Ascertain's predictive AI preeclampsia algorithm marks continued focus on femtech amid cooling markets

Northwell Health and Aegis Ventures' company Ascertain announced a new algorithm for predicting preeclampsia tackling worsening maternal mortality rates.

As test cases of the algorithm begin to form and the industry continues to feel the ripple effects of the Silicon Valley Bank fallout, Ascertain and Aegis Ventures executives say venture capital will continue to fuel femtech innovation.

Aegis and Northwell’s two major partnerships, Ascertain and Caire Health, a virtual care company creation platform, both entered the field with femtech offerings. Women's health has seen exponential recent growth and is expected to exceed $103 billion by 2030. While markets remain shaky following the collapse of SVB, Aegis and Ascertain reiterate their commitment to the sector and addressing maternal mortality rates with their new algorithm.

“I think femtech will remain a priority investment area for the venture capital industry, primarily because of its size and importance,” Tom Manning, chairman of Ascertain, told Fierce Healthcare. “There are so many opportunities for investment. The area of women's health, which should be very well developed and mature as an industry, is actually not well developed nor mature.”

VC investment looks to women’s health algorithms

Preeclampsia is extremely addressable with machine learning techniques, Manning said. Ascertain’s proprietary AI algorithm showed a 10- to 15-fold increase over the current predictive standard, findings the company presented at the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine’s recent 43rd annual Pregnancy Meeting.  

In total, 10% to 15% of direct maternal deaths are related to preeclampsia, high blood pressure in pregnancy or eclampsia. Preeclampsia is present in 1 in 25 births and more common in Black birthers.

Upon the creation of the JV, Northwell practitioners highlighted hypertension in pregnancy as low-hanging fruit that could drastically change pregnancy outcomes. The algorithm uses more than 20 data points that are generally available information to decrease barriers to usage.

“It would be perhaps ideal if someone identified a new biomarker that instantly told you the risk, but that requires potentially a test cost, a place to go,” Manning said. “Over time, we want to give additional attention to what other variables can be added to this, how they can be collected, for example, with the use of wearables allowing for even greater precision, such as blood pressure monitoring.”

One simple way to address hypertension, or high blood pressure, in pregnancy is the use of baby aspirin. If pregnant patients across the country are screened for preeclampsia, this regimen could start early in pregnancy. “It's not the end-all answer, but it's an answer,” Michael Nimaroff, M.D., executive director of OB-GYN services at Northwell Health, told Fierce Healthcare.

Nimaroff said after using the predictive algorithm, flagged patients can be made aware of early warning signs. Patients may be more compliant with a baby aspirin if they know they’re at risk, and providers may be more compliant with using predictive tools if they see the success rate of their patients, he said.

Northwell uses a texting chatbot program that connects with patients at an increased risk for various maternal conditions like preterm delivery or gestational diabetes. Through the program, pregnant patients with hypertension or cardiovascular diseases can be reminded to take baby aspirin or discuss other options with their doctor.

“Identifying increased risk is so important because we need to focus our energy on those patients,” Nimaroff said. “So that's why the model can potentially really make a significant difference.”

Roughly 1% of all births in America take place in a Northwell Hospital, according to Ascertain. The population Northwell serves also reflects a similar diversity to the country as a whole. Therefore, it is expected that the algorithm will adapt well across different populations, executives said.

Through working with the Northwell Center for Maternal Fetal Medicine, Ascertain plans to create a suite of algorithms to address other disparities in maternal medicine, John Beadle, co-founder and managing partner of Aegis, told Fierce Healthcare.

Despite a cooling market, femtech continues to address unmet needs

Beadle reiterates Manning’s assertion that a focus on maternal health and femtech is not going away despite changes in the macroeconomic environment. The two agree that healthcare’s shift to digital health, which accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, created “hockey stick” growth for femtech. In 2020, 7.6% of health tech funding went to femtech. This year, Pitchbook clocked that number at 13.26%. Still, women are 33% more likely to visit the doctor than men, which Beadle sees as more room for growth.

“The number of fly-by-night virtual care companies that popped up during COVID was incredibly alarming,” Beadle said. “There certainly will be a continued slowdown in the market but great companies will continue to get funded. As you look at history, a lot of the best companies have been formed in this kind of environment, so we're very optimistic overall about the space.”

Aegis’ other partnership with Northwell, Caire, is a suite of benefits solutions offered to employers, specifically for the healthcare workforce, starting with women’s health. Research for the offering began with a survey of Northwell employees that came back with overwhelming support for a virtual clinical menopause offering.

Respondents reported that annual visits were not sufficient to manage menopause symptoms. Research shows that menopause healthcare can cost $2,000 per patient annually and that 25% of women experiencing menopause symptoms consider early retirement. So virtual clinical menopause offering Upliv was born and launched in November 2022.

“There's a real opportunity for digital health to move all of healthcare forward,” Kim Boyd, M.D., chief medical officer at Caire, told Fierce Healthcare. “This larger care platform ultimately will have many companies in women's health, and will have a larger point of entry that can help direct people to care that they may need before they may even have the language to identify it.”

Boyd sees Upliv and Caire at the beginning of changing a male-centric model of healthcare and healthcare research and development.

Beadle attributes the recent move into the largely untapped women’s health market to various factors including an increase in diversity in VC firms. When venture capitalists see thousands of pitches, “you’re typically going after things that resonate for you personally,” Beadle said. “If you’re a middle-aged white male venture capitalist, who has never gone through menopause, it makes it more challenging to want to pick that as your issue.”