Arizona Daily Star: ‘Loneliness company’ tackles isolation with timely human-linked app
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered people in their homes, Tucson entrepreneurs Cindy and Anne Jordan launched a tech startup in 2017 to address health problems stemming from loneliness and isolation.
Now the pandemic has brought those issues to the fore, and the couple’s startup company, Pyx Health, is expanding rapidly to widen the use of its hybrid, mobile app-based and personal platform designed to keep patients and connect them with human intervention as needed.
The company has seen a 690% jump in revenue since January and recently announced a $3.5 million venture-capital funding round to help the company expand its nationwide footprint.
The Tucson company was already on a steep growth curve when COVID-19 hit, and the pandemic only heightened interest in the Pyx platform, company CEO Cindy Jordan said.
“We were very fortunate that we were a loneliness company that was in the market, treating people who are socially isolated and lonely when COVID-19 hit, because we were poised to help the massive influx and the rise in acuity around those issues,” said Jordan, who with wife Anne founded and later sold an online medical referral startup in Tucson before launching Pyx Health.
FINDING A SAFE PLACE
Loneliness and isolation have been recognized as health threats worth monitoring by the National Academies of Sciences as well as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Pyx cites research showing that loneliness and isolation increases mortality rates by 26%, with the mortality risk for seniors increasing to 45%.
Annual patient treatment costs for loneliness are higher than for chronic conditions such as arthritis and diabetes, and an individual with loneliness is at higher risk for heart disease, obesity, depression and cognitive decline, according to research cited by Pyx.
The Pyx platform is based on a mobile app that features an animated “chatbot” named Pyxir that provides constant companionship, support and self-management tips, allowing regular screenings for loneliness and “social determinants of health,” a concept developed by the World Health Organization that includes daily living conditions and socioeconomic factors.
The platform uses artificial intelligence to interact with patients and gather information on their conditions.
When the program recognizes that a patient has urgent needs, Pyx Health offers access to resources such as food, transportation and a nurse hotline, backed up with human contact via Pyx staffers, known as “Andys” in the company’s “compassionate call center.”
“You have to give people a safe place to admit that they need some help around these issues, or just admit they have them, and that is what technology provides,” Jordan said.
The company’s mission has a personal meaning for Cindy Jordan.
When her stepdaughter had a major setback in her battle against bipolar disorder a few years ago, Cindy Jordan said she realized her stepdaughter’s descent into social isolation played a major factor.
“I kept asking, ‘What did we miss?’ and part of it was she started to isolate,” she recalled. “I wasn’t going to start another tech company, but I couldn’t let this one go.”
Pyx Health has found keen interest among health insurers and providers, including its first customer, the insurance arm of Phoenix-based Banner Health.
Initially targeting insurers that provide health plans for Medicaid programs and Medicare Advantage, Pyx Health has signed up 14 health insurers, including three of the top five Medicaid insurers, to use the Pyx platform, Jordan said, declining to name other customers because of confidentiality agreements.
Pyx Health says its health plan partners typically gain more than $2,800 in annual savings per user, and one large integrated health plan in the Southwest showed a 36% reduction in inpatient spending for Pyx users over six months.
Banner conducted an initial pilot using Pyx Health’s platform for its Medicaid patients last fall and found the results encouraging, said Dr. Ed Clarke, chief medical officer for Banner’s insurance division and Banner Health Network.
Patients enrolled with Pyx tended to use emergency care less, which is better for the patient while lowering costs for everyone, Clarke said.
“It’s better medicine if your patients aren’t going to the hospital or the emergency room,” he said, citing the importance of patients relying on their family doctors first for coordinated, effective health care.
“Nobody wants to be admitted to the hospital,” Clarke said. “We want to be there for folks who need to be admitted, but at Banner, we want to be the best stewards we can of the dollars that are committed to us.”
Pyx, which has 35 employees mostly in Tucson, is set to scale up after closing a $3.5 million round of initial venture-capital funding in late August, with investors including Tucson-based Bluestone Venture Partners, Phoenix-based Arizona Founders Fund, LifeLock co-founder and former CEO Todd Davis, and Tucson-based Holualoa Cos.
Pyx Health is the first Tucson investment for Bluestone, which was founded in 2017 and is headed by Mara Aspinall, former head of Roche Tissue Diagnostics and Ventana Medical Systems in Oro Valley.
Aspinall said Bluestone was impressed with the company’s mission, its hybrid platform and business model, its success in attracting customers and its leadership.
“Their business model using digital technology with the app to combat loneliness is critically important in the current health-care landscape,” said Aspinall, citing how loneliness has increased across society amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We thought the uniqueness of the Pyx and Andys was the perfect balance of technology and human interaction.”
Aspinall also noted the entrepreneurial experience of the Jordans, who founded Tucson-based Medical Referral Source and sold it in 2013 to The Advisory Board Co. for $11.5 million and stayed on with the company for two years under the deal.
Pyx Health is truly homegrown, Cindy Jordan said, with most of the company’s early-stage funding coming from local “angel” investors.
And though the company doesn’t share revenue figures, she said she expects Pyx Health to reach profitability sometime next year.
Cindy Jordan said Pyx Health plans to stay and grow in Tucson, noting that the company turned down another venture-capital offer from investors who wanted to move the company to San Francisco.
“I really firmly believe in building companies here,” said Jordan, who has lived in Tucson for 19 years. “I’m here next to a very potent university, and I get great, dedicated people.”