Super-apps, Healthcare Pump Up Platform Outlook
Asia and telemedicine are two bright spots in a complex digital landscape
By Paula Klein
Both emerging and incumbent platform markets seem to be driving ahead despite economic potholes. With the economy in flux and the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, however, complexities abound.
“We’re living in a platform economy,” said Peter Evans, Managing Partner, Platform Strategy Institute. Increasingly, digital marketplaces offer products, services, and apps that were strictly offline just a few years ago.
As much as they are ubiquitous, however, digital markets are also volatile. While new players continue to emerge — in niches from music to healthcare — tremendous challenges loom.
Against this backdrop, MIT IDE held the annual Platform Strategy Summit July 8 with some 900 virtual global attendees. While stars such as as Uber, Airbnb, and Eventbrite — which depend on high-touch customer interaction — are struggling, new opportunities for “super-apps,” experience platforms, and healthcare are sprouting, some spurred by pandemic-driven demand.
Evans, a Co-chair of the Summit, noted that so many new models are emerging, “we’re moving from obvious to more complex ecosystems, where multiple platforms merge into one. It’s exciting,” he said, but only, “if you know how to lean into platforms to add new value to old products and services.”
The day-long Summit featured experts from many fields and perspectives. Here are summaries of two key discussions centered on identifying new market opportunities and cultivating healthcare platforms.
Super app Lessons from Asian Markets
In the next three to five years mobile ‘super apps’ will find their way to Western markets and become as ubiquitous as they are in China, predicts Connie Chan, Andreessen Horowitz, General Partner. As a venture capitalist, she studies developing markets to identify platform investment opportunities.
“China is a not only a mobile-first society, but really a ‘mobile-only’ society, so apps are accepted more easily there.” Nevertheless, they will spread widely, she said, especially as mobile-only users become the norm.
In a chat with Marshall Van Alstyne, Professor, Boston University and Visiting Scholar, MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, (IDE) and a Summit Co-chair, Chan said the rise of super apps, such as WeChat and Alipay in China, will become a burgeoning global trend.
A super app combines several mobile services so that users don’t have to download or open many windows. For instance, WeChat started as a consumer messaging app that now provides access to small businesses such as street vendors, food delivery, and news companies, all from one screen. The goal for businesses, Chan said, is to use a high frequency or long-term user experiences as a way to generate leads for new user engagement.
Chan argues that single sign-on, frictionless apps are inevitable. For instance, Alipay, a mobile and online payment platform established in China in 2004, offers many services that may look irrelevant to each other — such as fund transfer and third-party services. In fact, the app lets users seamlessly access city services, pay utilities, buy movie tickets, or book a hotel room. As a payment platform, it can scan a bar code instead of requiring separate order and pay functions.
Similarly, Meituan is a popular food delivery app in China that added hotel bookings in 2013. Today, it books nearly 50 percent of hotel stays in China. Attractions, nightlife, movie tickets, and ‘experiences’ like bike-sharing are on the app, too. The company took a high-frequency, low-margin business — food delivery — and tacked on high-margin businesses at low (or zero) customer acquisition costs.
Chan is also bullish on Run The World, a stranger-to-stranger online interaction platform that isn’t a dating app. The co-founders, who came from Facebook and Instagram, presented Run The World, as a new online networking environment. Chan anticipates that “Run The World will bring together like-minded people online. Participants can learn from experts and connect in a way that feels natural, safe, and fun, while maintaining professional and personal connections.” Especially now, when online conferences are indispensable, it’s critical to emulate side conversations and build relationships for those with common interests.
All of these apps depend on robust data banks to boost their impact and to help personalize user experiences, but Chan doesn’t see privacy concerns restricting growth.
Despite what they may say, U.S. users will adopt these apps and “sacrifice privacy for convenience,” she told Van Alstyne.
Telehealth Having its Day
Like their counterparts in emerging platform markets, traditional business incumbents are making major platform strides this year, too. Healthcare is a prime example.
Forty years of halting efforts in telemedicine were inadvertently condensed into twelve weeks, according to John Halamka, M.D., and recently appointed President of Mayo Clinic Platform.
Virtual care delivery and in-home patient monitoring — that were not expected to be widely available for another decade — are soaring since the pandemic, he said. The 150-year-old Mayo Clinic, a national nonprofit medical center, is riding the wave.
The pandemic has caused long-standing regulatory constraints to loosen, insurance reimbursement formulas to change, and stubborn medical restrictions to be lifted around the country, Halamka told Geoffrey Parker, Professor at Dartmouth, MIT IDE Digital Fellow, and a Summit Co-chair. Halamka, a long-time advocate of leading edge medical technologies, sees tremendous progress taking place.
“Once we could no longer have on-premise visits, everything was possible,” he said. From asynchronous consultations, to acute home care using sensors and AI, the Mayo Clinic “can monitor COPD, kidney function, and heart failure in homes, as well as offer nursing and wound care.”
More importantly, he said, federal agencies and policymakers now say, ‘Don’t roll back.’ This platform of virtual care is the new normal.”
Like Connie Chan’s premise that consumers will opt for convenience over privacy and high-touch, Halamka sees the gains from telemedicine — including remote tests and sensor-driven monitoring — far outweighing losses in personal contact. “You will usually get the same outcomes at lower costs, and with greater ease of use for patients.”
He acknowledged a digital divide where less technically savvy patients and those without adequate technology may find obstacles. In those cases, he suggests a new occupation, the equivalent of “care traffic controllers,” who navigate the healthcare system for a patient. They may help with computer access and monitoring at home, or suggest public kiosk locations where telemedicine is available.
New healthcare models will require new human roles and adjustments, and there will be stumbling blocks and failures along the way. But for Halamka, the long-awaited transition will be worth it.