CHICAGO (Reuters) - Jake Winebaum is betting on a Web-based solution to take the hassle and price worry out of a health obligation many of us fear and some can't even afford - going to the dentist.
In addition to offering hefty discounts on everything from periodic exams to fillings, his Santa Monica, California-based startup, Brighter (www.brighter.com), gives consumers a host of comparative data about dentists in their area so they can make informed decisions about care. They quickly learn whether a particular practitioner takes their insurance and can see other patients' reviews about who is friendly, good with kids or painless on the drill.
"Part of the strategy is to introduce price transparency so you can know what you're going to pay," said Winebaum, noting U.S. consumers spend some $45 billion on out-of-pocket dental expenses every year. "Affordability is the principle reason people don't go."
Winebaum, a serial entrepreneur who previously founded company resource site Business.com, opened Brighter to the public in May. His startup is taking a broad approach to attracting users, targeting both consumers with no dental coverage as well as those who might supplement insurance by joining. Access to information about each dentist and their pre-negotiated prices is free; membership, such as a family plan for $129 a year, gives steeper cuts. One Chicago dentist on the website lists a regularly priced new patient adult visit for $268, but gives members the service for $120, a savings of 55 percent.
"It's not like insurance," said Winebaum, whose firm has secured $13 million in venture backing from Mayfield and Benchmark Capital, and already aggregated about 25,000 dentists, many who struggle to expand practices on their own. "It's like a Costco card."
Brighter is representative of a new frontier in the uncertain healthcare market: tech startups designed to fill in gaps where the system falls short. Solutions are cropping up to solve everything from managing diabetic care on smart phones to creating proprietary social networks so those suffering from the same illness can share resources.
Meanwhile, heath investors have increasingly tuned into these ventures. Well-known VCs such as John Doerr, a Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner, shined the light on emerging opportunities at JP Morgan's annual healthcare conference earlier this year. Last month, San Francisco's Health 2.0 conference focused on the variety of online and mobile applications tied to the heathcare system.
"There's huge amount of activity," said Anne De Gheest, a health-focused tech entrepreneur and longtime investor who helped develop companies such as Pyxis, a maker of automated pill dispensers for hospitals, which was purchased by Cardinal Health.
She cautioned the "pain point" being addressed by Health 2.0 startups must be "big, a high priority," convincing enough to persuade users to change their behavior and adopt the technology. In addition, the business model must have the flexibility to adapt to variables such as changes in healthcare policy.
"That's a moving target," she said.
Tomer Shoval, the CEO and co-founder of Simplee (www.simplee.com), is confident he has developed such a solution. Simplee offers consumers an easy way to track medical expenses, with a platform Shoval likens to Mint.com, the popular site that lets consumers monitor all their banking and investment activity in one central database.
On Simplee, a head of household can link family members into one account, following coverage on multiple providers. The system sends important alerts such as when a bill needs attention, or if an insured party is close to reaching a deductible.
"Everyone is in some kind of avoidance mode," said Shoval, who hatched the idea for Simplee after his family got sick with the flu during a Mexico vacation and he was later faced with a slew of complicated bills. "We tell consumers, ‘we understand your frustration, but let's face it, we can't afford to be ignorant.'"
The site, which launched in beta in late May, has raised more than $1.5 million in backing from Greylock Israel and private investors.
Other health entrepreneurs are harnessing the power of social media to ease consumers' handling of health management. MyAutismTeam (www.myautismteam.com), which launched in June, is the first of several sites being incubated by local search service Insider Pages that are aimed at people affected by specific conditions or diseases.
MyAutismTeam allows parents of autistic children to create their own profile of service providers that can be shared with other parents seeking similar services. In addition to a searchable database, the free site's social media component lets them exchange information about providers ranging from speech therapists to piano teachers.
"I think it's up to private companies like ours to solve a lot of the holistic needs of either people diagnosed with chronic conditions or those helping them," said co-founder Eric Peacock. "That's not something the healthcare system is set up to do." \
Whether platforms gain enough traction to become profitable and self-sustaining remains to be seen. One thing is certain: their founders are pioneers in a space ripe for innovation at a time when healthcare costs are rising and budget-pinched consumers are trying to take more control over treatment.
Said Brighter's Winebaum: "It definitely feels like you're entering a battlefield that has been fought long and hard for many decades. There's a lot of really creative stuff going on."