Quanttus Dives Into Personal Health With $22M From Khosla, MatrixFebruary 24, 2014
by Gregory T. Huang
Last summer, we were the first to report on a stealthy MIT startup that’s trying to become a big player in personal health and wellness. Well, that company is now one of the better-funded efforts in this emerging sector.
Quanttus, a 25-person startup based in Cambridge, MA, announced today that it has raised a $19 million Series A round from Khosla Ventures and Matrix Partners. The deal, which closed in December, comes on the heels of a $3 million seed investment from Khosla early last year. Khosla Ventures is also an investor in San Francisco-based wearables company Jawbone and Boston-born mobile health startup Ginger.io.
This is a rare case in which a startup’s financing and investors are more of a news story than what it’s actually doing. Mostly because it’s still too early for the company to say much about the latter—or about where it will play in the competitive market of health tracking and wearables.
Not that I didn’t try to draw that out of Shahid Azim (pictured), the CEO and co-founder of Quanttus. Previously he was the CEO and co-founder of Lantos Technologies, another MIT spinout that makes 3D-imaging equipment to help hearing aids and audio headsets fit better.
In early 2012, Azim says, he was intrigued by Qualcomm’s announcement of its Tricorder XPrize—a competition to design a personal-health device that can scan a patient and diagnose problems, like its “Star Trek” namesake. That was the original inspiration for Quanttus, though the company’s approach has since diverged.
Azim put together a small team of mostly MIT alums (he’s a Sloan School grad), including co-founders David He and Richard Bijjani, to see how far they could get quickly. They built on He’s PhD work at MIT on monitoring cardiovascular disease using wearable sensors. The core technology is about “passive, noninvasive, continuous monitoring,” Azim says. That’s techno-speak for something you can wear comfortably while you work, play, or sleep, and doesn’t require you to do anything special, like draw blood.
After some experiments, Quanttus developed a prototype device worn on the wrist. The hardware uses a variety of sensors—optical, accelerometer, and so forth—to measure vital signs such as heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration.
That’s no easy feat. If it were, doctors would just scan your wrist instead of putting your arm in a blood-pressure cuff and listening to your chest. A big part of Quanttus’s innovation, Azim says, is around its methods for resolving the human body’s vital signals in the presence of noise, including wrist motion when a person walks or moves around.
The other big challenge has to do with processing the data. As Azim puts it, once the hardware isolates the right signals, the company’s software needs to “add context around that” in order to generate “the right insights to induce behavior change.” In doing that, he says, “you have a shot at the Holy Grail of healthcare, which is outcomes.”
That’s pretty abstract, but it sounds like what Quanttus is doing is using machine learning and artificial-intelligence tools to get a fuller picture of a person’s health, once it has a baseline of vital signs. You could imagine, for instance, that the software can account for things like sleep quality, hydration, and exercise, and even pull in environmental factors like location, weather, and air conditions, to try to figure out why a person doesn’t feel good on a given day.
Quanttus hopes eventually to tackle serious health areas like cardiac disease, hypertension, and stress. If successful, the company will “create powerful new tools for consumers and healthcare providers that will change how we understand our health,” says lead investor Vinod Khosla, in a statement.
Azim first met Khosla, the famed VC and founding CEO of Sun Microsystems, at a mobile health conference in December 2012. He gave Khosla an elevator pitch (actually a hallway pitch) and then met up with him over coffee. Within a month, Azim had a term sheet; the seed money was in the bank by February, he says.
Since then, Quanttus has been running validation studies at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The upshot so far: the company’s wrist-worn device is able to measure signals similar to those you’d get from about five bulky devices in a hospital, Azim says. That fits a broader theme of healthcare moving out of hospitals and into homes—and consumers taking more control to stay healthy, rather than seeking care only when they get sick.
When you ask Azim about the company’s product strategy, though, things get fuzzy. Quanttus is not a strictly consumer-focused tech company or a medical-device company, he says. It’s both. “We want to be defined by the questions we ask,” Azim says. “Some things we measure are in the domain of the consumer, and some are in healthcare applications.”
So how will Quanttus make money? “That’s a question we don’t usually ask around the company,” Azim says. “We’re focused on solving real problems and doing impactful work. We want to see what we can learn before we try to sell into [a particular] channel. At some point, we’ll think about getting a product into the real world in ways that don’t box us [in] too much.”
Azim resists being compared to other wearables companies or smartwatch makers. And for good reason: wrist-worn health trackers seem to be a dime a dozen these days. (One apparent competitor would be Basis, a San Francisco company with a smartwatch that monitors heart rate, movement, sleep, and stress.)
“We’re not in it to put out another wearable for the sake of it,” Azim says. “We are not in the business of putting a computer or mobile phone on your wrist. We want to solve for pretty big questions around human health.”
Nevertheless the company faces some of the same challenges as anyone making a wearable device—things like battery life, comfort, fit, and design aesthetic. “Wearable computing means the wearable part is far more important than the computing part,” says Robert Goldberg, the CEO of Boston health-monitoring firm Neumitra. “If it’s not worn, no amount of computing intelligence will matter.”
On the software side, Quanttus will operate on health data in the cloud, and people will be able to interact with their data (and device) via their smartphone, tablet, or laptop. But how the product will actually look and work remains vague, behind the cliché of “awesome user experience.” Azim adds that “the technology is not limited to the wrist,” meaning there could be other types of devices in store.
Leave it to an investor, then, to articulate the commercial vision around wearables.
“This is going to change from a fashion game to a technology game,” says Stan Reiss, the startup’s lead VC from Matrix Partners. As big players ramp up their efforts in personal health and devices, “you’re going to have to be good,” he says. Up to this point, most health-tracking devices have been glorified step counters, he says.
Not surprisingly, Reiss is bullish on Boston’s potential to lead the world in wearables and healthtech. From the Matrix office in Cambridge, he can see both MIT and Mass. General Hospital, separated by the Charles River—a clear visual reminder of the opportunity to blend first-class brains and technical know-how with clinical expertise and patient populations. (If only the Longfellow Bridge weren’t under construction for the next two years.)
Khosla helped bring Matrix into the Series A deal, Azim says. Coincidentally, Azim’s previous company, Lantos Technologies, occupied the same floor of a Kendall Square building as Matrix. So he was well aware of the VC firm, but hadn’t worked with them before.
Several local companies have areas of overlap with Quanttus. Neumitra also has a wrist-based device and is focusing on measuring and understanding stress and anxiety. Bobo Analytics is developing a wearable device and software, primarily targeting athletes for training purposes. Change Collective, led by Zeo co-founder Ben Rubin, is taking a software and content approach to behavior change via smartphones. MC10 has fundamental technology around flexible hardware and wearable electronics. Segterra has an online service that gives health and lifestyle recommendations based on a blood sample. And RunKeeper has a popular consumer app and health platform for tracking running and fitness.
The bigger emerging guys in the field are Apple, Google, Samsung, Nike, Fitbit, and Jawbone. Interestingly, that last one is backed in a big way by Khosla Ventures; there is speculation among outside experts I’ve talked to that whatever Quanttus develops will find its way into Jawbone products. In the meantime, Apple and Jawbone may be on a collision course when it comes to health monitoring.
Azim downplays the competitive aspects, of course. The big guys are “trying to go after a 200-million user base. For us, it’s about one use case at a time. The reason we exist is we ask fundamentally different questions,” he says. “They’re going after big swaths of the market. We’re solving big problems on a smaller subset of those.”
Maybe so, but if a company like Quanttus gets real traction—always a big if—one could imagine the data coming from wearable sensors would yield a huge amount of information and insights about patient populations and health trends.
From his Lantos experience, Azim brings two main lessons in building a healthtech company. First, he says, “focus on people” and assemble a “team that will be head and shoulders above what’s out there.” Second, he says, “optimize for the long run” and don’t focus too early on revenue or shipping a product.
Azim says he’ll be looking for new office space in the next few months to accommodate his team, which is on track to double to about 50 people this year. Boston observers might worry that with a prominent West Coast investor like Khosla, Quanttus will end up moving to San Francisco like so many startups before it. Azim admits there’s a “high likelihood” that the company will open a Bay Area office and become bicoastal.
But for now, he seems committed to expanding the technical team—hardware engineers, data scientists, and more—in the Cambridge/Boston area, where his team’s MIT network mostly remains.
“I see us growing in Kendall Square,” he says.