Sensely raises $8M for AI-powered virtual nurse app, eyes large-scale partnerships

By Heather Mack
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San Francisco-based Sense.ly, which makes a virtual nurse assistant available through an app, announced it has raised $8 million in Series B funding in a round led by Chengwei Capital. Additional contributions came from Fenox Venture Capital, Bioved Ventures, the Mayo Clinic and the Stanford StarX fund. This brings the company’s total funding to date to at least $11.5 million.

Sense.ly confirmed it had secured the funding at the end of 2016, but had not publicly announced until now. They last announced funding in 2015, and the new investment will go towards expanding the business into new markets with larger patient populations and programs.

“The money we have raised is to expand AI capability, expand the number of disease programs and algorithms we support and investing to increase patient adoption at mass scale,” Sense.ly CEO Adam Odessky told MobiHealthNews. “To do that, we are looking for different partnerships, including those that allow us to have more clinical content in a way that patients appreciate and engage with.”

The Sense.ly app employs a fleet of AI-powered nurse avatars to clinics and patients with the aim of keeping both parties in communication between office visits, as well as prevent hospital readmission and develop ongoing lifestyle behaviors to promote health. The company has a core, rule-based engine algorithm built around clinical demarcations and protocols for specific diseases, and Odessky said Sense.ly is always looking to expand their capabilities.

“It’s always improving, learning more and more from patients, and as we partner with more organizations, bring in more disease states and research, we’ll layer in more protocols and content,” he said.

Since launching in 2013, Sense.ly has focused on specific chronic conditions in US patients like heart failure, diabetes or COPD. They work with different clinics and providers throughout the country, but the company also works large-scale with the UK’s National Health Service, and is looking to focus on similar partnerships domestically. Odessky couldn’t name names, but said the company has a lot of “partnership activity” with payers entering risk-based contracts.

“To accommodate this new growth strategy, we’re working on embedding our software with the kind of insights to fit into payer models,” said Odessky.

One of the most commonly referenced nurses is Molly, but patients can interact with one of many Sense.ly nurses (which vary in gender, ethnicity and accents) for five minutes per day on their smartphone by speaking right to the app, and the nurse avatar responds based on the patient’s answers and specific health condition as well as emotions, similar to technology from Beyond Verbal or Affectiva. All data for the interactions go into the patient’s secure medical record, accessible only by authorized health providers.

“It’s human-like. It talks to patients naturally, and they talk to the nurse as they would a real nurse or doctor,” said Odessky. “Since most of our users are 65 or older, these are people who grew up talking on the phone or talking with people in real life, and sometimes when you introduce technology to this population, you don’t have success. That’s why we have an avatar that responds like a real person, with empathy, who we hope can illicit longterm use and honesty.”
 
And the company has found patients like the AI nurses, referencing a study of use of avatar Molly for 30 days resulted in a readmission rate below 5 percent, as many patients reported feeling more comfortable sharing even more information with Molly than with their medical provider.

“Research shows that patients tend to trust machines more than people. Because of that trust, empathy and non-judgment, many people often feel they can share more with a robot,” Odessky wrote on the company’s blog.

As Sense.ly works to get smarter and more widely deployed, the company is firm that they are not trying to replace doctors and nurses, but rather offset doctor and nurse shortages.

“We don’t want patients to lose the clinical touch they are used to, because a patient’s relationship with their doctor or nurse is special and sacred. It’s a unique relationship and we want to keep that, but we want fill in where an in-person conversation can’t happen. We’d love for them to talk more in person, but with self-care and management of chronic conditions, that system is just not possible.”