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Daniel Ek’s upcoming play, Neko, offers another perspective on preventative healthcare

Allow space for yet another play about preventative health: After four years of covert development, Spotify founder Daniel Ek quietly launched a body scanning service in Sweden on Friday, putting an end to rumors about his new “health tech” startup, Neko (via Tech EU).

Ek, who described the healthcare system as “screwed up” to the Financial Times almost ten years ago, has long expressed a personal interest in fixing it.

He has also backed up his claims with deeds, such as his investment in the Swedish telehealth platform Kry. However, his interest in getting hands-on has apparently not deterred him from doing so. He is one of the two co-founders of Neko Health (the other being Hjalmar Nilsonne, whose prior startup focused on energy data analysis).

Neko declined for an interview about the product it is building, stating that it is not currently involved in any international media. But the startup revealed in a post on LinkedIn that its first “health center” in central Stockholm had begun offering a proprietary “non-invasive” body scanning service.

According to the article, the scan is a “extensive examination” of one’s health and is intended (at least initially) for people who have skin and heart conditions.

The scan, according to Neko, takes 15 minutes, and the results are “immediately” followed by a consultation with a doctor in person to go over the findings (so the total visit would be longer, although it isn’t specified how much time the patient spends with a doctor).

Neko went on to say that the Neko scan is a “truly personalized experience centered around you, and it seamlessly tracks changes over time — so you do not have to.”
The startup’s larger pitch is a well-known one: preventative healthcare, with the stated aim of switching from the traditional reactive healthcare model (of looking for symptoms and treating disease) to one where routine health scans could be a pro-active tool to promote more favorable health outcomes — via early issue detection and the use of data-driven preventative measures.

The primary care processes and healthcare systems in use today were created more than 50 years ago, and have barely changed since. We also need to figure out how to stop the exponential rise in healthcare costs over the past few decades, said Ek in a statement. “I have long thought that proactive, preventative care is the key to providing effective healthcare at an affordable price. We routinely maintain and check our cars, but we wait until they break down before we take action with our bodies? That is not logical at all.

Neko is part of a widespread effort to reimagine healthcare pathways and processes in an effort to generate new revenue because of this emphasis on proactive healthcare (including by selling services to the worried well). This tech-driven movement (generally) encompasses everything from telehealth platforms and chatbots (which seek to maximize access to human clinicians and thereby address resource scarcity) to a wide variety of quantified health and fitness gadgets (which encourage users to self-monitor different biomarkers and typically prod them to participate in beneficial lifestyle changes as well); and genetics testing services (which claim to give users information on their disease risk). (Or so the pitch goes.)

Given that Neko declines press interviews, the specifics of its technology and methodology are still somewhat hazy, so there is still a lot of information to be filled in. The marketing material for the product, however, makes the general claim that it uses “the latest advances in sensors and AI”; it goes on to say that the sensing technology uses more than 70 sensors and can record 50 million data points and 15 GB of patient health information “in minutes”.

(Although, of course, obtaining health data is one thing, intelligently and usefully interpreting it is an entirely different challenge. So it’s certainly noteworthy that human doctors are prominently featured in the launch of Neko’s service.)

Since the startup claims that users will have access to a “summary” of their health data in its app, it appears that a portion of its focus is on technology that interprets (or presents) data on users’ behalf. This app aims to mimic what Apple’s Health app does for wearers of the company’s sensor-equipped Apple Watch by allowing users to “follow” their health trends (but for its proprietary, in-person full body scans).

Its press release confirms that the body scan has a price. It states that for “a limited time,” a trip to the Stockholm center to get scanned costs SEK 1,500 (about $140). (It is stated that the full price is SEK 2,000.) A wide range of cardiological measurements, including ECG, murmur sound, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, arterial stiffness, pulse width, breathing, and heart rate, are said to be covered by the scan records’ data points.

The body scan technology used by Neko, according to its PR, is also capable of detecting skin changes as small as 0.2 millimeters. This raises the possibility that these data-driven checks will find things that a routine doctor’s appointment won’t. (However, it’s also important to remember that the human body experiences many changes over the course of a lifetime that do not always have a negative impact on health, so simply having a ton of data does not guarantee better healthcare.)

The startup’s marketing claims that it wants to “enable broad and non-invasive health data collection that is convenient and affordable for the public” with its “new medical scanning technology concept.” Even so, it is not necessarily that when access to the technology requires a visit to a specialized clinic. If Neko can make sense of all the data it hopes to obtain from paying customers and either identify monetizable patterns on its own or achieve economies of scale, it may be able to lower the cost per scan in the long run (or partner with others willing to pay for access to support medical research etc).

According to legal documents submitted to the Swedish company registry, Ek’s startup intends to sell “products and services in diagnostics as well as conducting examinations and health checks on the private market — which suggests it is planning for a B2B business to sit alongside direct-to-consumer clinics where people’s raw body data can be captured,” according to a report about Ek’s startup by Sifted published late last year.

The effectiveness of Neko’s approach, including its data capture technology and any AI-driven diagnostics the startup wants to flow from the data, is a key concern.

According to Neko’s PR, its sensing and AI technology is the subject of “multiple clinical studies running to show efficacy”; the results of these studies will have a significant impact. (Of which none have yet been peer-reviewed or published.)

Given that these body scans will unavoidably collect a lot of private health information, privacy is another issue that requires careful consideration. For each and every proposed use of users’ health information, which EU law classifies as sensitive data and necessitates the highest standard of explicit consent for processing, Neko will obviously need appropriate legal justifications. User data security will also require close attention.

Additionally, there is the broad and important issue of patient safety, as well as the concern over how Neko might be impacted by upcoming EU AI regulations regarding potential harms. A variety of regulations are likely to apply, depending on where the startup wants to operate the service, since it is developing (or implementing) health data capture devices and seems to be planning to develop AI for (at least) clinician support and/or medical diagnostics. Included are the EU Medical Device Regulation and the upcoming EU AI Act (since the former’s devices fall into the latter’s “high risk” category).

The EU AI Act, which was first proposed in April 2021 but is still going through the bloc’s co-legislative process, is likely to mean that in the coming years, regional startups using AI for health will need to consider more broadly how to identify and mitigate potential harms — addressing issues like bias, for example, so they can demonstrate their technology is safe for everyone.

Additionally, since EU lawmakers are currently updating product liability laws to cover harms caused by software and AI, paying attention to these kinds of risks and harms will be crucial in the coming years. This will also make it simpler for EU consumers to sue the creators of cutting-edge technologies should their products go wrong.

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