As a medical student working in a cancer research lab, Manuri Gunawardena was surprised how difficult it was to find cancer patients to join a clinical trial and receive potentially life-saving treatment.
“It was kind of bizarre,” she said. "Brain cancer doesn't exactly have a treatment or standard therapy that works. It's been 30 years since anything useful came out in the space.
“Patients are willing to travel to Germany or wherever it is to access treatments. But we were struggling to find patients.”
The problem was an informational one, Gunawardena found.
Learning about clincial trials was entirely dependent on the patient’s doctor, existing medical trials, or the information available at the hospital or clinic the patient was visiting.
“The criteria are also very specific,” she said. “You can't just have lung cancer, for example; you might need lung cancer plus twenty other criteria to qualify for a study.”
As far as Gunawardena was concerned, finding and getting into a clinical trial in Australia was akin to winning a game of chance. It was a system begging for improvement.
Gunawardena thought to build a platform that could inform and match patients with ongoing research into their condition, making it easier for researchers to fill their trials.
She teamed up with a colleague to build the first prototype of HealthMatch in 2017 which Gunawardena took to TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield Australia – a pitch competition she won.
HealthMatch launched in January 2019.
It sees users enter personal information – name, date of birth, sex, location – and then answer a series of questions related to clinical trials that are currently open for applications.
“That first time we were like, ‘well, let's see if people actually use this’,” Gunawardena said.
“In literally the first week we had people from all around Australia applying to studies, and that was really cool to see.”
By the end of the year, HealthMatch had pulled in $6 million in venture capital funding.
Recent months have seen the platform’s user base explode from around 8,000 users at the end of May to a milestone of 50,000 last week – a figure Gunawardena hopes to soon double.
“It's been some really great growth in the last three, four months,” Gunawardena said.
“I think that's a bit to do with the pandemic but also our team growing and being able to focus our efforts more in Australia.”
HealthMatch is free for patients and makes its money by charging the sponsors of the clinical research trials, whether that be a pharmaceutical company, university researcher, or biotech firm.
But Gunawardena said the system is agnostic and won’t direct patients towards medical trials from higher-paying sponsors.
“Regardless of whether there are two competing trials, we're not going to push the patient towards one we'd prefer,” she said. “It's really based on what the patient qualifies for.
“The way the tech actually works is that the patient has to qualify for those studies by answering the eligibility questions.
“So they're going through our matching algorithm, and then they might be presented with one or two studies – and it’s really up to that patient to decide what they want to apply to.”
Following a successful Australian launch, Gunawardena wants to see HealthMatch expand into overseas markets. And she’s optimistic that the platform will work at an international scale.
“In terms of scaling, it's fairly straightforward,” she said.
“The main concern for us is making sure that we've got a strict adherence to the data privacy rules in particular geographies.
"Australia's got some pretty strict laws and guidelines around privacy and data security so we're lucky that we've started from a position of fairly tight regulation and as we expand through different geographies, that's something to keep in mind.
“But in terms of operationally expanding, that’s fairly straightforward because we don't actually interact with the healthcare system per se.”