When Christopher Male’s son, Duke, was diagnosed with autism at age three, the long-time investor quickly discovered a fragmented and polarized marketplace.
“The services seemed antiquated, solutions were expensive, there were long wait lines, just a very broken system,” said Male, who in 2020 co-founded the Autism Impact Fund, which invests in autism-focused startups. “As we surveyed the landscape, there were plenty of foundations and nonprofits that all play a critical role, but I was quite surprised to see that there was this gap in the market where there was no venture arm for the community.”
As more children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, venture capital has poured into startups aiming to disrupt this space. In 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one in 44 children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, an increase from the early 2010s when it was one in 68. Experts say diagnosis of autism has become more accurate, whereas in the past children were incorrectly labeled as having an intellectual disability.
Startups have emerged to offer everything from virtual therapy services to creating platforms that aid job hunting for autistic adults. Applied behavioral analysis, a treatment method for autistic children, has become increasingly digitized through telehealth assessments. But with the rise of technology and funding, questions have arisen about companies stressing revenue growth over clinical care.
“If you’re a tech company like Airbnb and you have venture capital, your mentality is typically, ‘grow, grow, grow,’” said Sarah Trautman, CEO of defy community, a company focused on preventing burnout among clinicians. “They don’t care if you’re running a huge deficit, they just want to get to scale and add in profit later…The issue that I think people are failing to consider is this requires human capital, and it really requires a ton of human capital.”
The money flowing into autism care has been plentiful. According to Digital Health Business & Technology’s funding database, more than $700 million in venture money has gone into autism-focused digital health startups since 2017. There have been 28 deals, including 17 in the last two years. That includes a $219 million round for Elemy in October 2021, a $105 million round for Brightline in March and a $60 million round for Cortica in June 2021. While most of these startups companies are singularly focused on autism, others like Brightline and Cortica aim to reach multiple patient populations.