Zoe, a startup founded by doctors and researchers from London and Boston, made a name for itself during the pandemic with a popular – dare we say viral? – self-report Covid-19 app. Embraced by both consumers and researchers, it provided early data on how Covid-19 spread and the symptoms associated with the initial infection and its lingering aftereffects (Long Covid) – insights that could hardly be obtained anywhere else.
As the virus moved from pandemic to endemic and attention shifted to other ways of tracking, Zoe also shifted, back to its original, pre-Covid mission: to use self-report technology to track and build a nutritional survey of the microbiome, and to provide personalized insights to individual users of the app based on their reporting of what and how they eat and the broader insights gained from the research.
That app is now taking the next step in scaling up its business as it looks to onboard 250,000 people from a waiting list that has been running for more than a year: it is announcing £25 million in funding (about $30 million by the current rates), an equity investment that CEO Jonathan Wolf said values Zoe at £250 million ($303 million).
US-based venture firm Accomplice is leading the round, with previous financiers Balderton Capital, Ahren, Daphni and new financier L Catterton also participating.
The funding comes on the heels of a £48 million Series B, which closed in May 2021 with a $20 million injection (a number that rose to $25 million after we published our story). Since then, it has about 50,000 active paying users on board, in addition to the nearly 5 million people who self-reported nutritional data for free. Wolf said most of the last round is still on the bench; the latest financing is an opportunistic extension, made to bolster capital in the face of potentially stormy waters in the markets next year.
“We are seeing a major acceleration in customer demand, so what we want to do is scale our business significantly to meet that demand,” said Wolf. “Given the difficult economic climate, 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 in addition to the venture round, it also hopes to generate more interest through a crowdfunding campaign. Bearing in mind the wider community of interest which Zoe says is 2 million (this likely includes many who follow Zoe and have provided contact details through his previous Covid work, but it also has a podcast and related content) it will be campaigning for investments via crowdfunding site Crowdcube. That will open to that community on December 13, and to Crowdcube users a day later, and then to the general public, with investments starting at £10, “at the same share price as ZOE’s private investors.”
In addition to onboarding more users waiting to join, Zoe also plans to move beyond diet.
“We want to deepen our research into nutrition, the gut microbiome, sleep, mood, activity and other factors to improve long-term health,” says Wolf, who co-founded the startup with Professor Tim Spector of King’s College London and George Hadjigeorgiou. It also plans to expand the research and studies in the ZOE Health Study; with a greater number and variety of health and lifestyle studies recommended by our contributors and scientists, covering areas such as menopause and beyond.
While it has no plans to build its own hardware – it does send glucose meters and other physical products as part of its review (see below) but these aren’t made by Zoe – it will already be making more integrations with hardware in the market, an approximation which is essential for triangulating data and getting a more complete picture of each individual report, which is essentially big data analysis.
“I don’t see us doing anything in hardware. There are already so many in this field and it’s exciting to get input from a variety of them. No yardstick is more important or determines anything. It takes a combination,” he said. “We are excited about integrations with Apple Watch and more in the future.”
The reason for the slow move to get those waiting off the list is because of the process involved – a reason for the funding injection to accelerate scaling.
Its 50,000 active users have opted to initially pay £299.99 for a test kit to do an initial analysis of their systems. The price is high, Wolf said, because it includes a gut microbiome test, a blood fat test, standardized test meals of muffins (!), real-time blood sugar sensor (CGM) if enrolled in our scientific study; and then in return a gut health report and a personalized insights report.
Users are then given the option to purchase memberships at various price points to continue the work and insights. These start at £59.99/month and go up to £24.99/month if you take an annual subscription.
In a consumer world of health apps that include free, ad-supported options, it’s a big ask for users to step up and pour hundreds of dollars into a service to improve the way they eat. Wolf said Zoe had discovered that one of the lasting effects of the pandemic was a shift in the way the general public viewed their health and the role their activities played in it.
“I think the pandemic has had a big impact on how people feel about their health,” he said. “They noticed how what they do and how they eat and exercise influenced a disease. That doesn’t mean everyone is healthier, but now more people are seeing that it’s not something you wait until you’re sick. You have to take responsibility for it and add to it over time.
Indeed, Covid-19 saw an explosion of activity: people started walking, cycling and running more; some bought more home gym equipment when their gyms or sports clubs closed; and in general, more people tried to do more, not only to be healthy in case they too were affected by the virus, but also because they stopped coming to work every day and became more sedentary by default. Sure, there’s been a big shift back to old pre-Covid ways, but there’s also been an ongoing shift, something Zoe hopes to capitalize on – not least because of its traction with users during the height of the pandemic. when it had amassed over 5 million users in the US and UK for its symptom tracking app.
Zoe, of course, conducted a survey of her users — 500 of them — and says those who actively followed the program for 12 weeks or more said they felt “healthier” by eating according to Zoe’s recommendations. “Their main improvements were; improved mood and alertness, better bowel movements, improved blood sugar and fat, less bloating and better sleep quality,” Wolf said. About 85% said they had constipation, reduced bloating, improved mood and reduced diarrhea, he said; and 70% said that they had more energy and less bloating.It is now conducting a larger randomized trial to gain more insights, which will be ready next year, he added.
Additional reporting Natasha Lomas
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