Zoe, a startup founded by doctors and researchers in London and Boston, made a name for itself during the pandemic with a popular – dare we say viral? – self-reported Covid-19 application. Adopted by both consumers and researchers, it provided early data on the spread of Covid-19 and the symptoms associated with the initial infection and its lingering sequelae (Long Covid) – hard to find information virtually nil go elsewhere.
Then, as the virus transitioned from pandemic to endemic and attention turned to other means of tracking, Zoe also returned to her original, pre-Covid mission: using self-help technology. -statement to track and build a nutritional microbiome study, and to provide personalized insights to individual users of its app based on their reports of what and how they eat and broader insights gained from research.
This app is now taking the next step in scaling its operations as it seeks to onboard 250,000 people on a waitlist for over a year: it announces £25m funding sterling (about $30 million at today’s rates), an equity investment that CEO Jonathan Wolf says values Zoe at £250 million ($303 million).
US venture capital firm Accomplice leads the round, with participation from former backers Balderton Capital, Ahren, Daphni and new backer L Catterton.
The funding follows a Series B round of £48m, which closed with an injection of $20m in May 2021 (a number that jumped to $25m after our article was published). Since then, it has onboarded some 50,000 active paying users, alongside nearly 5 million people who have provided self-reported nutrition data for free. Wolf said most of the final lap was still banked; the latest funding is an opportunistic extension, made to shore up capital in the face of potentially turbulent market waters next year.
“We’re seeing a strong acceleration in customer demand, so what we want to do is scale our business significantly to be able to meet that demand,” Wolf said. “Given the tough economic environment, we wanted to make sure we had the capital to do this. In fact, the vast majority of the $25 million raised in the last round is still in the business.
And alongside the round, he also hopes to generate more interest through a crowdfunding campaign. Taking into account his wider community of interest which Zoe says is 2 million (this probably includes many who follow Zoe and have provided contact details through his previous Covid work, but he also has a podcast and related content), it will launch a campaign to invest through crowdfunding site Crowdcube. This will open on December 13 to this community and a day later to Crowdcube users, then to the general public, with investment starting at £10, “at the same price as ZOE private investors”.
Along with onboarding more users waiting to join, the plan is also for Zoe to expand beyond the diet.
“We are looking to further our research on nutrition, gut microbiome, sleep, mood, activity and other factors to improve long-term health,” said Wolf, who co-founded the startup with the Professor Tim Spector of King’s College London and George Hadjigeorgiou. It also plans to expand research and studies under the ZOE Health Study; with a greater number and variety of health and lifestyle studies advocated by our contributors and scientists that will cover areas like menopause and more.
Although he has no intention of building his own hardware – he sends glucometers and other physical products as part of his evaluation (see below), but these are not made by Zoe – it will already do more integrations with hardware on the market, an essential approach to triangulate data and get more complete pictures of each individual report in which it is essentially a big data analysis exercise.
“I don’t see us dong anything in hardware. There are so many who are already in this field and it is exciting to receive contributions from a variety of them. No measure is more important or determines something. It will take a combination,” he said. “Going forward, we’re excited about integrations with Apple Watch and more.”
The reason for the slow removal of those waiting on the list is due to the process involved in doing this – one of the reasons the injection of funding is accelerating its scale.
The 50,000 active users opted to initially pay £299.99 for a test kit to perform an initial scan of their systems. The price is steep, Wolf said, because it includes a gut microbiome test, a blood lipid test, standardized test meals of muffins (!), a real-time glucose sensor (CGM) if you’ve opted for our scientific study; then in return a gut health report and a personalized information report.
Users then have the option of purchasing subscriptions at different prices to continue the work and information. These start at £59.99/month and go down to £24.99/month if you take out an annual subscription.
In a world of consuming health apps that include free ad-supported options, it’s important that users step up and invest hundreds of dollars in a service to improve the way they eat. Wolf said Zoe found that one of the lasting impacts of the pandemic was that there was a shift in how the general public viewed their health and the role their activities played in it.
“I think the pandemic has had a profound impact on how people think about their health,” he said. “They noticed how what they do and how they eat and exercise impact disease. That’s not to say everyone is healthier, but now more people are seeing that it’s not something you wait until you get sick. You have to take responsibility for it and add to it over time.
Indeed, Covid-19 saw a boom in activity: people walked, cycled and ran more; some bought more fitness equipment for their homes when their gyms or sports clubs closed; and generally more people were trying to do more not just to be healthy in case they too were affected by the virus, but because they were no longer coming to work every day and found themselves more sedentary by default. Sure, there’s been a big return to the old pre-Covid ways, but there’s also been lingering change, which Zoe hopes to play out – not least because of her traction with users during the peak of the pandemic, so that he had amassed over 5 million users in the US and UK for his symptom tracker app.
Zoe naturally conducted a study of her users – 500 of them – and says those who actively follow her program for 12 weeks or more said they felt “healthier” following Zoe’s recommendations. “Their main improvements were; improved mood and alertness, better bowel habits, improved blood sugar and fat, less bloating and better sleep quality,” Wolf said. About 85% said they had reduced constipation, reduced bloating, improved mood and reduced diarrhea, he said; and 70% said they had more energy and less bloating. He is currently conducting a larger randomized study to get more information, which will be ready next year, he added.
Additional reporting Natasha Lomas
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