He's worth around $5 billion. He's scored big in the music, airline, and telecommunications industries. And Virgin Group founder Richard Branson just might soon add healthcare to his list of conquests.
In August, Branson participated in a $21 million funding round for Doctor on Demand, along with venture capital firms Venrock and Shasta Ventures. The San Francisco-based company allows patients to see physicians from the comfort of their own homes through two-way video on their PCs, tablets, or smartphones. Why is the British billionaire betting on this healthcare technology?
Healthcare's hot "new" thing
Doctor on Demand represents just one company carving out a niche in an area of healthcare technology that's generating a lot of buzz these days -- telemedicine (also sometimes referred to as telehealth). The amount of investments in telemedicine companies in 2014 more than doubled the total from 2013.
But while telemedicine is certainly hot, it's not new by any stretch. The technology, which includes any electronic exchange of medical information across multiple sites to improve a patient's health, got its start at least 40 years ago with hospitals providing care to patients in remote areas.
Supporters can point to numerous reasons why healthcare providers, payers, and patients should be excited about telemedicine. Wide access to the Internet makes adoption of telemedicine easier than ever. A shortage of physicians should make use of the technology attractive as a way to better leverage clinical professionals' time. Telemedicine offers an opportunity to help control increasing healthcare costs.
For years, though, regulatory roadblocks prevented telemedicine from really taking off. That finally appears to be changing. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia now have laws that allow reimbursement of some types of telemedicine. The federal government is relaxing some previous restrictions on telemedicine. Legislation has been put forward that could make a real difference in accelerating the use of the technology.
This improving regulatory climate is already helping. A recent survey of healthcare executives by Foley & Lardner LLP found that nine out of 10 have already started developing a telemedicine program.
Room for more than just billionaires
Investing in private companies like Doctor on Demand isn't an option for most investors. However, you don't have to be a billionaire like Richard Branson to find some opportunities in telemedicine.
Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), for example, is experimenting with its own telemedicine service using its Helpouts platform. If a user searches for a medical-related term, Google's search engine will offer an opportunity to connect with a physician via videochat. The technology giant's venture capital fund has also invested in, drum roll please, Doctor on Demand.
Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) is another big technology company making a mark in the telemedicine market. Its subsidiary, Qualcomm Life, focuses on a platform called 2net that supports connecting medical devices to remote monitoring systems.
While these large companies are setting their sights on telemedicine, the performance of Google or Qualcomm shares won't be affected much by the growth of the technology just yet. Investors looking for pure-play telemedicine opportunities should be on the lookout for potential IPOs of smaller companies, maybe even Doctor on Demand. After all, why should Richard Branson have all the fun?