Technology companies eye health market

March 6, 2014 6:24 am

Technology companies eye health market

By Andrew Ward

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Wellbeing: a contact lens could help patients manage diabetes by monitoring blood sugar levels in the eye

When Google announced a venture last year to engage in “moon shot” thinking on health, wellbeing and ageing, it was mocked by critics as being another sign of the internet group’s overweening ambition.

Not only did the company want to own all our data and dominate our online lives, it wanted to extend the relationship in perpetuity by solving death.

Yet Google is not the only technology company dabbling in health. Apple has been hiring executives with a medical background and Samsung Group, parent of the South Korean mobile maker, is investing in medical devices and biosimilars, a new class of biological drugs.

The trend reflects growing interest in the potential for a convergence of technology, big data and life sciences to open new ways of monitoring health and tackling disease.

The most obvious example so far is the proliferation of mobile health apps, such as those that allow people to measure heart rate and calorie burn through their smartphones.

But experts say this is just the beginning of a deeper revolution in an era when a person’s genome can be sequenced for approaching $1,000 and the resulting DNA code stored on a USB stick.

This offers a range of opportunities to harness patient data to deliver more personalised healthcare for individuals and to spot population-wide trends that might lead to the causes and cures for disease.

Champions of such innovation say it will make healthcare more efficient and effective at a time when governments are battling to contain rising costs. McKinsey, the consultancy, says better use of data could shave $300bn-$450bn off US healthcare costs, a reduction of 12-17 per cent from 2011 levels.

“When a macroeconomic problem meets technological innovation, it usually leads to fundamental change,” says Dan Mahony, healthcare fund manager at London-based Polar Capital, an investment company. “Those circumstances certainly exist in healthcare at the moment.”

Google has given few details of its health venture, called Calico, which will operate as a separate entity headed by Art Levinson, the chairman of rival Apple and former chief executive of Genentech, the US biotech company now owned by Roche.

However, it has provided clues about its ambitions, from investing in 23andMe, a genomics research company founded by Anne Wojcicki, wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, to its Google Flu Trends initiative, which analyses internet search terms to track flu activity around the world.

It has also entered the field of “wearable” health devices with the unveiling in January of a prototype contact lens designed to help patients manage diabetes by monitoring blood sugar levels in the eye.

A recent report by Bupa, the UK health insurer, forecast that, by 2024, mobile technology will have transformed healthcare provision with devices ranging from sensors on clothes to detect heart irregularities to “smart toilets” that record vitamin intake and hydration levels.

Paul Zollinger-Read, chief medical officer of Bupa, says technology will allow people to “become guardians of their own health”.

“Being aware of their likelihood of disease and possible risk factors, coupled with constant monitoring through intelligent technology means that they will be able to spot symptoms of illness from a very early stage, or simply prevent them altogether.”

The biggest prizes, however, are likely to involve the large-scale harvesting of health data. This could reveal hitherto unnoticed correlations between lifestyle factors and medical conditions or spot associations between genetic make-up and disease. It could also expose areas of poor performance in health systems.

These potential benefits explain why the UK government is so keen for researchers to be allowed access to National Health Service data from hospitals and family doctors across the country. But the launch of a proposed database was put on hold last month amid fears that patient confidentiality would be jeopardised.

Privacy concerns are one of the main reasons why technology and big data have been slower to permeate healthcare than other sectors such as banking and retail.

Carlo Trugenberger is among the people betting that this will gradually change as the potential benefits become clearer. He is co-founder of InfoCodex, a Swiss start-up developing software capable of sifting through thousands of medical research papers and analysing their contents in search of unrecognised correlations.

Mr Trugenberger says the technology promises to help drug companies “find needles in haystacks”, reducing the cost and time it takes to develop drugs.

Merck, the US drug company, has already used its services. “We do not claim that the machine is more intelligent than the human,” says Mr Trugenberger. “But it gives you a head start and helps you waste less money.”

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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