Merck, Telefonica subsidiaries partner to launch London health accelerator

By Jonah Comstock
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Money TreeMerck Sharpe and Dohme (MSD), the UK subsidiary of US pharma company Merck and Co., has partnered with Wayan Open Future, a digital startup accelerator run by Spanish telecom company Telefonica to create a new digital health accelerator focused on preventative health.

Called Velocity Health, the new accelerator will offer a group of startups $48,800 (32,000 pounds) in funding plus an additional $48,800 in other benefits -- including office space in London, a network of mentors, coaches, and investors, and potentially access to Telefonica and MSD's customer bases. The program will run 10 months.

The companies have chosen to focus on preventative health because it's an area that has a lot of potential for healthcare savings and yet to be heavily invested in by the NHS -- currently only 4 percent of the NHS's budget is spent on preventative programs.

"Technology is revolutionizing how we manage healthcare and the UK can be at the heart of it,” Mike Nally, managing director of MSD, said in a statement. “Digital start-ups are at the forefront of this innovation. As a healthcare company with a long legacy of investing in innovation and R&D, we want to actively invest in these types of businesses and harness the amazing talent that is emerging so that we become equally good at ‘recognizing and preventing’ disease as ‘diagnosing and treating’ to help reduce demand for expensive acute services and capacity in the long term.”

MSD isn't the first pharma company to start a digital health accelerator in Europe: Bayer's Grants4Apps program, based in Germany, just added its second class in August. Bayer offers $58,031, or 50,000 euros, to its participants.

Other European accelerators have had some trouble sticking. Healthbox had a London class back in 2013, but hasn't been back there since. And a prominent Irish accelerator, Dublin-based HealthXL, has pivoted in recent years. It's now more of an events company and "matchmaker" that helps different kinds of healthcare stakeholders work together to solve problems.