Sometimes Being ‘Better’ Still Isn’t Good Enough

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The health tech start-up Better seemed to be hitting all the right notes. Backed by a star-studded cast of founders and partner institutions, Better aimed to help consumers manage the complexities of the healthcare system. So why did they have to close their doors in 2015?

Over the past years, there have been a flurry of successful healthcare and insurance start ups working directly with consumers to help cut through the jargon and difficulties of insurance and accessing healthcare. We’ve seen many of these early companies raise hundreds of million dollars in funding and have been successfully in getting buy-in from key healthcare institutions as well as patients.

It makes sense. Take the convoluted, outdated, high touch structure of medicine and provide experts, technology, and resources to improve the experience. This approach improves outcomes, introduces efficiency, all while meeting the demands of reducing cost.
It’s almost too obvious of a solution. Are you not palm to face right now asking “why didn’t someone think of this sooner?”

Of course someone did. The focus of this post-mortem is Better, a health care start up based out of Palo Alto, which tried just that and unfortunately shuttered its digital doors in 2015.

Let’s take a closer look at what Better offered. From their original press release, Better staked their territory as “a consumer health start-up which offers a Personal Health Assistant service for people to manage the complexity of healthcare in order to focus on being well.” In collaboration with Mayo Clinic, Better was built to offer tailored advice to users – on demand and mobile friendly. “Blending world-class medical expertise with technology and design, Better’s founding team includes executives from some of the world’s most successful health technology and consumer Internet companies”

Seems to make sense. As their CEO and founder, Geoff Clapp, described: Better wanted to be the AAA of healthcare. The message was right. Their partnership, and investment came from the Mayo Clinic venture arm and Social + Capital Partnership.

Clear vision: check. Solves a present problem: check. Technology in place: check. Initial funding: check. Strategic partnerships: check.

So far it all looks good. Maybe this was a leadership issue? However, Geoff Clapp was no stranger to healthcare or start ups. In fact, he co-founded Health Hero Network, one of the earliest telehealth service providers that was acquired by Bosch in 2007 and continued to operate until 2015.

Strong leadership and direction: check
Perhaps this was a case of startup hype: over promising services and a solution that they were not ready to meet. It doesn’t seem so in Better’s case. A review from their LinkedIn page is one of many examples of how Better met its promise, if not exceeded it. On discussing Better’s service, one user reported using the Personal Health Assistant for “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.”
In fact, Better’s customers seemed loyal, happy, and eventually heartbroken when they ceased their service.

So what happened?
Better’s problem was simply one of Timing. When Better launched their service they were solving a problem in a market that had not yet defined itself. It’s value could not be quantified. It had nothing to compare itself to and so further investment pitches were met with lack luster interest. Investors and partners understood that Better was on to something, but could not grasp what that something was and more importantly its true value. In the end, despite having so much going right for it, Better fizzled because the market just wasn’t ready for it. When interviewed, one of Better’s investors described the reaction to Better’s pitch as “crickets” when meeting with potential investors. Fast forward to today, perhaps the story would be very different.


Contributing Editor
Dr. Madhok began his career as an emergency physician at New York Presbyterian Medical Center before moving to the West Coast to pursue med tech startups. Madhok as served as the technical lead for EMCounter, the informatics chair at the Pediatrics for Physicians Network, and currently serves as the Chief Medical Officer at NS1ghter.

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