We are in a digital age, with technology disrupting practically every sector of business in an unprecedented way. However, it is not picking up fast enough in the healthcare industry – “digital care has to be a precursor to primary care,” said Nawal Roy, founder and Chief Executive Officer of digital health and analytics start-up Holmusk.
Holmusk is a pioneering big data and digital health company focused on addressing the growing epidemic of chronic diseases. The company develops innovative, scalable and cost-effective digital disease management programs to help patients improve their health.
One of its products is GlycoLeap, an application that acts as a mobile dietitian, providing patients with customised advice on how to prevent and control diabetes.
From fintech to healthcare
Roy was born in Bihar, India. He left India for the United States in 1994 to pursue his PhD, and stayed there for 16 years. After his studies, he worked as a quantitative trading strategist and global risk manager at Credit Suisse First Boston and Deutsche Bank before moving on to consulting. Roy worked at KPMG Financial Risk Management Practice in New York City and was the Vice President in Moody’s Investor Services as a risk management specialist. He was also one of the founders of The Professional Risk Managers' International Association (PRMIA).
Roy has experience working in countries across North America, Asia, Middle East, Europe and South Africa in the financial and healthcare sector. He first came to Singapore in 2010 as a Junior Partner leading Banking/Risk Practice Service line in McKinsey& Company Singapore office; after which he joined Rocket Internet as their CEO, running their fintech business. “In between US and Singapore, I have lived and worked in many other countries, from London to Zurich and Tokyo. I am part of what you would either call a global citizen or global confusion – an Indian-born American citizen living in Singapore,” Roy said jokingly.
He then left Rocket Internet at the time of their initial public offering (IPO), and it was then that he decided he was done with finance. This is despite the fact that fintech was a very hot topic at that point in time.
The space of chronic diseases was one that got his attention in a very serious manner, according to Roy. “There is no personal or emotional stories to sell – one day I read in the Economist about how, for the first time in human history, more people die from chronic diseases than infectious diseases,” he said. “At a deeper level, that statement tells us that we humans have failed ourselves.” Moreover, chronic diseases don’t kill you overnight, but they saps everything out of you, and it saps the society and economy, he added.
“I think it’s sort of a mid-life crisis hitting me. In the mid-40s, somehow one would start thinking about what kind of value you are creating for the society. So here is an area where I saw a serious opportunity to create a product that has so much social good and social value,” Roy explained.
Optimising the impact of lifestyle habits on a disease
When it comes to chronic diseases, the causes can be partly due to genetics, and hence, “a 100 percent prevention rate is very difficult – but what’s really possible is intervention,” said Roy. The point is to get people engaged and take responsibility of their own lifestyles by intervening in the early stages of the disease.
While Holmusk starts with attacking diabetes, the intent is to play into all areas and have different verticals. The company has been building multiple assets into chronic diseases as well as mental health. However, “the problem itself is large and we may or may not have intervention mechanisms in each one of them.”
The point is therefore to drive a macro-scale solution for the problem. The overall perspective and current attitude towards chronic diseases need to change. Roy gave the analogy of how doctors tend to focus more heavily on patients who have reached the chronic stage of the disease when in fact, the care and treatment had to start right from the beginning. Holmusk’s technology comes in at this point. “We are not optimising your health, or trying to make a superhuman. Wellness is a multi-varied problem, whereas a disease is a linear-progressing problem; so the aim is to try and bring a patient’s behaviour to a level whereby their influences on the disease are optimised.”
Future plans and vision
Moving forward, Holmusk intends to launch an app for dementia similar to GlycoLeap. The project will be partially funded by the Ministry of Health. The company is also working with Health Promotion Board on a weight loss programme for young kids, and providing intervention tools for a research study by Duke-NUS Medical School.
When asked about his success vision for the company, Roy said, “if we are able to, in the next 10-20 years, meaningfully change the lives a few hundred million chronic patients in my lifetime, I would consider that our success.
“But frankly, even if I could just move the needle, pushing it to a level where people really start paying attention to chronic diseases in the earlier stages, I think I would say that is success on our part too,” Roy concluded.