Venture Capital

Venture capital’s role in the digital health sector


SINGAPORE: Many start-ups turn to venture capital or VC funds to build and grow their enterprises. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has battered economies around the world, there has been a steep decline in VC investment flows into Asia. Still, sectors such as digital health are proving to be bright spots.

The coronavirus outbreak has been a baptism of fire for on-demand healthcare platform Homage.

In the past months, the firm has been at the heart of Singapore’s COVID-19 detection initiative. They were one of the providers that were part of the national effort to deliver screening at migrant workers’ dormitories. Homage also delivered swab tests for those who have been issued with stay-home notices.

At its core, Homage is an app where users can book home- and community-based care services for the elderly.

But since the outbreak, Homage has built a team of 300 COVID-19 responders and expanded to run mobile nursing stations and telemedicine clinics. In total, the company has more than 3,000 caregivers, and says it is the only platform in ASEAN that combines online and offline delivery across the entire care continuum.

READ: Telehealth gets a boost from COVID-19 pandemic

Ms Gillian Tee is the co-founder and CEO. After years of living in the US, she came back to Singapore and saw a gap in care services for relatives with chronic diseases.

Ms Tee recalls her experience: “The journey that we went through together as a family to look for caregivers was very untouched by technology. The process was opaque, there were long waiting times. Awareness levels were very low and we didn’t really know what we needed.”

For months, Gillian and her team studied caregiver data sets to better personalise care services in the app.

Homage is now a team of 70 people across Singapore and Malaysia. Tapping into venture capital funding was key in reaching that milestone.

Golden Gate Ventures took part in Homage’s US$1.2 million seed funding round in 2017.

The early stage venture capital fund says Homage ticked all the key qualities it looks for in start-ups.

Partner Justin Hall explains what these qualities are.

“The value proposition, what’s the product or service that you’re selling? The market size, how massive is this opportunity? And then the team: Who are the founders, what’s their domain expertise? Can they understand the pain point particularly well and can they build a product and team off that? On top of that would be traction. Now that we’ve created this product or service, are customers buying it?”

READ: More demand for telemedicine as Indonesians stay away from hospitals amid COVID-19

Golden Gate says Homage has the potential to scale and may go public in the future.

Homage has since completed several funding rounds – closing its Series B round early this year.

It is among a few Singapore-based digital tech firms that raised capital amid an overall industry slowdown.

At its core, Homage is an app where users can book home- and community-based care services for the elderly. (Photo: Homage)

Doctor Anywhere raised US$27 million in its Series B round in March, while Holmusk raised US$21.5 million in its Series A round in May.

“There have been 4,500 venture capital deals concluded in Asia in 2020 for about US$70 billion. And while that is a fall from 2018 and 2019, what you’re now starting to see is that in Q3 2020, activity was essentially the same as 2019,” said Andrew Thompson, partner and head of private equity at KPMG in Asia Pacific.

“So I would say on the whole, a dip as you would expect, but a very strong comeback and very good activity levels at the moment,” he added.

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The industries driving VC funding in Asia this year are fintech, edutech, biotechnology, Internet of things, e-commerce and cybersecurity, according to KPMG. And tech-related ventures continue to draw strong backing.

“There is no shortage of private equity and venture capital money in Asia Pacific. There is now US$1.3 trillion of funds under management in the sector. The 2016-17 vintages of private equity funds are showing 30 per cent annual returns. But I would caution that plenty of investors in start-up companies and venture capital end up with zero,” said Mr Thompson.

This note of caution is echoed by Golden Gate Ventures’ Justin Hall.

“Venture capital is an extremely risky asset class. Fortunately, that’s something that’s sort of baked into the model, where our investors as well as GPs or the general partners in these funds understand that many of these companies by right, may fail,” said Mr Hall.

“But long-term, the winners, the multiples on that, the amount of money generated from the exits whether they go public or be acquired, that more than outweighs the losses,” he added.

READ: Close to 6,700 jobs, training opportunities available in healthcare sector: MOM

So far, the pandemic has not affected Golden Gate Ventures’ investment pace.

Still, venture capital funding in digital health fell 46 per cent to US$1.9 billion in the first half of this year, with early start-ups seeing the biggest decline.

For remote care apps such as Homage, some say the pandemic presents added challenges, as the elderly are a high-risk group for COVID-19.

Challenges aside, Homage is leveraging on its COVID-19 team response and will pursue more public and private partnerships in its regional expansion.

And Asia’s ageing population presents a big potential market. It is estimated that there will be more than half a million seniors aged 65 above by 2030, in Singapore alone. And across the Asia-Pacific, many countries are moving from being ageing nations to aged nations.


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