Exploring Pharma’s Quantified Self Opportunities

Remember the Twombly? Neither did I, but it was one of nearly 2,000 car companies in the U.S. between 1896 and 1930, all with a dream of capitalizing on the new “trend” of driving. Today there are about a dozen, and car manufacturing startups are rare and brave.

If you were at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this January, or read about it, you couldn’t escape the hype surrounding The Quantified Self. It’s safe to say there are hundreds, if not thousands of companies, large and small, working hard to monetize the QS movement. A myriad of wearables, drivables, insertables, for heaven’s sake. Why this trend and why now?

Big Data and a Hungry Audience

A confluence of at least two things: First, while collecting data is nothing new, it has never been so cheap to collect, process and analyze. Cheap enough to put chips in almost everything from high-end appliances to packaged goods at your grocery store. Processing power gets more powerful and less costly every day. A new breed of patient is taking a much different approach to healthcare than their parents did. They are increasingly demanding choice, stepping up and taking charge of their own health and are looking for value—not necessarily low cost, but value. And of course, they want it convenient—and they want it now.

The Internet of Things Meets the Internet of You

A network of web-enabled devices is called the Internet of Things, and while the term has been around for 15 years, exploding technologies are making it real and mainstream. When these devices begin to respond and talk to us the magic begins. And when the user is taken out of the loop, when you no longer have to manage the flow of information—it happens seamlessly and automatically—there is a true and unbiased flow of information. Imagine the implications for healthcare: Clinical trials enriched by this data. Adherence monitoring, tracking and feedback, instantaneously flowing between patient and physician. Even predictive and proactive intervention.

The Internet of Things/The Internet of You: Life at the Intersection is pretty exciting. Here’s a feature from Popular Science: http://bit.ly/PjAkxN.

What’s Pharma to do About It?

For an industry built on research, data and innovation, the Quantified Self movement should be a boon. But what roles can and should pharma play? How best to engage with the movement so that there is a benefit for companies, providers and ultimately patients? Yes, we’re at the intersection but does pharma get on the bus? Drive the bus? Sponsor the trip? Or simply stand by?

Here’s a cop out: It depends on what the company wants to do. What their mission is. What they see as their role in the healthcare universe. Not to mention their appetite for innovation and exploration. These questions are basic but go to the heart of any prospective venture:

  • What’s our mission?
  • What do we want to accomplish? What will engaging mean for us?
  • How does this fit our culture?
  • What resources do we have or need to acquire?

Let’s look at few ways of engaging.

To App or Not to App

Let’s face it, apps are controversial. While “let’s build an app” is often the default reaction, a look at the marketplace offers some guidance. Manhattan Research will show that the closer to the mainstream the tougher the competition. In other words, the center is crowded, and the crowd is mostly third-party, retail and association apps. An app that tracks sleep? Been there, done that. Track physical activity? Take your pick. Where pharma shines is in the highly targeted niches. GSK’s MyAsthma (UK) does a good job in merging environmental data with self-reported data in managing asthma. Most successful homegrown apps are close into the disease state and treatment regimen. Having said that, a breakthrough or a twist on an idea could be on the horizon when these apps do deliver on the user-less collection or data that is seamlessly integrated and shared with key parties.

Left to Our Own Devices

There is no shortage of devices that are competing for share of wrist or other body parts.  A close friend was “prescribed” a Fitbit by his physician to track his weight loss and his sleep patterns. Pharma is not involved in that interaction, but perhaps there’s another way to look at potential engagement: Creating programs or apps that work with existing devices that are proven and have penetration. There is Nike, Fitbit and Jawbone, however, there are alternatives that are worth a look. One example is Pebble, a smartwatch that is simple, uncluttered and open for development. The Morpheus sleep tracker is available on Pebble, as are activity apps like RunKeeper and the 7MinuteWorkout.

Who’s Active in the Space?

Creating proprietary properties is one way to go but there are other ways to participate in the burgeoning QS Movement. Here are a few:

Backing Open Innovation
J&J’s Digital Health Masterclass is a great example of a healthcare giant looking to support and drive innovation. Set up as a challenge, J&J presents a call for innovation and innovators compete for the monetary reward. The most recent winner is Px HealthCare who created an app related to breast cancer. Could the next winning innovation be a true “hands-free” monitoring and reporting breakthrough for healthcare?

Kickstarter is the major funding platform for all kinds of innovation. Here’s a current Kickstarter project seeking funding that goes beyond measuring—to active transformation of activity. BSX Athletics Insight wearable device claims to “look inside” your muscle during exercise to measure real bio signals and determine how hard you’re actually working, compared with how hard you should be working. There are folks out there testing the limits and perhaps some merit support that can be a win-win.

Kickstarter is broad, but there are niche sites such as Experiment, FundaGeek and Petridish whose mission is to help science source funding for healthcare projects.

Delivering Data that Makes a Difference
Of course data without application is an intellectual exercise. We’re interested here in how this can benefit the patient and physician. Here’s one final example that shows how technology can begin to do the heavy lifting and provide elegant solutions.

The AliveCor Heart Monitor is a hand-held device that affixes to a smartphone and works with an iOS or Android app to monitor, record and store single-channel ECGs. It is FDA-cleared and has been approved for OTC, putting heart monitoring in the hands of the consumer. The results can be emailed to the patient’s physician. However, it got a bit more interesting when AliveCor recently announced it was partnering with Practice Fusion, which will allow the results of the AliveCor ECG to be imported into a patient’s EHR. It’s a move toward a more seamless and more direct flow of data.

Back to the Twombly

So, if you wanted to back a car company in 1915, how would you choose? How would you choose today from the crowd of companies developing monitors and devices for the Quantified Self movement? Perhaps a little homework and due diligence would have lead you to Ford, GM and Chrysler? Who knows.

The Quantified Self Movement has barely begun and we’re already awash in opportunities. Does this raise more questions than it answers? I hope so. It’s exciting to imagine the possibilities.


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