Virtual nurse startup Sense.ly raises $2.2M, sets sights on global rollout

By Jonah Comstock
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Sense.lySense.ly, a San Francisco-based "virtual nurse" company that spun out of mobile operator Orange in 2013, has raised $2.2 million. New investors in the round include Fenox Venture Capital and TA Ventures. Launchpad Digital Health, an accelerator that Sense.ly participated in, also contributed.

The company raised $1.25 million last September and a small round of seed funding previously, which brings the company's total funding so far to about $3.5 million. They plan to use the latest round to "launch new markets, expand its support of its global customer base, and drive enhancements" to its product line, according to a press release.

In addition to the funding, Sense.ly announced a number of new customers including National Health Service of the UK, Dudley Clinical Commissioning Group, Novartis, and The University of California - San Francisco (UCSF). The interface is now capable of interacting with patients in English, Spanish, Mandarin, and 24 other languages, which should allow the company to start deploying its software on a global scale.

Novartis and Sense.ly have a previous relationship: Sense.ly won a 2013 digital health challenge sponsored by Novartis, something Novartis made note of in an online summary of its digital health endeavors. The challenge was "a 48-hour development marathon in the heart of Silicon Valley in the United States, aimed at identifying a novel way to use mobile technology to address a major health challenge."

Sense.ly has developed an interactive, animated nurse avatar called Molly, which provides follow-up care to patients, focusing mostly on those that have chronic diseases. Using gesture capture based on Microsoft’s Kinect as well as a Nuance-powered speech recognition engine, Molly can analyze a patient’s condition and provide insights into what steps patients should improve their health. The program is offered under a Software as a Service business model, which means providers can deploy it either as a kiosk or on a tablet, though different modalities have different functionality with regards to the Kinect.

"Some may worry that we are in the business of replacing nurses and doctors," Sense.ly CEO Adam Odessky wrote in a February blog post. "We are not. Molly is here to fill in the gaps that clinicians can’t. I don’t think we’ll ever lose that human bond that exists between doctors and patients. Molly stratifies patients by risk and serves as an early warning system for clinicians before symptoms exacerbate. This enables clinicians to help their patients faster."

He added that studies done on Molly so far -- including the UCSF eHeart study -- have shown that patients get used to interacting with an avatar pretty easily.

"Patients – who you think would be distrustful of a machine – get used to interactions with Molly fairly quickly," he wrote. "Remember the 2013 popular drama with Joaquin Phoenix Her? I don’t see it as science fiction any more. People developing relationships with virtual humans is a new reality. In a recent study by the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies, researchers found that patients interact longer and more frequently with virtual human interfaces than with voice-only, Siri-like tools or generic mobile apps."

On its website, Sense.ly offers particular mobile platforms for congestive heart failure, diabetes, and behavioral health.