Through new Optum Ventures unit, UnitedHealth Group will invest $250M in digital health startups

By Susan Morse
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Optum on Tuesday launched the venture fund Optum Ventures, which has $250 million to invest in digital health startup companies.

The venture fund will invest in companies that use data and insights to help improve consumers’ access to healthcare services and how care is delivered and paid for, according to a statement from UnitedHealth Group, Optum’s parent company.

Optum CEO Larry Renfro is managing partner of Optum Ventures, but though the company is also funded by Optum, it will operate independently under the leadership of partners A.G. Breitenstein and Virginia McFerran, UnitedHealth Group said. 

Breitenstein and McFerran will run the venture fund offices in Boston and Menlo Park, California. Both have experience in starting, advising and leading innovative healthcare enterprises. 

The marrying of cutting-edge technology and big data is nothing new, but Optum Ventures has the behemoth of Optum analytics and its technology-enabled health services business. Optum has virtually every payer and over 5,000 hospitals in its portfolio. 

It works with about 300 health plans, including the insurance arm of UnitedHealth Group, UnitedHealthcare, the largest health insurer in the nation.

Optum is not the only company earmarking millions to advance healthcare innovation, though.

Other recent investments include Northwell Health’s $15 million 20,000 square-foot Center for Health Innovations and Outcomes Research, which is part of the Feinstein Institute of Medical Research. The facility has a team of international researchers that will use technology and big data to improve healthcare delivery.

Also, Cedars-Sinai recently named 10 new startups for investment in its third round of its health technology accelerator. The companies will use the funds to create technologies that they will get to test with Cedars-Sinai physicians and mentors from Techstars, which works with the entrepreneurs.

And in September, Inova Personalized Health Accelerator announced it was launching a new and free entrepreneur education program. 

Optum Ventures has made four initial investments, in Apervita, Buoy Health, Mindstrong Health, and SHYFT Analytics.

Apervita is a cloud-based platform that reduces the time it takes to build and deploy analytic applications to enable healthcare professionals to deliver better care, and enterprises to gain stronger insights.

Buoy Health has developed an artificial intelligence-powered digital health assistant that helps patients better understand their symptoms and get advice on where to go and what to do next.

Mindstrong Health technology uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to assess a patient’s smartphone interactions to help diagnose and treat neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder.

SHYFT Analytics provides a cloud-based data and analytics platform for life sciences companies, enabling them to reduce cost and risk while increasing clinical and commercial performance, with a focus on oncology, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other specialty and rare disorders.

Entrepreneurs working with Optum Ventures gain not only capital investment, but Optum’s analytics capabilities, strategic guidance and knowledge of how health systems work and perform, UnitedHealth said. Startups will gain a proving ground to research, test and innovate new solutions to bring solutions to market more quickly. 

“Optum Ventures is uniquely positioned to help develop and grow startups and early-stage companies through capital investment, Optum’s decades of experience in healthcare, and our access to the healthcare marketplace,” Renfro said. “Optum Ventures will be the partner of choice for companies developing innovations that help make healthcare work better for everyone.”

This month Optum completed its purchase of the healthcare division of The Advisory Board, in a deal valued at $1.3 billion.