Company of the Month – Holly Health
Holly Health was founded with a vision to support life-long behavioural changes that improve health and wellbeing.
We spoke to Cofounder and CEO Grace Gimson about their app-based solution, and how it supports a new approach to preventing and minimising the effects of long-term conditions.
For Grace Gimson, Holly Health is the result of an ambition that began developing in childhood, in part informed by growing up in a technophile household (her father worked on some of the early supercomputers and would bring new tech home regularly) and a fascination with psychology. Grace says:
“When I was a teenager, I knew already that I wanted to build a technology solution that solved a big human problem and, ideally, would scale up to support lots and lots of people, because I just wanted to have an impact.”
With this vision in mind, Grace went about gaining the experience she would need to start her own venture. Studying business management, and working for businesses as varied as Microsoft, Aldi, Deliveroo (which she joined before it became a household name), and a Facebook-acquired tech startup, Grace gained confidence in her ability to build and grow a business. At the same time, in the background she studied to become a health coach, furthering her interest in psychology and approaches to health management.
Forming Holly Health
In 2020, together with co-founder, Dr Claire Wu, and Head of Research, Dr. Daniela Beivide, Grace formed Holly Health. Claire has since stepped into an advisory role, though her PhD in neuroscience, and Daniela’s PhD in Psychological Medicine, have been pivotal to the solution they developed. Grace outlines the challenge they set out to address:
“Many people really struggle on their own to make health changes. The types of approaches we’ve typically used for generations are quite short term, like restrictive weight loss or exercise regimes, and we really don’t have the psychological understanding and experience to build things that stick for life.
“Every year in the UK and US, $800billion is spent on managing preventable health conditions. It’s five times more expensive to treat patients with long-term conditions, yet longitudinal studies have shown that if a patient is able to pick up around four healthy behaviours in mid-life, they can extend their life by roughly 10 years.
“But, of course, if people want support to do that, they can’t get it. In the NHS there are practice nurses and, in some cases, health and wellbeing coaches, but they’re at capacity, so most people are completely on their own.”
Holly Health addresses the lack of resources and staffing to support people in making those behavioural changes.
“We need new approaches in our healthcare system to prevent health problems. Right now, most clinical time is being taken up by long-term conditions that are brought about by behaviours, and can only be resolved with behaviours. With the likes of type two diabetes, there are really expensive treatments to manage your insulin levels, but that’s just a management approach. We know you can reverse type two diabetes with behaviour changes. So that should be the goal.”
The app-based solution draws on the expertise of the team in psychology, nutrition and healthcare, to offer tailored coaching to improve sleep, nutrition, exercise and mental wellbeing.
After a 4-minute initial ‘consultation’, the app offers advice, articles and recipes, reminders and nudges, and celebrates when users reach their goals. The advice has been based on mindfulness-based approaches and cognitive behavioural therapy approaches, like acceptance and commitment therapy. The combined experience across the team in psychological science and product development, have enabled them to bring a compassionate feel into a fully automated service.
As Grace explains, the target group for their app is the ‘unsupported middle’ – those who may not be facing immediate acute health challenges, but who are slowly declining into long-term conditions such as type 2 diabetes, respiratory illness, hypertension or gut issues.
“There’s a massive ‘unsupported middle’ portion of the population. Very often, they have motivation to improve their health, but struggle with both physical and mental health challenges, are in more deprived postcode areas, or have other reasons for not having easy access to support.”
Working with primary care
Since their beginnings in 2020, the Holly Health team have already made fast progress with reaching that ‘unsupported middle’ population. Following development and user testing, they made the app available to NHS primary care practices in early 2022, and are already in partnership with over 80 GP and primary care practices.
When they go live with a practice, a proactive approach is typically taken to reaching the local population, including SMS messages to most registered adult patients. With that approach, they see immediate signups of around 6%, meaning overnight support for hundreds of people per practice, that would otherwise have none.
One of the most promising results they’re seeing is that, according to feedback from users, 35% report needing less support from their GP after eight weeks of using the app.
Scalability has been at the forefront since the start. While the app is designed by experts in the field, there is no contact with a real-life person. Instead, the user interacts with a digital health coach – the Holly Bird. The process works using questionnaires and a set of complex algorithms to supply personalised guidance and support. For the near future, the team is also working on incorporating machine learning into the process.
All this means the service is scalable to large populations and has been priced with this in mind. While the team are in early discussions with private health insurers and employers, the focus so far is with the NHS primary care and public health bodies. Currently, the subscription model means a large cohort can be given access to the app from just 15p, per patient, per year.
While it’s still early days – following pilot projects, this B2B revenue has just started flowing in the last few months – they are now having conversations with GP networks and integrated care systems with large populations, ranging from 200,000 to 1 million people.
As well as improved health outcomes for their population, those commissioner partners will also gain access to detailed aggregate data on the health of their population, the habits they’re forming, and the health outcomes they’re achieving.
The team have also been working in partnership with Age UK Lewisham and Southwark to co-design a sister app for healthy ageing. The UKRI-funded project has included focus groups and pilots with a diverse population to design a service to promote healthy ageing, including through increased physical activity, improving cardiovascular health, and tackling loneliness. The plan is to make this service available free to charities, community groups and primary care organisations next year.
Funding and support
In addition to successful grant-winning and B2B revenue, the team has been successful in raising funds through investment. To date, they’ve attracted around £1 million in angel investment. They’re now preparing to launch a seed funding round in early 2023, and recently took part in a MedCity Investment Hub pitch event in preparation.
They’ve also benefited from being involved in a number of accelerator programmes, including the GovStart programme for startups, and the MedCity-supported P4 Precision Medicine Accelerator. When it came to accessing NHS decision-makers, Grace calls out the P4 programme as being useful, in addition to the pre-existing network their new Chief Commercial Officer, Danny Stone, brought when he joined the company this year.
Now, it seems, the early focus on scalability is only just starting to pay off.
“So far, we’ve supported 20,000 users. We’d like to be supporting 100,000 within the next year. Longer term, because the solution is so easily scalable, we’re of course interested in expanding internationally. We know that the solution is already suitable for markets like America, Canada and Australia, so there’s lots of potential there.”
Find out more
Find out more at hollyhealth.io
If you’d like to explore getting free access to the healthy ageing service for your community, you can email the Holly team, using email@example.com
Holly Health is a member of MedCity Community, a virtual platform for UK life sciences founders that offers peer to peer networking, 1:1 support from the MedCity team and access to exclusive events, among other benefits. This growing community of SMEs is free to join.