Back pain is one of the leading self-reported medical problems in the world. In the US alone, the condition is estimated to affect 100 million people per year. It’s also the number one reason why people are prescribed painkillers – which has in turn created an opioid epidemic.
Munich-based digital therapeutics pioneer Kaia Health has developed an alternative to treat back pain through an app that utilises machine learning and computer vision to suggest individualised therapies. Founded in 2016, Kaia Health just raised a Series A round of €8.8 million in January, and is now developing similar treatments for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Below we interview Kaia Health’s co-founder and CEO, Konstantin Mehl (who previously founded Foodora) about how Kaia works, the challenges faced by the startup, and his plans for its future.
What is your background, and how did you come up with the idea for Kaia Health?
My educational background is in science and finance and started my first business when I was 22. Before Kaia Health, we founded Foodora, a food delivery company, that we grew the company to over 500 employees in 15 countries which, in 2015, went IPO under the Delivery Hero umbrella. In my early twenties, I suffered from chronic lower back pain but couldn’t find a successful long-term treatment. This motivated me to think: How can we help as many people as possible (including myself) to effectively treat the condition by combining the power of medical science and technology? This is how the idea for Kaia was born.
Can you tell us a little bit more about Kaia and how it works?
Fundamentally, we create mobile applications that guide patients to self-manage and get active against their chronic condition like back pain or COPD. We look for best-in-class validated therapy concepts like the multidisciplinary pain therapy and digitise the content.
Further, we use advanced technologies like machine learning to improve the therapy experience and make it resemble the best offline therapy experience that you could have as closely as possible at home. Our AI-powered apps include physiotherapeutic and psychological exercises. We start by asking the patient various questions about their current situation and physical abilities.
Based on this information, the app recommends a daily exercise plan featuring physical exercises, relaxation techniques and medical educational content. This helps patients to improve strength, relieve tension and teach them how to cope with their condition. Therapy can be personalized for each user. This is achieved with a proprietary algorithm which adapts the exercise program to the patient’s needs by evaluating their feedback.
How has Kaia scaled-up since it was founded in 2016, and what challenges have you faced along the way?
Regulation in the medical sector and the need for clinical evidence were certainly two of the main challenges that we faced. Had we launched just another “fitness for back pain” app, this would have been much easier. But now we are clearly reaping the benefits: We are partnering with some of the leading health insurances in Germany and more than 25 million of their customers are eligible to use Kaia for free. Kaia has more than 250,000 users at this stage and we are growing rapidly at double digit month over month rates.
Right now Kaia is specifically focused on back pain, but it is expanding to treat Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). What have been your initial findings regarding its usefulness in treating COPD, and how does it work?
Pulmonary rehabilitation is also a multidisciplinary rehabilitative therapy that is being used to increase the health-related quality of life for COPD patients, i.e. giving them the ability to better cope with the disease in everyday life. As pulmonary rehabilitation is also recommended in clinical guidelines and is facing similar accessibility and implementation problems as multimodal pain therapy (long waiting lists and high costs), we decided to also digitise this therapy and deliver it on the smartphone, allowing COPD patients to have immediate access and build the therapy into their daily routine, leading to more sustainable outcomes.
Our first published pilot study showes promising results: after using the app on 20 separate days, patients showed improvements of CAT and CRQ scores above the minimum clinically important difference (MCID).
What other health issues is Kaia Health looking to tackle in the future?
Basically, our aim is to tackle all chronic diseases that can be treated with a behaviour-based multidisciplinary approach. This includes all musculoskeletal (MSK) diseases like hip, knee and joint pain as well as other complex health issues such as Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis.
What impact do you think Brexit will have on your startup?
We are German/US company headquartered in Munich, Germany and New York City. As a company with digital products, I assume Brexit won’t affect us as much as other companies that ship physical goods. However, negotiations with local healthcare providers might become more challenging, depending on the outcome of the ongoing Brexit negotiations between Britain and the EU.
What is the best advice you’ve received as a startup founder, and what advice would you give to other founders?
Solve a problem that you deeply understand.
What do you see for the future of Kaia Health in the next 5 years?
We aim to become a global leader in digital health and digital therapeutics and I see Kaia Health well on track. It seems like the timing for starting a digital health company couldn’t have been better as all stakeholders in the healthcare system, including patients and payers, become rapidly aware that we need to leverage digital technologies to fix the healthcare problems that are so apparently present today.