New WHO Foundation Equity Fund Eyes AI-based Technology to Help Stroke Patients
WHO Foundation Chief Impact Investment Officer ​Geetha Tharmaratnam at OurCrowd Investor Summit.

A company that is using AI-powered technologies to help rehabilitate people with severe brain injuries, including those caused by strokes, has caught the eye of the World Health Organization (WHO) Foundation.

The foundation’s Global Health Equity Fund (GHEF), formed in September will soon be ready to make its first round of investments.  The WHO Foundation was launched by WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in 2020, with mission of supporting the goals of the global public health agency.  However, as a legally independent body, it also has a broader mandate to recruit funds from corporate donors, high-net worth individuals, and the broad public – which are not part of WHO’s traditional funding pool due to strict legal and conflict-of-interest rules. 

The new equity fund is a $200 million impact venture capital investment fund that focuses on breakthrough technologies that could improve health worldwide, especially in low- and middle-income countries. It has been formed with OurCrowd, a global venture investing platform that encourages investment in emerging technology companies at an early stage while still privately held

The fund is nearing a preliminary funding round of $20 million, and BrainQ’s device may well benefit soon.

One in four adults over the age of 25 will have a stroke in their lifetime, often resulting in damage to neural networks in the brain that cause impaired motor function.

The Israeli tech company, BrainQ, has developed a wearable device that “uses non-invasive, frequency-tuned extremely low frequency and low-intensity electromagnetic fields with the aim of promoting neurological recovery in the central nervous system”. 

The Israeli company has already received accelerator funding from the  European Innovation Council (EIC) in 2019, and its device is undergoing clinical trials.

“A growing body of evidence indicates that neural oscillations at specific frequencies are linked to opening neuroplasticity periods, suggesting that using non-invasive brain stimulation techniques to neuromodulate at specific frequencies can influence these oscillations and aid in neuro recovery,” according to BrainQ.

The oscillatory patterns of people who have had strokes are “measurably different from those of healthy individuals”, according to the company, which “operates on the premise that exposing such unhealthy individuals to specific EMF frequencies associated with healthy functioning may improve network plasticity and functional ability”.

Science fiction

WHO Foundation’s Chief Impact Investment Officer, Geetha Tharmaratnam, described the device as “science fiction” and said that it was significantly cheaper than existing therapies. 

“It replaces a combination of physical, occupational and speech therapy,” said Tharmaratnam.

“Being a wearable device, you can bring it into your home so your family members can become part of your caregivers. And the final thing is that the time in which recovery happens is a fraction compared to the time at which recovery happens right now for stroke,” she added,

Tharmaratnam attended the OurCrowd Global Investment Summit in Israel last month, and was on the lookout for potential investments for the GHEF. 

“The number of stroke victims worldwide is enormous,” she said. “This is not just an issue in North America or Europe; it is everywhere. So BrainQ is an example of a company which, when we start investing, we would be interested in.”

GHEF is aligned with WHO Foundation’s Access Pledge, which ensures that the portfolio companies will make their solutions for people and countries experiencing inequity. Each company is expected to develop an “access plan”. 

Tharmaratnam is supporting the fund from WHO Foundation, while OurCrowd CEO Jon Medved and OurCrowd Managing Partner Dr Morris Laster lead it. The WHO Foundation and OurCrowd will create an advisory board to assist. 

‘Technology a big part of the answer’

GHEF was conceived due to the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the inequitable access to health technology solutions and vaccines in low- and middle-income countries.

“COVID-19 was a wake-up call for me as an investor,” Medved said in September when GHEF was announced. “The pandemic opened my eyes to health inequity worldwide and reinforced the potential of innovative technology to save lives.”

Tharmaratnam joined WHO Foundation a year ago, and GHEF is one of her first projects. Currently, the program only runs with OurCrowd, but she hopes to develop several other partners worldwide centered on similar concepts. 

“No country or health system was ready for COVID,” Tharmaratnam said. “My mandate is to align investors with WHO’s mission and the understanding that insufficient healthcare funding is available across the board.”

She told Health Policy Watch that the first step is evaluating how healthcare is administered, and “technology is a big part of the answer.”

“Technology is the magic of our generation, but used badly, it can amplify exclusion,” Tharmaratnam said. “If you are building a diagnostic tool, it needs to be able to work in Brazil. It needs to be able to work in Nigeria. I need to be able to work in Indonesia.”

She said the foundation’s role is to spearhead a sea change in the investment space by building awareness among private companies of the value of financial and health return on investment. 

“The fund can really coalesce around the companies to help them go into markets they may not have otherwise considered by recognizing that they are huge opportunities and have huge needs,” Tharmaratnam added.

Checks and balances

The WHO Foundation has come under fire in the past for accepting funds from companies not aligning with global health standards. In 2021, for example, it was accused of receiving $2.1 million from the multinational food and beverage company Nestlé, which had been accused of violating infant milk formula’s international marketing codes.

But the foundation has said that receipt of funds does not imply endorsement of a company’s activities. 

Tharmaratnam insisted that the foundation has “the same checks and balances” as the WHO “regarding who we can take money from. If we raise funds from you to support the activities of WHO, then you need to be in alignment with that.”

Image Credits: World Health Organization Foundation.

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