Forta raises $55M to help parents look after their autistic kids

In a world where healthcare access is disproportionately skewed by geography and income, Forta Health raised a substantial round of funding to level the playing field a bit.

The company says it is aiming to democratize access to healthcare by utilizing artificial intelligence tools, including large language models, to empower caregivers and enhance clinical treatments. Its approach is not only making strides in healthcare provision but also narrowing the healthcare accessibility gap in geographical regions where physician outreach is inadequate.

The company’s key concern is with managing the increased number of diagnoses for conditions like autism, Alzheimer’s, and chronic diseases — and the desperate shortage of professionals to help offer support.

Forta Health’s first products are focused on autism treatment. The company is leaning into applied behavior analysis (ABA), which has received a lot of criticism in the autistic community. The core concern is that ABA is often overly controlling and focused on changing behaviors to conform to societal norms rather than on understanding the underlying needs or perspectives. The approach primarily focuses on modifying observable behaviors. Critics argue that this approach can overlook the underlying cognitive and emotional processes of the individual.

Forta defends its approach, saying it differs in some substantial ways from the ABA approaches from the bad old days.

“We’re thinking about the application of Applied Behavioral Analysis as a method for analyzing behavior, and then providing reinforcements that either will promote a positive behavior or extinguish a negative, maladaptive behavior. Some of the reinforcements and rewards of the very early applications of ABA were Machiavellian, such as restraints, electro-shocks, and so on. Those are now very passé,” explains Christian Smith, co-founder and CMO at Forta Health, in an interview with TechCrunch. “The way we think about this is with a trauma-informed and least-restraint approach.”

Ritankar Das, Forta’s co-founder and CEO, emphasizes the challenge of ensuring consistent, quality care under the current healthcare arrangement.

“Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, we take a personalized approach. We do that by using an AI model that customizes the treatment plan. That’s a really important piece because we are still learning a lot about this, and as a species, understanding of biology is still quite crude in some areas,” says Das.

The core issue the company is trying to address is that, with children who have autism, a lot of the support is already given by the family. Forta Health wants to ensure that those parents have professional support and training to be able to give higher-quality care.

Das explains that historically, caregiving began within the family unit, extending from small tribes in our species’ early days. Despite technological advancements, especially in the last century, which reduced mortality rates significantly, healthcare systems still face challenges. We’ve made great strides in treating acute conditions like infectious diseases, exemplified by the successful handling of COVID-19.

However, we struggle with chronic care and mental health issues, often turning healthcare into a reactive “sick care” system. While technology has extended life spans and improved certain health aspects, the company says that as an institution, healthcare hasn’t adequately addressed the rise in chronic conditions.

That means that a lot of care falls to families, and that family-driven care remains vital. Forta Health is exploring how to enhance family caregiving with technology, especially for chronic conditions and areas where the health system falls short.

Zooming in on its current product offering, the CEO says that ABA’s origins were in family-led studies demonstrating its effectiveness and positive outcomes. This approach has shifted over time, but the company is focusing on returning to the original approach of ABA, which it says empowers families by providing skills for the lifelong management of a condition that affects individuals beyond childhood.

The company says it has partnered with seven of the top 10 biggest U.S. health insurance providers and over two dozen state government schemes and is bringing its AI resources to as many patients as possible. A $55 million war chest enables the company to lift its eyes to the horizon beyond autism, and the team suggests family-based care is a far broader opportunity than autism alone.