On November 22, 2010 Business Insider published a list of what it deemed to be the 10 Craziest Start-up Ideas of All Time. There were some pretty entertaining ones on the list. The best one in my view is Game Crush (motto: it’s time to spice up your game!), which lets you pay $0.60 a minute to play Xbox Live games with hot women. According to the article you can rate your ‘PlayDates’ based on ‘hotness’, ‘gaming skill’, and ‘flirtiness’ to “ensure the cream rises to the top” (whatever that means). Sounds like nerd paradise. Apparently it even got funded. The VC world has a pretty high nerd: normal person ratio, so I guess that should not surprise me.
On the list of 10 Crazy Ideas there was only one healthcare-related idea. Considering that healthcare makes up almost 20% of the GDP, you would think that this type of list would have greater healthcare representation. And frankly, the healthcare idea picked for the list is really not so crazy. It’s called Withings, and it is basically a scale with built-in wifi so it can communicate your weight to nearby devices. This lets you track your progress getting in shape, or even tweet out periodic updates on your weight (um, no thanks). There are a myriad of similar devices today which are intended to provide ongoing tracking and monitoring of a variety of biometric measures, so this one is to me a bit of a cop-out when it comes to “crazy”. You want crazy healthcare ideas? I got a million of ‘em.
In fact, I decided it was my duty to fill this crazy healthcare investment opportunity vacuum, so I canvassed my files and my partners at Psilos to come up with what we have unscientifically determined to be the 7 Craziest Healthcare Start-Up Ideas of All Time, or at Least the Last 12 Years, Which is When I Started Counting.
Special props go to my partner Dave Eichler, who has neurotically managed to archive the emails from some of the craziest ones, apparently just waiting for the day when I asked him to provide blog input. Special mention also goes to my partners Jeff Krauss and Joe Riley for their critical contributions to this healthcare fun house. In the interests of maintaining confidentiality and minimizing public embarrassment, I will be a little circumspect with the information to be provided. However, trust me, these ideas came from real business plans or business pitches that my amazed colleagues and I saw in real life.
I definitely want to say that just because some of these ideas sound crazy, doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad. Some of them may just be ahead of their time or so visionary that I just am too dim to see it. On the other hand, some of them are, well, just plain goofy. Either way, you have to love the entrepreneurial spirit of those who brought them forward and root for the guys that aren’t afraid to think way outside the box, crazy or not. Now, to the list…
Medical technology offers a particular opportunity to devise ideas whose time may never come. The best examples collected from my vast (not) research are highlighted here:
- Female urinary incontinence is a huge medical problem and many have tried to solve it through a variety of surgical interventions. Best one I saw, however, was a company that came in with a rather simple device, complete with instructional video, that left me slack-jawed. I have seen a lot of medical devices in my office over the years, but this was a new one for the workplace. Call it what you want, but that was definitely a vibrator, plain and simple. A vibrator dressed up as a device to treat urinary incontinence, perhaps, but a vibrator nevertheless. Their “chief clinical officer” notified me that, in addition to its primary medical purpose, the device also had a secondary application in treating sexual dysfunction. Yeah, no kidding. Didn’t need an FDA approval to know that, thanks. Best part was the giant larger-than-life-sized vagina the company brought in to help demonstrate the “approved indication”. God help me, I nearly died. Best crazy new business pitch ever.
One of the problems in treating certain diseases is the difficulty in getting pharmaceutical compounds to cross what is called the blood-brain barrier. Basically there are physiological structures that limit the permeability of capillaries in the brain to keep bacteria out, among other things; this also makes it difficult for therapeutic substances to get into the brain, such as drugs to treat diseases of the central nervous system. Well, one enterprising entrepreneur came up with an intriguing way to solve this one: a special drill to open the scalp so you can just drop drugs in the brain. The device looked like a corkscrew for ease of use. As my partner Jeff points out, this is a great tool around holiday time: you can open the wine and your head with the same device as an efficient cost-saving measure. Also offers a convenient method of anchoring your hat in windy weather. Sounds like something Brookstone should offer for the holidays alongside the electronic wine chiller.
Type I diabetes is a truly awful disease for which no cure has yet emerged. Some people out there believe that the ingestion of fish oil (Omega 3s) is a natural cure or help in addressing the disease, although I must admit I am not sure if there is strong evidence to support this assertion (there may well be; I just don’t know). Taking it to the next level, however, was a company that came to see us seeking funding to raise a new race of “super fish” that could produce human insulin and, after a Frankenstein (Franken-fish?) like transfer of cells from fish to human, cure Type 1 diabetes. Use of funds: Old MacDonald’s fish farm. Somewhere out there, apparently, are real actual scientists working on this very issue, but it was a hard sell for us as a venture investment. Not a lot of livestock deals in our sector and it made us feel guilty about serving sushi at partners’ meetings. The good news: if the clinical trial doesn’t pan out you can always sell the assets to Mrs. Paul’s.
Continuing with the livestock theme, you gotta love a company that was founded to export South American poisonous snake venom to the U.S. (and elsewhere) to facilitate research on “incurable diseases, anti-venom serum, new generation drugs and cosmetics.” The CEO kindly pointed out in his executive summary that there were only a few such purveyors on their continent, making them an especially good prospect for positive return on investment. Given the current venture environment, I am guessing that there are more than a few venture capitalists that would welcome a dose of snake poison right about now. The CEO’s email to us stated that he was “looking for an investor with high expectations.” He is probably better off looking for a venture investor who is just high.
On the healthy living front there are no dearth of contenders but this one is my partners’ favorite:
This particular company sought to bring a new healthy food product to the market because “they were motivated by a desire to create better beverages for human consumption.” Their product, targeted at tweens and teens, was going to serve “an entirely new market niche for the dairy industry” by patenting a process for carbonating dairy milk, soy milk, rice milk and yogurt beverages. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see my kid giving up her Mocha Frappuccino to swill a carbonated yogurt anytime soon. The Coca Cola Company actually launched a product in 2009 based on this concept called Vio, a drink that contains skim milk mixed with sparkling water, flavored with fruit and sweetened with cane sugar. Company scientists assured the public they had developed a method that prevented the milk from curdling in its 8 oz. aluminum bottle. Well, that makes it even more tempting. Coca Cola’s marketing department noted that Vio tastes “like a birthday party for a polar bear.” Never been to one of those. Not planning on going either. Did they bring in polar bears for their product focus groups? Were ice floes involved?
Not to be outdone, the healthcare information technology sector offers up its own treasures:
- At the Health 2.0 conference this year I got to watch a pitch from a company called QpidMe (since this pitch was done in public in front of 1000 people I feel that it is acceptable to use their real name here; believe me, their CEO did not appear to have any qualms about discussing the intimate, and I do mean intimate, specifics of this particular enterprise). QpidMe offers a service where you can go to a medical lab to have tests done to determine if you have any number of sexually transmitted diseases. The lab will conveniently download your results to a QpidMe’s server and then you, the potential participant in a hot night on the town, can allow your targets to look you up to find out if you are, shall we say, fit for duty. The company’s website tagline is Share your verified HIV/STD results via text messaging in a modern, flirtatious version of “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours.” This really brings a whole new meaning to the concept of social networking. The opportunity for humor out of this one is beyond even my comedic skills. Key business model challenge: do you have to get tested daily if you are getting a lot of action? What is the method to keep data synched after each…encounter? I hope I never know.
- Vying for the best introductory paragraph of all time is this gem from an IT company with a variety of healthcare and non-healthcare applications: “Product is an information technology which, when implemented, will be larger and more precise at supplying useful information, than the Internet. It will also be more effective than the Internet and all other systems of communication, social and financial interaction, and world resource management combined, at utilizing and developing worldwide the potential, talent and abilities of each individual of the world population, as well as the more efficient and productive overall output of humanity.” The CEOs email assured us that this idea would prove to be “the best opportunity you will ever come across.” You gotta love a guy with confidence. If I could combine the super fish with the super technology, I could create a whole new race of mobile fish communication devices to rule the world (queue evil laugh).
Since I cannot possibly top that paragraph above, I am going to leave it at 7, but I am sure there will be more to come. That’s the best part of my job; you see something new every day and the cavalcade covers the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. Sometimes you find out that what you thought was sublime is actually ridiculous and sometimes you find out that what seemed ridiculous was actually on its way to being sublime. That’s what keeps you on your toes, makes you laugh at yourself and the world and reminds you that you just aren’t as smart as you like to think you are. Humility and humor: two qualities essential to being a good venture capitalist, in my opinion. I look forward to adding to this list, but for now I’m off to vanquish evildoers with my favorite superhero, SuperFish!