U.K. Healthcare Startup Cera Is Said to Post Fake Reviews

(Bloomberg) -- U.K. health care startup Cera Care has attracted more than $4 million in venture funding and amassed a roster of advisory board members that includes a former deputy prime minister, a former chief executive officer of Standard Chartered Plc and luminaries from public and private health.

The two-year-old company matches patients with in-home health-care professionals capable of providing everything from support for elderly clients to live-in assistance for people with dementia, and has garnered positive press from U.K. publications. Its website also boasts sky-high ratings on customer-satisfaction sites and partnerships with 10 U.K. National Health Service organizations.

But according to three people with knowledge of the matter, Cera Care doesn’t in fact have partnerships with at least seven of those groups, and up to a dozen of the reviews on third-party sites were crafted either by Cera Care employees or people close to them, rather than unbiased customers. These people asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information.

In a widely publicized announcement in March 2017, Cera said it has partnered with a range of public health groups in London, including St. Barts, one of the U.K.’s largest. It later listed 10 of these groups on its website. However, the startup regularly works with only three of these groups -- Lewisham CCG, Haringey CCG, and Tower Hamlets CCG -- according to people with knowledge of the matter.

“We note that our website was not fully up to date with these materials and are rectifying it," Cera said in an emailed statement. The company had previous partnerships with health care groups including Brent, Harrow and Hillingdon and East London Foundation Trust, the company said.

"We can confirm that the Trust worked with Cera Care in 2017 delivering packages of care," Edil Ahmed, spokeswoman for the the East London NHS Foundation Trust, said in a statement.

However providers including Barnet CCG were approached in March 2017 but turned down Cera’s offer. In an emailed statement Barnet CCG said that it "has never entered into a business relationship with Cera Care," adding that it "therefore should not have been included in the list of partners that appeared on the website.”

Cera was founded in mid-2016 by Mahiben Maruthappu, a former medical doctor and head of the U.K. health service’s Innovation Center, which funded health care ventures. Nick Clegg, the former U.K. deputy prime minister, became chairman of Cera’s advisory board in March. Its investors include a range of figures from the financial sector, including former Standard Chartered CEO Peter Sands, who is also on the board, and French billionaire Xavier Niel’s fund Kima Ventures.

The U.K., where the public is heavily dependent on the state-funded National Health Service, has been inundated with startups seeking to shake up the almost 70-year-old system. One of Cera’s goals was to get patients discharged from hospitals and set up with in-home care more quickly than the NHS could offer.

One of the most prominent new entrants is DeepMind, Alphabet Inc.’s artificial intelligence division. In July last year, after a year-long investigation, U.K. regulators ruled that London’s Royal Free Hospital had illegally provided DeepMind access to 1.6 million patient records.

Patients and their families considering private in-home care often look closely at reviews on sites such as Trustpilot AS, HomeCare UK and Google Reviews before choosing a provider. Of the 104 reviews on Trustpilot, a number were fakes created by Cera Care employees, people with knowledge of the postings said. Of them, 12 have been taken down in recent days. "Good customer service. Great care from care workers as well. Happily continuing to do business with Cera," one review said.

“We take any allegations of false reviews extremely seriously and these will be investigated thoroughly and dealt with strictly,” the spokeswoman for Cera, said. “We have no tolerance for this.”

Trustpilot said it has been investigating Cera Care and has been removing several reviews.

"We’ve found reviews written by family members and others associated with the company while other reviews were found to be fabricated," said Kasper Heine, head of trust and transparency at Trustpilot. "We’ve sent the company a warning for breaching our guidelines and we continue to investigate the matter to see if further action is needed."

A spokesman for Clegg did not comment beyond Cera’s statement. Kima Ventures declined to comment. A representative for Sands could not be reached for comment.

Cera, which is currently fund raising according to a source close to the company, is also developing an AI assistant called Martha.

The U.K.’s Data Protection Act requires all organizations processing personal information to register with the U.K. data regulator. Although handling sensitive data on recent patients and those needing regular health care, Cera also failed to register with the Information Commissioner’s Office until February this year. The ICO said in a statement that it would only consider “enforcement action” if a company failed to register despite ICO advice.

"We have in place strict data protection governance, policies and protocols," said Cera’s spokeswoman, "and are diligently committed to monitoring, reviewing and updating these measures."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.