Three major health insurers invest in COVID-symptom startup

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(Bloomberg) -- Buoy Health, a startup that makes a widely used Covid-19 symptom checker, has raised $37 million from investors including the venture arms of major insurers Cigna Holding Co., Humana Inc. and UnitedHealth Group.

The Series C investment round values Buoy at just under $200 million, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified discussing private information.

Boston-based Buoy Health uses artificial intelligence to help patients identify possible ailments and direct them to appropriate treatment. Founded in 2013, it has been used by 10 million people since the software launched publicly in 2017, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Andrew Le said in an interview.

Buoy’s software presents a text-based chat that mimics the kind of conversation a patient and doctor might have. Users answer questions about symptoms, and the algorithm steers the conversation based on data from thousands of medical studies. It eventually produces as many as three suggestions for what to do next, like talk to a clinician on a virtual visit or seek a test.

In January Buoy raced to incorporate Covid-19 symptoms into the program. Its Covid symptom checker was available to 190 million people through large health plans and deals with states including Massachusetts and Virginia, Le said.

The software isn’t meant to diagnose patients. Rather, it’s supposed to guide them to more reliable information than they might find by simply searching for their symptoms online.

“We’re not practicing medicine,” said Le, who founded the company while training in neurosurgery at Harvard. “We’re trying to give you a better, curated understanding of what’s actually going on.”

Across the health-care system, different entities are competing to be the “front door” where patients first enter. Those include clinics at pharmacies and retailers; telemedicine services provided by insurers, employers, or health systems; and brick-and-mortar urgent care clinics and emergency rooms. Le likens Buoy to a “sidewalk” that helps people reach the right front door for their needs.

Buoy’s software is available to the public on its website and also deployed through deals with insurers, employers, health-care systems, and states. Those clients pay a monthly fee for their members to access the platform. In those deals, Buoy can direct users to certain medical providers included in a health plan’s network, for example.

Le said it can save money by helping people get to appropriate sites of care – so someone who might have gone for an expensive emergency room visit could be triaged to a far less costly telemedicine consult or directed to over-the-counter self-treatment instead.

The latest round of investment will be used to help improve the handoff between Buoy’s chat and other services like telemedicine, Le said. Buoy, with about 75 employees, has raised about $66 million to date, including the $37 million Series C.

Cigna Ventures and Humana led the funding round, joined by UnitedHealth Group’s Optum Ventures, Hambrecht Ducera Growth Ventures and Trustbridge Partners.

A nurse wearing a powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) exits a patient room the Covid-19 intensive care unit (ICU) at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver, Washington, U.S., on Thursday, April 30, 2020. The coronavirus outbreak may last for two years and won’t be controlled until about two-thirds of the world’s population is immune, a group of experts said in a report.
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