Tech’s Favorite Body Scan Startup Is the Latest Hot Corporate Perk

Forget ping-pong tables. Companies are offering workers early cancer detection screening. 

(Bloomberg) — The hottest new employee perk in Silicon Valley? Full-body imaging scans.

A California-based startup called Prenuvo Inc. offers full-body MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, scans to spot warning signs of diseases including cancer. Patients including tech venture capitalists and celebrities like Kim Kardashian have endorsed the products. Now, dozens of companies have begun offering the preventative scans to their employees, said Andrew Lacy, Prenuvo’s founder and chief executive officer. 

Prenuvo’s adoption by corporations as a futuristic benefit started organically, Lacy said. Business owners and executives who tried the company’s service, which costs $2,499 for hourlong full-body scans, wanted to offer it to their employees. “We didn’t set out to deliberately target enterprises,” Lacy said. “There was a lot of organic demand.”

The company has eight clinics across the US, including in New York, Los Angeles and Boca Raton, Florida, and plans to open 10 to 12 more over the next year. Prenuvo has raised about $71.8 million, with backers including Anne Wojcicki, CEO of 23andMe, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Nest founder Tony Fadell and the investment firm Felicis Ventures. 

“We decided it would be worth it to offer this service to our employees if it saved or extended just one life,” said Amit Patel, CEO of Rakuten International, which offers Prenuvo’s scans to certain US employees who have selected a health plan that make them eligible for the service within their network. Prenuvo’s scans can also be reimbursed through flexible spending accounts and health savings accounts. Rakuten has about 2,000 employees in the US, more than half of whom live in a state where Prenuvo operates.

Lacy said the company also works with a number of fire brigades that offer its scans to their firefighters, including the Boca Local 1560 Fire Department in Boca Raton. “We’ve screened several hundred firemen. A lot of our efforts have been focused on making these scans available to employers where the company operates in a sector where there’s a higher cancer risk.”

He said the company has a team of 15 artificial intelligence scientists working on studying the results of its scans to put together insights that help researchers identify earlier signs of disease.

Prenuvo and its backers tout its scans as a way to catch disease early, before it spreads or reaches a life-threatening stage. But the medical industry isn’t fully on board. In April, the American College of Radiology said it “does not believe there is sufficient evidence to justify recommending total body screening for patients with no clinical symptoms, risk factors or a family history.” Such scans could also subject patients to “unnecessary follow-up testing and procedures, as well as significant expense,” it said. 

There are costs associated with too much screening, says Rebecca Smith-Bindman, director of the Radiology Outcomes Research Laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco. “They’re offering an advanced medical test as if it is harmless,” Smith-Bindman said. “There are many possible harms that they’re not even beginning to mention to their patients.” Those include over-diagnosing – prompting patients to seek advanced or invasive testing for something that was never dangerous to begin with, or wouldn’t have progressed to serious disease – and false positives, she said.

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A post shared by Kim Kardashian (@kimkardashian)

But the potentially life-saving promise of catching cancer early has enduring appeal — especially in tech. 

Silicon Valley elites have long been preoccupied with optimizing their health, refining new foods, devices and fitness measurements. About a decade ago, Soylent’s meal replacement beverages promised protein and nutrients to techies too busy to make, buy or even eat real food. Later came a wave of so-called nootropics, supplements laden with caffeine and vitamins intended to improve concentration and memory. The $400 Juicero device that claimed to better squeeze the good stuff out of produce went bust. Then came a movement to eat almost nothing at all, intermittent fasting. The Oura ring can track a wearer’s track blood oxygen levels and heart rate for $5.99 a month. And Eight Sleep Inc.’s mattress has fans in tech’s highest echelons of power, including Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg (even though users complain it sometimes leaks).

Prenuvo’s fan base has transcended the tech industry (VCs like Chamath Palihapitiya have gotten scans) to also reach mainstream celebrities. In August, Kardashian posted about her own experience. “I recently did this @prenuvo scan and had to tell you all about this life saving machine,” she wrote in an Instagram caption. “It has really saved some of my friends lives and I just wanted to share #NotAnAd.”

Caffeinated Capital, an investor in Prenuvo, offers founders within its portfolio the opportunity to receive a full-body scan, fully subsidized by the firm. “To my surprise, we had quite a few takers,” said Ray Tonsing, founder and managing partner at Caffeinated Capital. Tonsing said he expected about 15% of the firm’s 200 or so founders to take him up on the offer. But more than 50% opted in.

“It’s a really nice thing to do for people we give money to, who are going to spend the next 10 to 20 years working their asses off to provide us with a good return,” Tonsing said. He said he hopes the company will work to lower pricing over time so more people can afford to take steps toward preventative care. “It’s super important to put money into your health.”

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