Hillel's Tech Corner: StuffThatWorks: Crowdsourced medicine

StuffThatWorks is a platform to crowdsource the experience of patients with chronic diseases.

StuffThatWorks. (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When you examine the medical world, especially the mental health world, it’s basically one size fits all when it comes to treatment. What I mean is, doctors, and specifically psychiatrists, will prescribe certain medications based on what they learned in school, and personalized medicine, while many have tried, has not really caught on quite yet.
Imagine a world in which people with chronic diseases share their experience for others to learn from and for doctors to improve their medical care. Imagine a world with a Waze-like solution, but instead of crowdsourcing the roads, we crowdsource our medicine.
Well, if such a solution existed, it would need massive numbers for it to succeed. To achieve those numbers, it might need someone who is familiar with the challenge, maybe someone who was actually involved in building and scaling Waze.
I am sure you know where I’m going with this. Meet Yael Elish, who led product and marketing at Waze from inception all the way to tens of millions of users and post the Google acquisition. Yael is now the founder and CEO of a company called StuffThatWorks.
I was introduced to the company by a friend Yahal Zilka, who is invested in StuffThatWorks and was one of the first investors in Waze.
Well, Yael and I go way back and to say she is laser focused on the success of this company is a huge understatement. In fact, Yael is almost nowhere to be found on social media, because she cannot afford distractions as she builds StuffThatWorks.
So what is it and how does it work?
Put simply, StuffThatWorks is exactly what I described above, a platform to crowdsource the experience of patients with chronic diseases.
The company has incredible investors including Yahal’s fund 10D as well as 83North, Bessemer, and others.
What really amazed me about my conversation last week with Yael were the numbers. With minimal “noise” online about StuffThatWorks, they have managed to gain some serious traction with 20,931,997 data points from which doctors and patients can learn. The platform has more than 241 conditions ranging from mental conditions, to women’s medicine, all the way to orthopedic cancer and rare diseases. Anyone can start a condition if it’s not yet open.
The company, much like Waze, has a small team and is mostly online, with most of its traffic coming organically thanks to the content on their site, which helps with SEO and search.
When you look at the 390,321 contributors on StuffThatWorks, you have to ask yourself how engaged these users are. It’s always a question, how does the company define “users”? Well, to be a user of this company, it’s not a simple sign up. You have to answer approximately 60 questions, and let’s be honest, anyone spending the time to answer that many questions is most definitely engaged and can be called a user.
The questions include things like “When were you diagnosed?” “What were your symptoms?” “What stage are you in?” and “How long did the diagnosis and treatment take?”
The answers are then analyzed by AI and natural language processing, which translates the free text into numerical data, which can be used to increase the accuracy of the treatment for the next person.
A LITTLE background. Until today, doctors prescribed treatments based on general guidelines that are applied to all people and are based on small samples of people in clinical trials. These trials are of course conducted in a controlled environment that’s far from representing the huge diversities among people and the complexities of life in the real world.
RWE (Real World Evidence) and the result of this crowdsourcing is that StuffThatWorks has created the first ever structured, cross condition RWE knowledge base. Being structured, and cross condition – It’s optimized for research and is free – because the company’s goal is to advance research of chronic conditions.
The team says the site will always be free for patients and that they have a few ideas on the business model, but will always serve their goal of researching chronic diseases and helping patients. Of course, the data is anonymous so privacy is not an issue.
Nearly 45% of the world’s population suffers from at least one chronic condition. And the Pew Research Center says that more than 70% of Americans look up their medical symptoms on Google, a practice doctors discourage. I saw a funny post on Facebook recently that said that Googling your disease just shows you which medical conditions have the best SEO.
StuffThatWorks has more than 30 employees and is located in Tel Aviv. However, during the first months of COVID, Elish relocated about a third of the employees to six tzimmers near Kibbutz Sde Boker and is now located in Naot Farm in the Negev Desert. When I Zoomed with Yael last week, she showed me the view of the desert, not exactly your typical start-up office.
Yael founded the company after she was searching for a treatment for her daughter and ended up finding one, by chance, that was actually local to Israel. She realized that we haven’t leveraged the power of big number crowdsourcing for medicine, and after building Waze, she was very familiar with the power and wisdom of the crowd.
An interesting statistic I was personally surprised to read is that about half of the groups on Facebook are related to medicine, so people are most definitely interested in sharing their experiences and learning from others who experienced it before them.
Yael estimates that there are about 10,000 chronic conditions that have been identified to date in the world of medicine, but only about 40 of them have had really extensive research and established treatments.
As mentioned, Yael left Waze and founded StuffThatWorks with two others, CTO Ron Held, and Chief Data Scientist, Yossi Synett. Held, a trained mathematician, is a former head of an IDF intelligence team. And Synett is an expert in machine learning, AI and hands-on analysis, and between the three of them, they have built an AI platform that ingests lots of data points, combines them into actionable data for people to use, and lets them – the users – build out more frontiers in that effort.
A little more about how the AI works. The data goes through a series of “stretch goals” as it grows: First the condition is established with a profile on StuffThatWorks. Then after 100 contributors join that community, you can start to see initial insights about the condition including age of onset, symptoms, aggravating factors and treatments that can begin to be shared and browsed. After several hundred, the machine learning starts to rank different treatments by effectiveness. After thousands of contributors, the algorithms are able to predict for you, the visitor what the most effective treatments might be for you.
“With more than half of the world’s populations suffering from at least one chronic condition, chronic illness is a rapidly growing global epidemic, ” said Adam Fisher, partner at Bessemer Venture Partners and one of the top investors in the country. “We believe that StuffThatWorks can not only help millions of people get access to valuable knowledge on treatment effectiveness but also disrupt and innovate the way data from patients in the real world is collected and analyzed today.”
I asked Yael about mental health specially because the space is truly ready to be disrupted. I have spoken about this before but anyone who suffers from a mental health condition then proceeds to basically become a lab rat as their doctors try to determine what treatment will work for that person. They might prescribe a medication that the patient will start and only discover after months that it did nothing for them, and then back to square one. There has to be a better way.
StuffThatWorks is definitely a unique approach to the world of healthcare and truth be told, if anyone else was attempting this, I’d be relatively skeptical, but knowing Yael is behind this gives me hope that this company will change the world of medicine forever.