4 strategies for building a digital health unicorn

It’s an entrepreneur’s market in digital health today, with startups raising record-breaking funding at soaring valuations and debuting on public markets to eager investors.

According to CB Insights, as of March 3, 2021, there are 51 healthcare unicorns — “startups” — worth $1 billion or more around the world. Global venture capital funding, including private equity and corporate VC, into digital health was the highest ever in the first quarter 2021 at $7.2 billion, according to Mercom Capital Group.

The massive influx of capital to healthcare should not be surprising; the pandemic has made it starkly clear that digital health is the future of healthcare. To that end, we should anticipate additional healthcare exits worth more than $1 billion in the near term. Which again, is great for entrepreneurs — as long as they understand how hard it is to build a unicorn in healthcare. Today, becoming a unicorn requires founders who are long on vision and operational experience.

Today, becoming a unicorn requires founders who are long on vision and operational experience.

Company founders most often turn to veteran investors for help with grand-slam strategies to create the next healthcare unicorn. That’s why many of them seek counsel from the Merck Global Health Innovation Fund: Because we have the experience, resources, successful track record and networks to build real scale in digital health.

During the pandemic, lots of investors jumped in to invest in digital health for the first time. But we’ve been investing for more than a decade. Two of our portfolio companies, Preventice Solutions and Livongo, exited last year as unicorns, rounding out the $6.2 billion in digital health market value MGHIF has exited over the last two years. And we are expecting two more unicorn exits in 2021. But we’re not stopping there; we’ll be investing our $500 million fund in drone-supported supply chain technologies, telehealth, AI, digital pathology, remote clinical trials and Internet of Medical Things (IoMT).

Given our success, here are four instrumental strategies to building a unicorn in digital health that we know work.

Raise the “right amount” of capital to build the right company

We often ask entrepreneurs: Would you rather own 20% of a $50 million company or 5% of a $1 billion company? To most, the answer is obvious. In our experience, too many entrepreneurs worry about dilution and never raise the right amount of capital.

It’s well known that companies with rapidly growing revenues are valued at a premium — but it’s important to remember that this is hard to do in healthcare. Getting to scale takes time because healthcare is so complicated and involves so many stakeholders.