Latin America is buzzing with innovation and top talent in the healthtech and biotech industries.
Entrepreneurs and investors are catching on to the countless opportunities that the region has to offer.
With COVID-19, the demand for their solutions put these industries at the frontline of the pandemic creating an evident disruption in their roadmaps. Apart from accelerating regulatory processes in these industries, the pandemic opened up an opportunity to innovate and provide better products and services to underserved markets.
Some of these solutions are being led by incredible entrepreneurs that are challenging the status quo, breaking stigmas, and reorienting the focus of care and treatment in patients through their healthtech and biotech solutions. These entrepreneurs are Andrea Campos from Yana, Flavia Deutsch from Theia, and Pia Garat from EOLO Pharma.
Breaking the mental health stigma
Andrea Campos is a Mexican entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of Yana, an app that accompanies Spanish-speaking people on the path to emotional well-being through strategies based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Having struggled with depression since she was a kid, Andrea knows how lonely it can be to deal with bouts of depression on your own. While she was figuring out what she wanted to do after dropping out of college she decided to learn to code.
After about a year and a half of coding, she had a major depressive episode. During that time, she did a quick search on the App store and realized that there weren’t any mobile apps in Spanish to help people cope with mental illness.
What started out as a personal project to provide her with the tools to cope with her next depressive episode, turned into something that could benefit many more people dealing with the same problems. And that’s how Yana was born.
Yana, an acronym for You Are Not Alone, accompanies its users through a chat where they can have conversations that are guided by CBT techniques.
“This type of therapy sustains that it’s not a particular situation that affects us, but the way in which we perceive the situation. So, the idea is that if you work on your thoughts and your perception you can change the way you feel,” explained Andrea.
These conversations help users identify their thoughts and emotions as well as situations that may trigger them. The app provides users with a space for daily affirmations, a gratitude journal, wellness routine recommendations, and other daily activities, like keeping track of their emotions through mood logs.
When asked what makes Yana different, Andrea answers: its authenticity. During the pandemic, there was a sudden demand for solutions to help people cope with mental illness. Solutions appeared everywhere, from websites and chatbots to more traditional forms of intervention like phone calls. In many cases, these solutions were brought to life in response to the pandemic.
“I think our authenticity derives from why we started Yana. We’re not doing this for monetary gains or out of convenience. We’re doing this to help those people that have nowhere to go for emotional support,” explained Andrea.
A clinical committee is involved in reviewing and approving all of the content that is programmed on the app, but users can have informal conversations on Yana’s chat that feel as if they were speaking to a friend. This human approach that creates a safe space for people to open up emotionally is a reflection of the team behind the app. Yana’s conversations are designed by people who have struggled with mental illness themselves.
“We’re creating these conversations with what we would’ve liked to hear during our own down moments. They’re created for humans by humans,” said Andrea.
Yana’s official app launched in 2020, coinciding with the start of lockdown in Mexico. With a waitlist of 1000 people to start, Yana grew at a steady and moderate rate the first few months. Then, a feature on the App Store for World Mental Health Day in October completely skyrocketed Yana’s downloads.
“We went from 80,000 users to one million in just a couple of weeks. We weren’t ready for that growth. Not even from a technological standpoint. Our servers crashed and we had no other option but to quickly adapt to the situation,” recalled Andrea.
Defining Yana’s target audience wasn’t as straightforward as Andrea and her team had initially thought.
“We were set on the idea that anxiety and depression doesn’t discriminate. It can happen to anyone at any stage in life, therefore Yana should be for everybody. That was a mistake,” explained Andrea.
There were two clearly defined target audiences: those who could pay and those who could not.
They had to decide who to prioritize. The division between these two groups was also tied to age. About 60% of Yana’s users are teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 years who have no purchasing power. Focusing solely on adults that can pay would mean designing a product that no longer speaks to teenagers.
Andrea explains that they’re witnessing a strong generational clash between the teenagers that download the app and their parents. On the one hand, there’s a new generation that is very open to talking about their emotional wellbeing and wants to work on it. But at the same time, when they try to seek help, they have a generation above them that says that they don’t need it.
This mentality is most dominant in Mexican adults that are over 35 years old. Even though this doesn’t represent the majority of Yana’s users, it affects Yana directly when it concerns their children.
“So, we decided to focus on teenagers, despite the problem it would create in terms of monetization. But what we really do not want is for monetization to determine our product. We want to base our decisions on who our real users are, who needs our solution the most and where we are going to have the greatest impact. Monetization comes afterwards, but not the other way around,” said Andrea.
Currently, Yana has a freemium subscription model and, in line with their values, has progressively pushed the paywall further down the user journey to help those who cannot pay continue to enjoy what Yana has to offer.
Monetization is also a challenge because of the stigma associated with mental health. It’s usually relegated to a secondary level and only seen as complementary to physical health, therefore, not worth paying for. Andrea found that most investors also viewed it this way. Many would commend what Andrea was doing, but were not willing to invest.
“They saw it as ‘either you do good or you charge people’, as if these two concepts couldn’t coexist. So, it was very complicated to raise capital at first,” said Andrea.
Due to the lack of regulation in Latin America in the health sector in terms of innovation, many of these types of solutions often find themselves in a grey area.
“In Mexico, only about 2% of the budget for health is for mental health. And of that 2%, 90% are resources that go towards psychiatric hospitals. So, there really aren’t resources for research, technology, and innovation. It’s being neglected,” said Andrea.
There are still many cultural and structural changes that need to happen to reduce the mental health stigma in older generations, but Andrea believes that the younger population will be the generation of change.
Her vision for the future is that Yana will increasingly become more personalized for each stage in life. There are so many variables to take into account that can make the experience unique to each person. For example, while it makes sense to talk to a teenager about cyberbullying, it may make more sense to talk to a person in their 60s about the empty nest syndrome. Even the notification frequency and the text length at which the user engages can vary.
“We want Yana to evolve with you with time. As you grow older, the conversation topics change, as does the way the app accompanies you in all stages of life. We want Yana to truly feel alive,” said Andrea.
Putting women at the center of care
Flavia was born and bred in a house of physicians. Her grandfather, her parents, and her sister chose a medical career path. Though she was the odd one out in that sense, she had always been touched by how they changed people’s lives.
“My parents would wake up at five in the morning with a sparkle in their eyes, driven by what they were going to do that day. I grew up seeing that connection and the impact they had on their patients,” recalled Flavia.
However, she knew she didn’t want to be a physician herself. Instead, Flavia took a completely different route and went to business school, worked in finance, and eventually got an MBA at Stanford.
She’d started playing with the idea of switching to a startup back in 2010 when the startup scene wasn’t as ‘hot’ as it is today. Upon completing her MBA, she moved back to Brazil and joined Acesso, a fintech company where she spearheaded marketing and product sales for six years until her second child was born.
Flavia took this moment as a chance to start her own business, to create a solution that she personally felt connected to.
She reached out to her fellow Stanford classmate, Paula Crespi, to propose that they create a solution by and for women.
With so many opportunities to fix industries where technology was not being well-employed, an obvious option would have been to go into fintech given Flavia’s and Paula’s experience in the sector. However, they fell in love with healthtech instead.
“Healthcare is not an easy market, it takes more time than usual, than other tech businesses. But if you nail down the solution, you’re really changing people’s lives. And I think that’s a huge motivation,” said Flavia.
Having gone through pregnancy twice in Brazil, Flavia was very familiar with the system and its broken incentives. Together with Paula, they created Theia to put women at the center of care.
“Out of 70% of women who start their pregnancies wanting a vaginal birth in the private healthcare system, 85% will end up having a C-section. You’re seen as just a belly carrying a baby,” explained Flavia.
Theia aims to provide a more holistic experience for women, from the moment that they find out they’re pregnant, all the way to childbirth, and postpartum. The platform helps women navigate their pregnancy and parenthood by providing curated content, access to vetted healthcare professionals through remote and in-person consultations, as well as access to community connections to create a modern support network.
The platform began as a 100% virtual solution. However, Flavia and Paula pivoted to an online-to-offline model when they saw the limitations of a purely digital solution. Having an integrated team and being able to coordinate care offline was the only way to truly provide a better experience and accompany mothers along their journey.
“You can provide her with all the information she needs to be better prepared for labor, but if you’re not there, she’s still in the hands of a professional that might not be aligned with her best interests,” commented Flavia.
When Theia launched two years ago, telemedicine had not yet been tested or regulated. The pandemic played a key role in accelerating the digitization of healthcare in Brazil, increasing reach and accessibility, and reducing costs. It also accelerated the acceptance of telemedicine in both professionals and patients.
“I would talk to physicians and they would say ‘I will never do telemedicine. In my specialty that’s impossible’. And then comes March 2020 and they start adopting all possible means to deliver virtual care,” said Flavia.
In Brazil, the majority of the population relies on the public healthcare system Sistema Unico de Saude (SUS). However, a quarter of the population pays for private healthcare insurance. Because Theia is an out of network service, their clients fall on a broad spectrum of women that have insurance and get all expenses reimbursed and women that don’t have private healthcare but want to receive better care and pay out of pocket.
“We see that companies are the ones that are paying for healthcare in Brazil, either hiring insurance through insurers or the government. The big market is there. People who pay purely out of pocket are a very small market,” said Flavia.
Although they are currently focused on perfecting the product as a B2C solution, they know that scalability in healthcare in Brazil is through the B2B route.
Creating the next generation of pharmaceutical drugs
Pia Garat is a Uruguayan entrepreneur and the co-founder and CEO of EOLO Pharma, a biotech that develops disruptive therapies for the treatment and prevention of the leading causes of death worldwide, such as Type 2 diabetes.
Pia studied biotechnology engineering in Uruguay, when biotechnology professionals were still a novelty. Even more unconventional, was the focus of her career, which combined biotechnology with business.
“You’d look at my courses and we had biobusiness, economics, entrepreneurship… for other scientists it was very rare to see that,” said Pia.
It was during an internship at Institut Pasteur de Montevideo that Pia had her first startup experience and caught the proverbial entrepreneurial bug. She formed part of a research team that was screening beneficial effects from natural products.
After that first experience, she co-founded EOLO Pharma, a biotech startup that focuses on developing drugs that target the molecular and cellular basis of inflammation-related diseases. Eolo, the god of wind, was a fitting name for an Uruguayan biotech startup in honor of the country’s commitment to innovation has been a pioneer in wind energy in Latin America.
With EOLO, Pia decided to apply for CITES, an initiative by Sancor Insurance Group that supports innovation. There, she found role models who had successfully achieved the duality she had been working towards combining science with business.
“Up until that moment it was almost like a bad word to mix the two. I loved it because I connected with people that were amazing on a scientific level and a business level. It was a fantastic combination,” said Pia.
Presenting the molecules that they had been developing at EOLO was a defining moment for Pia.
“I think maybe that if at that time we did not have that intrigue, that curiosity to be entrepreneurs, those molecules might still be in a lab drawer,” reflected Pia.
They spent three years at CITES learning about how to build a business in biotech, developing great relationships with other entrepreneurs, mentors, and investors.
According to Pia, being a biotech entrepreneur doesn’t always require having an idea to start.
“For those who want to start a company: be curious. Join research teams, ask what they’re working on, if there are areas that they want to continue to develop. And of course, it’s important to exercise the ability to continuously deal with frustration, because it’s not an easy road,” said Pia.
At CITES, Pia and her team were flooded with new information and found that the more they learned the more they realized how little they knew. One thing they did know was that they wanted to delve deeper into the development of molecules in a lab.
EOLO currently develops about 60 types of molecules for different health problems. However, their main focus is on obesity and type 2 diabetes.
“Before the pandemic, one of the main causes of death in the 21st century was obesity and associated diseases,” commented Pia.
There is a huge opportunity to change lives with these molecules. According to WHO, about 650 million people are obese and there is no solution for them. They are oftentimes put on diets and exercise routines that aren’t sustainable without medication.
“About 95% of people with obesity will remain obese throughout their lives and might die from a cardiovascular disease associated with that obesity,” said Pia.
The problem also lies in that there is low adherence to existing drug treatments because most solutions have negative side effects like depression. EOLO wants to turn this around by developing a drug that doesn’t have as severe side effects. Inspired by their first startup experience, they’re chemically enhancing natural products to create a new generation of pharmaceutical drugs to treat obesity.
EOLO adopts a B2B model, selling their drug developments to pharmaceutical companies. There are three development stages in the pharmaceutical industry: first is the lab research stage, second is the animal testing stage, and third is the human testing stage. This last stage can be quite long and complex.
“We’re going to start testing on humans next year, and afterwards we want to sell to a pharmaceutical company for them to continue with the following stages of human testing,” explained Pia.
These trials are very expensive and usually require a heavy investment before selling to a client. Because biotech is a capital intensive industry, it can be challenging to raise large rounds in Latin America.
“I can picture raising $25M in an investment round in Latin America. While in the US, for the same development stage at which I am today, I would be able to raise $60M to $100M in a Series A. The difference is abysmal,” commented Pia.
The reality is that investors are still looking at Latin America with distrust. For these reasons, development is slower in Latin America and having a strong network is crucial to validating your startup.
“That said, there are also important advantages. Our region has extraordinary talent. We have nothing to envy other countries in terms of talent. That helps a lot when it comes to making new discoveries,” said Pia.
There are two things that motivate Pia the most at EOLO. The first is getting to the human testing stage in their development.
“That’s a dream that we have been chasing since we started the company. It’s something that you see in class as a student, and it feels very distant. And of course, you learn so much from reaching that stage,” said Pia.
In addition to developing drugs to treat obesity and type 2 diabetes, Pia is very proud of a drug they’ve developed for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This disease doesn’t have an effective treatment and people usually have a life expectancy of two years once they’ve been diagnosed.
“We’re developing a drug for that disease which has already performed well on animals, and competes well with potential competitors that have been released in the market. It fascinates me to think that we can release a drug that can help that group of people. You can change not only a person’s life, but a family’s as well,” said Pia.
As the biotech ecosystem continues to grow, Pia notices that Uruguayan researchers that had left the country are coming back to work on local projects, intrigued by developments in the region. Pia celebrates this phenomenon because the more noise being made about biotech developments, the more investors will be attracted to the region.
“The amount of South American companies that are participating in the virtual international fairs to which I am going is impressive. Six years ago when I would participate, there was no other representation. But now, it’s different,” recalled Pia.