Mayo-backed consumer health startup Better to shutdown

By Brian Dolan
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Better iPhonePalo Alto-based consumer health startup Better, which counts the Mayo Clinic's venture arm and the Social+Capital Partnership as investors, is closing up shop at the end of the month, according to statements made by the company on its website and on Twitter. During an interview on-stage at the Rock Health Summit earlier this week, Better investor Chamath Palihapitiya reportedly told the audience "it was like crickets chirping when we tried to raise money for this thing."

Better launched with $5 million in funding from Mayo and Social+Capital in mid-2013.

Better was founded by Geoff Clapp, who previously co-founded Health Hero Network, one of the earliest telehealth service providers. Bosch acquired Health Hero in 2007 and continued to offer its Health Buddy service up until this past June. After leaving Bosch and taking some time off, Clapp became an active mentor to startups going through the Rock Health accelerator before ultimately launching Better two years ago.

While Better's pricepoints changed during its two years in the market, the general focus of its service offering was consistent: The Better mobile app and its premium customer service assistants helped people navigate the complexities of the healthcare system in addition to helping them find any number of wellness services. The most recent monthly fee for Better's premium service, Personal Health Assistants, was $20 a month. A recent user review of the service on LinkedIn listed out myriad services the PHA had provided, among them: "Recommending activities and books to nurture my toddler; Finding a pediatric dentist for my daughter; Making doctor appointments on my behalf; Finding weekend running clubs for myself; Researching Paleo Diet and answering questions; Researching apps that provide accurate nutritional information; Assessing my nutrition and designing a meal plan; [and] finding dance classes for my toddler."

Better set out to solve healthcare's customer service problem. Clapp told me in an interview last year that the first version of Better was really a "AAA for healthcare", but it would evolve and become more clinical and telemedicine-focused as time went on.

"The long term goal: How can we provide care to people wherever they are. Rather than going the commoditizing the doctor angle, we decided to start by building a relationship and starting to solve real problems for people," he said. "I was shocked when we first started because I didn’t think there really would be this much complexity for us to solve to really gain people’s trust. The analogy I like to use is, it’s like AAA for healthcare. It sits on top of the system you already have and works with it but it is really important that it gives that peace of mind because you know it’s there." 

Clapp is a serial digital health entrepreneur, so last year I asked him how launching Better was different from his early days at Health Hero in the late 90s.

"Let me start by giving you one similarity: We are early," Clapp said. "We’re early in a market, trying to define the market, and solve a big problem, because it’s not interesting to be the seventh person to solve a problem. There is no doubt that we’re early because I get the same look from people that they gave [us] when we started Health Hero and they say: I’m not sure I totally get it and not sure the world is ready for this. I hear that phrase and think that’s good, because that means we are onto something. We are actually tracking to where things are going rather than to where things are."

It struck me that one of Better's investors, Palihapitiya, mentioned "crickets" when describing the reception Better's pitch was met with by potential investors. Clapp told me that Health Hero faced crickets 17 years ago too, but in the end that company overcame the skeptics. We learned this week that Better didn't fare so well.

"The single biggest difference this time around is that anybody cares," Clapp told me in an interview in April 2014. "Launching a health technology company back in 1998 — there were crickets. No one really cared about it. People would have been much more interested if I had a sock on my hand and I was selling pet food over the internet than anything related to healthcare."

Better plans to publish a post-mortem on its efforts at the end of the month.

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