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'Instagram for doctors' Figure 1 reaches a million users, adds messaging tool

Richard Penner, left and Gregory Levey pose with their Figure 1 app in their Toronto office on Sept. 15, 2015. Figure 1 said its free online mobile tool reached the one million mark last month and that medical images, scrubbed of any identifying information, have been viewed more than 1.5 billion times on its platform.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

A Toronto startup that has been likened to "Instagram for doctors" now boasts more than one million health-care professionals using its platform, double the level it had seven months ago.

Figure 1 said its free online mobile tool – used by medical practitioners around the world to share images of patient ailments and seek the opinions of others – reached the one million mark last month and that medical images, scrubbed of any identifying information, have been viewed more than 1.5 billion times on its platform. The company estimates two-thirds of North American medical students now use the app, which is also used by institutions such as Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders), the American Cancer Society and Toronto's Women's College Hospital.

Now its ambition is to become the dominant online platform for doctors, or "the operating system of health care," said Boris Wertz, a Vancouver venture capitalist who has backed the company, along with serial entrepreneur Daniel Debow, Canadian VC firm Rho Canada Ventures and New York private investors Union Square Ventures and Allen & Co. Figure 1 has raised about $11-million (U.S.) in venture capital since its founding three years ago.

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This week sees the introduction of a secure messaging tool on the app that allows users to communicate directly with one another rather than just commenting for all to see on a message board accompanying images.

Figure 1 chief executive officer Greg Levey said the app has already enabled medical professionals to gain instant access to help from their peers from all corners of the world. For example, a nurse in Haiti recently delivered a baby that had a mysterious skin condition. With no doctor immediately available, she posted a photo on Figure 1. Mr. Levey said 16,000 users, including many dermatologists and pediatricians, saw the image and many offered their thoughts over the app.

However, until now users have been unable to communicate directly and securely with one another, which has prompted many to keep their views to themselves. "We've learned people have stage fright," Mr. Levey said, adding there was demand from users for a direct messaging function. "This will allow them to have conversations quietly or specialty-specific or within a hospital."

Other recent features added to the app include the ability to host one-on-one live conversations with prominent figures in health care sectors, as well as online forums led by doctors providing in-depth clinical discussions. The company is also launching Spanish and Portuguese versions of the app for Latin America.

Mr. Wertz said three-year-old Figure 1, which has about 35 employees and has yet to generate revenue, has evolved from being "a toy" that was dismissed by many investors to a proven tool used by up to 10,000 health-care professionals in any given hour. "It's the best medical-knowledge sharing platform out there now." For the company to become a more all-encompassing social network for doctors, "you have to support all information that can be shared" by introducing a variety of communications options between users, as Facebook has done.

"It's a very raw product," Mr. Wertz said of the Figure 1 app. "You can take it in many different directions. They're nicely set up for the next little while."

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About the Author

Sean Silcoff joined The Globe and Mail in January, 2012, following an 18-year-career in journalism and communications. He previously worked as a columnist and Montreal correspondent for the National Post and as a staff writer at Canadian Business Magazine, where he was project co-ordinator of the magazine's inaugural Rich 100 list. More

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