer health companies aren’t strangers to pivoting; in fact, many successful consumer health products had a different original use case than their application today. The Kleenex brand, for example (Kimberley Clark’s flagship product line) was designed as a filter for gas masks in the First World War, then became a sanitary pad, and finally morphed into disposable tissues to replace the less hygienic handkerchief. Similarly, Johnson and Johnson’s Listerine was designed to be a surgical antiseptic, a floor cleaner, a cure for gonorrhea, and finally marketed as an oral cleanser that reduces halitosis (bad breath) (1). The takeaway here is that product pivoting is powerful once the right product/market fit is established.


Health and hygiene is an open playing field with new rules. Drastic modifications to day-to-day lifestyles mean unprecedented opportunities in consumer health. My team and I believe the following 9 consumer health areas are ripe for disruption. The startups highlighted below are leading the way and moving at speed.


1. The consumerization of respiratory care


Maintaining healthy lungs has become a priority and novel health concern. However, monitoring the lungs and respiratory health has not yet made into our daily self-care routines. The respiratory monitoring market is growing (8 to 10% CAGR, 2020-2025) (2), but is largely B2B. At-home consumer devices could set the foundation for early detection, thereby encouraging habits that lessen the risk of pulmonary conditions. Startups like NuvoAir and LungPass are paving the way in this market. NuvoAir currently provides at-home lung monitoring for asthma and cystic fibrosis, but the company plans to expand to COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), which degrades the airways in the lungs. Alarmingly, COPD is the third leading cause of death in the USA – but it can be prevented and treated (in some cases) if diagnosed early and managed well. As LungPass rightly put it: ‘Listen to your lungs’.


2. The sophistication of aircare IoT


'Public health awareness on indoor air pollution has lagged behind that on outdoor air pollution’ says the World Health Organisation.

Ultra-fine particles, particulate matter, fine dust particles, and volatile organic compounds can cause a number of conditions that range from minor discomforts such as allergies, nausea, tiredness to major issues such as pulmonary conditions. What was once a traditional consumer category, centered on fresheners, purifiers, deodorizers, scented products, is now harnessing advances in biotechnology and data science. For instance, startups are using new research in far-ultraviolet light (far-UVC) to sterilize air and objects (3), building on B2B companies like Blue Ocean Robotics (using UVC), which just closed a $12m round in December 2019. Moreover, car parts suppliers like ATS ELGI are incorporating ozone sterilizers in their production line. More far-fetched startups are looking at personalized scents to trigger memories, emotions, and boost mental health. These advancements signal that we’ll soon have the tools to understand and control the air around us, and how it will impact our health and wellbeing.

Additionally, advances in neuromorphic chips could soon bring another layer of ‘sensing’ to IoT and wearable technologies. Neuromorphic technology seeks to ‘mimic the neurocircuitry of our noses to smell’ (4). By using neural algorithms similar to the brain’s, neuromorphic chips are able to decipher accurately and quickly between a wide breadth of chemicals. According to Intel’s Neuromorphic Computing Lab and MIT, future applications will be broad, from detecting explosives, noxious chemicals in the air, and even diseases. Neuromorphic computing applications could even make their way into residential and commercial developments in order to deeply advance the safety and quality of dense urban environments. Our analysis shows that we are still 3 to 5 years away from consumer applications, but deep-tech startups to watch include Prophesee (focused on vision, not scent), and Rain Neuromorphic, which raised a seed round in late 2019 with Airbus Ventures.


3. The emergence of ‘low-touch’ products and packaging


Touch and transmission are becoming synonymous. The global low-touch (13) consumer experience in the foreseeable future creates novel product, channel, and partnership opportunities.


Driven by increasing environmental awareness and shifting consumer preferences, demand for low-touch hygiene products, such as smart bathroom products (touchless faucets, touchless soap dispensers, smart toilets) is expected to grow with a 10 to 15% CAGR from 2020 to 2025 (5). This growth trajectory will also see traditional B2B products (e.g. automatic soap dispensers) increasingly sold through B2C channels. This will create significant opportunities in direct-to-consumer e-commerce. The need for 'low-touch' products, compounded with growing environmental awareness prompts a transition from a buy-use-dispose consumption model to a more circular manufacturing model. Companies like Replenish, for example, have developed modular packaging for home-care products which use refill pods, which both eliminates unnecessary touch-points involved in buying new dispensers, and reduces plastic waste.

Partnerships: Consumer health companies can now broker breakthrough partnerships which were not even on the table 3 months ago. In order to reassure and protect customers, AirBnB recently launched a partnership with health and hygiene company (EcoLab). The company is paving the way to define the new consumer experience at the intersection of hospitality and hygiene. Their new program – The Cleaning Protocol – was developed in partnership with Ecolab and former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivik Murthy. It allows users to filter for hosts who have earned the certification.



4.  The emergence of social hygiene through artificial intelligence


Tools that monitor and encourage social hygiene through social distancing are actively leveraging advances in population health analytics and machine learning. Consumer health companies can leverage their strong brand presence and existing customer base to make impactful, data-centric partnerships to design the social hygiene standards we will live by.

Startups at the intersection of hygiene and AI are moving fast. UK-based Crowdless, for example, is harnessing data science and machine learning to help shoppers avoid busy supermarkets. Similarly, stores and workplaces are installing cameras that track human interaction and recognizes fevers. Chief among them is Sensetime, an established Chinese company that uses imaging AI to detect mask utilization and instances of fever. DROR, an Indian startup designed to improve personal safety, has pivoted to provide a social distancing score based on the proximity of nearby devices and self-reported symptoms. As these startups demonstrate, measuring social distancing adherence will boil down to establishing the right metrics and the right incentives. Market winners will bake in incentives that encourage good consumer behavior, which will increase product uptake and customer retention as a byproduct.



5.  The adoption of digital health by boomers and seniors


Pre-COVID, telehealth had yet to make its mark. As recently as December 2019, only 7% of the US population engaged with telehealth (6). By April 2020, this number jumped to 23% - roughly a 3x increase, a user growth which would delight any tech. executive. Telehealth is also on the rise in other regions, such as China. On Ping An’s Good Doctor platform, user growth surged by 900% from December 2019 to January 2020 (7).


The acceleration of telehealth adoption also serves as a gateway for the rollout of new digital health services, such as at-home diagnostics, remote monitoring and digital therapeutics. Always-on COVID-19 coverage has created a new awareness of the risks associated with pre-existing conditions. Specifically, COVID-19 fatality rates have been reported to be higher for people with diabetes, dementia and respiratory conditions. Both necessity and awareness have prompted over 20% of US boomers to adopt telehealth in March and April 2020 (8). We believe that this new risk-savvy segment of Boomers engaging with telehealth will help to move the dial from treatment to prevention. Now that Boomers are comfortable navigating health apps like Babylon, it won’t be long until they engage with preventative healthtech startups like Neurotrack, which uses eye-tracking technology to identify key signs of cognitive decline and prevent the onset of Dementia.



6. The growth of musculoskeletal (MSK) platforms and drug-free pain relief


As remote working becomes more prevalent so too will back and joint pain. Our bodies are going through an unprecedented change in daily activity, routine, and posture. Fast-growing startups like Hinge Health aim to address that. The company, which raised $90m earlier this year, combines a wearable with a digital platform to deliver exercise therapy, behavioural health and education to chronic pain sufferers. Hinge Health’s ultimate aim is to treat and prevent the onset of musculoskeletal conditions like chronic lower back pain.


Even before COVID-19, MSK served as one of the highest contributors to healthcare costs in the US, and a key driver of disability claims (9). Driven by the growth of the aging population and compounded by today’s unusual remote working conditions, digital physiotherapy will soon become a part of our daily routines. Similar to digital nutritional advice, we expect cost-effective digital therapies to be provided by our employers or insurers. A recent increase in corporate partnership activity with drug-free pain relief companies (e.g. TENS technology, personal ultrasounds) signals that digital therapeutics for chronic pain will soon form part of our self-care journey.



7. The rise and expansion of taboo markets to new areas: Male fertility, egg-freezing and surrogacy platforms


Healthcare should be designed for people, not patients. While it is always tough to face existential health challenges like reproductive health, sexual health, and menopause, it’s even tougher through the traditional healthcare system in these uncertain times. In today’s context, both men and women are thinking hard about relationships and family-planning, and startups are paying attention. Direct-to-consumer companies such as Dadi, an at-home sperm collector and cryogenic storage company (which just raised $2m) are making it easy tackle tough health concerns. The startup Lilia also recently closed a seed round of $1.4m to provide women with egg-freezing guidance and encouragement.

As femtech and taboo markets move out of fertility and into new areas like adolescent health, menopause, and sexual rejuvenation, we expect a swarm of hyper-growth D2C startups to be acquired by consumer health companies. Looking a few years ahead, the more nascent spaces in taboo markets include male fertility, egg-freezing, surrogacy, and sexual rejuvenation platforms.



8. The emergence of exposome management

While both genes and the environment shape an individual’s risk of disease, inherited genetic mutations play a role in only 5 to 10% of all cancers (10). The rest can be attributed to the exposome. The exposome encompasses the diet we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, psychosocial stressors, the relationships we nourish, and their corresponding biological responses. Although many companies have consumerised genetic analysis to provide disease predisposition insights (e.g. 23&Me), few have done so for the exposome. In terms of maturity, sequencing the genome is far more advanced the sequencing the exposome.

Research efforts are gaining momentum, however, and we expect consumerization opportunities to follow. A team of researchers at Harvard Medical School have developed a process to look systematically at 976 external chemicals which may cause inflammation and neurodegeneration (11). “When we study inflammation and neurodegeneration, we learn that the environment may play just as important of a role as genetics,” says Francisco Quintana, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. The research suggests that common herbicides and chemicals used in textiles can create inflammatory responses. Further research in this field will bring much needed evidence to the current health & wellness movement.

“Our findings support the need for systematic investigation of the effects of the ‘exposome’—all of the environmental exposures people experience in their lifetime—on neurologic diseases and other conditions,” says Quintana

Startups are beginning to incorporate the concept of the exposome as well. An Australian startup, Driven, is leveraging the exposome concept to drive mental resilience and wellbeing. We except many self-care startups to talk about the exposome, especially as at-home testing kits become more available and specific substances in our environment are tied through research to the development of chronic diseases.



9. The growth and diversification of mental and spiritual health


The ‘second curve’ behind COVID-19 infections is a steep surge of mental health issues, including stress, anxiety and depression. In May 2020 Google published a report highlighting key changes in online behavior in the COVID-19 context (11). The report found that views of meditation-related videos are 51% higher (compared to 2019) in the US. Established startups like Calm, Unwind, Headspace and wearables like Muse are expecting commensurate surges in user growth. The mental health crisis is also fueling partnerships between startups and corporates. For example, the Insurer Aetna International has partnered with startup Wysa to boost mental health support during the pandemic and its aftermath.

Interestingly, the COVID context has also fueled the merger of religion and technology, which has led to a wider landscape of mental and spiritual wellbeing solutions. Across all faiths users are turning to religious digital modules for mental and spiritual wellbeing. For example, website traffic on the Bible App’s website, YouVersion, has increased by 200% from February to March 2020, reaching 35 million visits (12). The Christian meditation app Abide, founded in 2015 by two ex-Googlers, has also seen a surge in traffic. The mental wellbeing landscape is changing quickly with the digitization of religion and spirituality.

Get in touch to discuss these trends further. In our next post, we will discuss advances in the microbiome’s impact on immune system response, end-of-life tech, death-tech, opioid and substance abuse digital therapeutics, surrogacy platforms, and more.


At Sia Partners, I focus on developing new market-entry propositions and scouting startups across life sciences. Most recently, we have worked with Fujitsu and startup partners to launch a venture improving the speed and accuracy of drug discovery, leveraging quantum technologies. The wider Sia Partners team works across sectors and technologies. We’re always eager to discuss new consumer trends, emerging technology, and new business models, so don’t hesitate to get in touch.

References:

(1)    Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York: William Morrow, 2005.

(2)    Research and Markets, Mordor Intelligence

(3)    Welch, D., Buonanno, M., Grilj, V. et al. Far-UVC light: A new tool to control the spread of airborne-mediated microbial diseases. Sci Rep 8, 2752 (2018).

(4)    Hao, Karen. A new computer chip mimics the neurocircuitry of our noses to smell. MIT Technology Review. March 2020

(5)    Allied Market Research

(6)    Civic Science. Survey with 75,213 Respondents weighted by US Census 18+. Survey dates: December 2020 to April 2020

(7)    Bain and Company

(8)    Civic Science. Survey with 75,213 Respondents weighted by US Census 18+. Survey dates: December 2020 to April 2020

(9)    American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. "One in two Americans have a musculoskeletal condition: New report outlines the prevalence, scope, cost and projected growth of musculoskeletal disorders in the U.S.." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 March 2016.

(10) Cancer.gov

(11) Haley Bridger. A Neuroenvironmental Connection. Harvard Medical School. January 2019. https://hms.harvard.edu/news/neuroenvironmental-connection

(12) Website Traffic Analytics from SimilarWeb platform

(13) The Board Of Innovation