Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Rich Osborn on how TELUS Ventures is transforming Canada’s medical landscape, one investment at a time

As managing partner of TELUS’s corporate venture capital fund TELUS Ventures, Rich Osborn is at the forefront of how Canadians will come to use digital technology to access and manage their healthcare.

TELUS Ventures has grown to become one of the world’s top 100 corporate venture capital firms, having invested in more than 100 “promising start-ups” across a broad swathe of industries since its 2001 formation.

Osborn believes “social impact investing” has the potential to create significant change in Canadian healthcare, particularly as many digital health innovators are frequently hamstrung by an inability to scale their solutions.

“What we need to solve for is the scale problem, which is the biggest objective we’re looking for as venture capitalists,” says Osborn. “A lot of times the management is there, the interest is there and the usage and customer value are there, but we run into this complex political and regulatory structure that prevents them from scaling.”

Rich Osborn

As part of a mandate to support healthy aging, TELUS is also actively involved with the technology and aging network AGE-WELL. It’s part of a larger effort by the company to help commercialize interesting and innovative technological ideas coming out of universities, research centres and other institutions. Osborn is on AGE-WELL’s Board of Directors where he brings his considerable experience to bear on Canada’s burgeoning technology and aging sector. AGE-WELL teams are developing more than 75 different types of technology-based products and the network currently supports 19 start-ups.  

TELUS Ventures makes six to 10 deals a year – each with an average investment of $4 million to $5 million – and currently manages an active portfolio of nearly 30 companies. Its most recent investment is a series A funding round for Beacon, which provides cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) via computer, smartphone or tablet using registered mental health professionals.

“It’s the difference between chatting with a professional therapist or psychiatrist versus chatting with an untrained professional or a friend,” says Osborn. “Both may be helpful, but one is a clinically proven option.”

Digital health technology is one of the key pillars for TELUS Ventures, underscoring the company’s belief that corporate Canada should take a greater interest in the country’s healthcare.

Digital health technology is one of the key pillars for TELUS Ventures, underscoring the company’s belief that corporate Canada should take a greater interest in the country’s healthcare – particularly as it can account for as much as 50 percent of the overall budget in some provinces.

“You just can’t function with ever-increasing allocation of your budget that’s crowding out all of the other social spending, such as education and infrastructure,” says Osborn, who arrived at TELUS Ventures in 2016. “We collectively need to get all of that under control. The government isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the only group that bears the burden of figuring out a solution.”

Osborn believes that digital healthcare technology – a broad purview that includes everything from virtual healthcare to regenerative medicine and pharmacogenomics – is destined to become increasingly important as Canadians live longer and seek ways to live happier and healthier lives.

“Our thesis is that all good healthcare, now and in the future, is going to be a mix of in-person and technology-supported care.”

“Our thesis is that all good healthcare, now and in the future, is going to be a mix of in-person and technology-supported care,” says Osborn. “In-person care might occur in a hospital or a doctor’s office, or increasingly it might be delivered at home. All of those groups are going to use technology to improve the diagnoses, the treatment, the follow-up, the care coordination and more.”

Osborn has a particular interest in precision medicine, using the power of genetic information to create personalized and highly customized treatments that can either be preventive in nature or else improve the efficacy of existing treatment.

The relatively new field of pharmacogenomics, for example, studies how a person’s genes will dictate their response to specific types of drugs. Some studies have found that prescribed drugs are effective only 50 percent of the time, leading to a “trial and error” prescribing approach. Pharmacogenomics could provide the development of effective and safe medications at doses specifically tailored to a person’s genetic makeup.

Osborn is also a staunch advocate for virtual healthcare. “If it’s done appropriately and at scale, virtual care is a solution that saves patients time. Physicians like it because it allows them more flexibility and freedom in their practice, and employers like it because it allows their employees to be happier and more productive,” he says. “It’s a triple win.”

Among TELUS Ventures’ current investments is Toronto-based Right Health/Akira – an app-based product that provides patients with anytime, anywhere access to healthcare professionals (all connected with your current doctor and healthcare records) and the ability to get prescriptions, lab tests or specialist referrals directly from their homes.

TELUS Ventures is also among the investors in Canada’s first health-related social impact bond, the Community Hypertension Prevention Initiative (CHPI). Dubbed Activate, the free six-month wellness program helps older adults manage blood pressure for a healthier life.

It is funded through a unique model called a “pay for success” social impact bond in which investors, a group that also includes QBE Insurance Group and RBC Generator, pay the upfront capital costs and the government, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), pays back an agreed-upon amount if and when a set of predetermined outcomes are achieved.

Developed in collaboration with the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, Activate invites pre-hypertensive adults 40 and older to have their blood pressure measured by trained volunteers at select locations in the community (including some Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacies). Participants benefit from an online health platform with curated content and trackers, support from a personal health coach and Loblaws in-store dietitian, a two-month free membership to YMCA of Greater Toronto and Oakville, and PC Optimum points to reward healthy behaviours.

The goal of the program is to halt the increase of blood pressure (an overall decrease is even more desirable) by focusing on healthy lifestyle changes – a result that can save lives or even downstream costs for hospitalization, patient care and other expenses.

Osborn says that healthcare represents “the greatest social challenge” of our lifetime, particularly as people live longer and find themselves dealing with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.

The solutions being funded by TELUS Ventures,have the potential to radically upend the Canadian healthcare model. “It’s all becoming very real,” he says.

Originally published in Issue 4 of YouAreUNLTD magazine

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Chris Powell
Chris Powell
Chris Powell is a Toronto-based writer whose career pre-dates the dot-com era. He has interviewed everyone from Mike Babcock to Mike Myers, as well as hundreds of other people not named Mike. His work has appeared in consumer magazines including Reader's Digest, Today's Parent, Maclean's and Canadian Business, as well as Leafs and Raptors magazines.