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Can a Kleiner-Funded App Really Help the Medicine Go Down?

Mango Health raised $5.25 million to help those with chronic diseases remember to take their pills.

Shutterstock / Maks Narodenko

The doctor may say “take two of these and call me in the morning,” but it turns out many of us don’t listen.

As many as 30 percent of prescriptions are never filled and people don’t complete their full course of medication about half of the time, according to figures compiled by the Centers for Disease Control. To precisely no one’s surprise, forgoing or halting treatments leads to worse outcomes, including as many as 125,000 deaths per year.

Mango Health wants to change that and just raised $5.25 million to advance the cause. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers led the Series A round and General Partner Dr. Beth Seidenberg will join the San Francisco startup’s board.

The company developed an app that reminds users to take their medicine. It’s not the first to do so — nor the second or third or fourth.

But co-founder and Chief Executive Jason Oberfest believes the company has distinguished itself in a variety of ways, beginning by focusing on those dealing with early signs of chronic conditions like pre-diabetes, hypertension and hyperlipidemia. These patients often don’t follow their treatment regimens for fairly predictable psychological reasons.

“It’s out of sight, out of mind — and it reminds them of a part of their life they’re not happy about,” he said. “So that’s where we’re focused, building products that inspire people to think differently about this part of their life.”

Mango Health packages together several approaches that other apps have already taken, combining notifications, medical content, journaling and gamification, complete with leveling-up opportunities and points that can translate into gift cards or charity donations.

Oberfest, previously an executive at Myspace and at mobile gaming company Ngmoco, said they’ve also applied stickiness lessons drawn from the worlds of social networking and gaming. But they’ve consciously sought to avoid the slapdash approaches that too often characterize gamification, including clunky design, cartoonish avatars and an overemphasis on competition between users.

Mango Health is among a series of recent companies to nab funding with the promise of using tech tools to improve health outcomes, by encouraging people to eat healthier, exercise more or take their medicine. Other recent examples include Omada Health and BaseHealth.

Some call it digital therapeutics. But at this point it remains to be seen whether it’s the fad diet of the month — or an approach that makes a real dent in long-term health outcomes.

Mango Health did share some early figures from a “U.S. integrated delivery care system” that began encouraging its members to use the app last October. Numbers varied across drug categories, including statins, antihypertensives and anti-diabetic medication, but overall 60 percent of users were using the app after 180 days.

Nearly 90 percent of them were adhering to their prescriptions. That’s well ahead of normal rates, which hover in the fifties.

“We are seeing a massive shift in medicine where the tools are being reinvented — software is being used to improve health outcomes,” Seidenberg said in a statement. “Mango Health’s unique product design has led to daily usage patterns that we haven’t seen before in this category.”

Still, usage sloped off from 75 percent after the first 30 days — and it remains to be seen where those figures will stand six months or a year from now.

Mango Health is pursuing an unusual business model for an app. It’s partnering with health-care providers, self-insured employers and health plans looking to improve outcomes for their patients — and by extension, lowering their costs. The total price of non-adherence runs anywhere from $100 billion to nearly $300 billion annually, according to estimates.

These groups encourage their members to download the app and, in turn, they pay Mango Health based on the number of members who actively use the service each month. In other words, the company only gets paid when people are using the app, so they’re strongly incentivized to make sure it does what it claims and keeps people coming back.

“I want to be aligned with our partners,” Oberfest said.

The company hasn’t disclosed its customers so far.

The new funding will be used to build out engineering, content development, product marketing and more. Mango Health participated in the Rock Health accelerator and previously raised seed financing from Baseline Ventures, Bullpen Capital, First Round Capital, Floodgate Fund and angel investors.

Oberfest said the adherence app is just the starting point. The broader, longer-term goal is to create a service that the general population will want to use for daily health management.

But it faces a tough battle for a regular block of consumers’ attention.

No matter how many apps people download, they generally only use about eight — and the eat-your-vegetables variety rarely rate on popularity lists. Luring people back again and again to be reminded to take their medicine, or ponder a subject they’re inclined to ignore, won’t be an easy sell.

An app, after all, is no spoonful of sugar.

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