A Tucson Startup Tackles The Loneliness Epidemic

Times of Entrepreneurship by by Joel Berg July 16, 2020

Cindy Jordan is neither a psychologist nor a techie, but she founded a company in 2017 that blends elements of both: Pyx Health.

Based in Tucson, Arizona, the startup contracts with insurers to identify and alleviate loneliness among at-risk members through an app and a call center.

“To me, this is just about the straight line between ‘Here’s a problem, we’ve got seriously lonely people,’ and ‘We’ve got to find a way to help them,’” said Jordan.

Like many digital ventures in the field of behavioral health, Pyx is seeing a surge in demand related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pyx had been expecting to book $5 million in contracts with insurers by the end of 2020, Jordan said. It is now on pace for closer to $7 million.

“There’s now a personal understanding on behalf of the executives about what this feels like,” Jordan said. “So rather than having to do a lot of convincing about why loneliness is a severe health epidemic, they get it instantly.”

Loneliness is more than just a feeling. Seniors who experience social isolation or loneliness are at greater risk of depression, heart disease and death, according to a report earlier this year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

It also comes with a financial cost. A 2017 report by AARP found that Medicare spent an extra $134 per month on socially isolated seniors than it did on those who were more connected. Seniors with arthritis cost an extra $117 per month, while diabetes cost an additional $270, AARP found. 

Pyx Health reflects how the field of behavioral health startups is evolving to take loneliness into account. Many initially sought to address the lack of accessible treatment in many parts of the U.S. Some, like BetterHelp and Octave Health, seek to connect people to lower-cost, remote therapy sessions. Others, like Pyx Health, combine people and technology to deliver services. A startup called Papa uses technology to match seniors with college students who can provide companionship. There also are mass-market apps like Replika and Woebot that simply offer companionship via chatbots.

“We’ve seen that this is a complex challenge and it requires creative, innovative solutions,” said John Torous, director of digital psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School.

But what’s missing is clinical evidence that the new crop of behavioral interventions actually works, said Torous, noting that novel behavioral approaches should be treated no differently than new surgeries. “We recognize it’s early, so we don’t want to penalize people for being innovative. But that does put the burden on these companies to say, ‘Here’s why it really does work’ and to really be kind of transparent.”

In the absence of clinical data, though, investors can look at factors like engagement, said Alyssa Jaffee, a vice president at Chicago-based venture capital firm 7wireVentures. That’s what 7wire used in early measurements for one of its most successful startups, Livongo. Its app encourages people with diabetes and other chronic conditions to adopt healthier lifestyles, which reduces costs.

“That was the leading indicator,” Jaffee said.