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Nokia's CTO: Mobile Health Breakthroughs Could Transform Billions of Lives

In May, Nokia and the X PRIZE Foundation teamed up to launch the Nokia Sensing X CHALLENGE to push the envelop of medical sensing technology. The prize will award $2.25 million to innovators of biosensors. An important component of the competition is that it will seek to put advanced health sensing technologies in the hands of not just clinicians but consumers as well.

To learn about the future of sensing technololgy, MD+DI reached out to Nokia's chief technology officer, Henry Tirri, PhD, Head of Nokia Research Centre. In this interview, Tirri touches on everything from mobile technology's unfathomable potential to the power of open innovation to spur technological breakthroughs.  

MD+DI: How do you envision the future of health sensors and medical sensing technologies?

 Nokia's chief technology officer Henry Tirri, PhD joined the company in 2004 as a research fellow. 

Tirri: We believe that there is a really exciting future for sensing technologies and that the new categories of intelligent devices, combined with advanced sensors, will drastically improve the ability of the individual consumer to collect medical and health-related information even without the help of a health worker. These sensors will enable consumers to monitor their own health more easily and improve the quality and access to healthcare information and services worldwide.

More than a decade ago at Nokia, we began investigating different sensor types that could be incorporated into future devices, and also have benefits to health. These include:

  • Augmented touch sensors that respond to hovering on the surface of the device.  
  • Chemical and biochemical sensors integrated on the device surface.  
  • Environmental sensors for detecting UV, humidity, temperature and gas that allow the devices to become “contextually aware.” This contextual sensing information is a core driver of disruptive innovation in healthcare too.

MD+DI:  Which sensing technologies are you the most excited about?

"What we actually finally end up using the new sensors for can, in my experience, be an entirely different purpose than they were intended for!"

Tirri: What makes me excited is that adding health and wellness related sensors to a device allows us to monitor a wide variety biological processes and build up totally novel health applications: from being able to care for and monitor a loved one from afar, to being able to manage your exposure to polluted environments or even areas where you are more likely to be exposed to germs. The Nokia Sensing X CHALLENGE will certainly spur the birth of an entirely new ecosystem, in both the developing and the developed world. What we actually finally end up using the new sensors for can, in my experience, be an entirely different purpose than they were intended for!

MD+DI:  How do you envision people using these technologies in the future and how do you see Nokia playing a role in this sector?

Tirri: Advanced sensors will enable a new breed of intelligent device to emerge, which is seamlessly connected with its user and contextually aware. One of our interests at Nokia is to develop advanced functionality that could enable ultimate wellness and outdoors experiences as well as providing a capability for continuous life-logging. We believe that future mobile devices will integrate with our lives more naturally and better adapt to our needs and the physical world around us. But we believe that our partnership with the X PRIZE Foundation will not only accelerate the use of advanced sensing technology in mobile health, it will also play a major role in transforming the lives of billions of people around the world.

MD+DI:  What made Nokia want to get involved in the Nokia Sensing X Challenge? 

"We believe that our partnership with the X PRIZE Foundation will [...] play a major role in transforming the lives of billions of people around the world." 

Tirri: Over the years, Nokia’s innovation has shaped the wireless world; from the first handheld mobile back in 1987, to setting the gold standard for mobile imaging with our PureView technology just this year. Our goal has always been to push the boundaries in technologies related to the use of mobile devices. Thanks to ongoing innovation in computing, mobile devices have continued developing and sensors have emerged to play a large role in their use. These “sensor packages” that we carry around in our pockets are already helping us to better understand our needs; how much and where we spend our time, what we prefer to do in these places, which roads are busiest during the rush hour commute… so it’s a very natural extension want to extend sensing capabilities to include health related matters.

We are genuinely excited by the potential in sensing technology and setting this challenge will facilitate research in an area that we are serious about exploring. This type of competition is a unique method of enabling open innovation, and we believe that the benefits of running this challenge over the course of the next three years will deliver 100 fold on the sponsorship investment.

 Tirri spoke on the role of sensors in healthcare at the launch announcement for the Nokia Sensing X CHALLENGE. In the above video, he steps on stage about the 9:00 mark.

 MD+DI I heard you speak on the topic of open innovation at the launch announcement for the Nokia Sensing X CHALLENGE. On that note, what are your thoughts on how regulatory matters will affect the innovation of groundbreaking medical sensing technology?

Tirri: Engaging in a debate with regulatory bodies is critical for a future product’s success, and at Nokia we work with local governments to ensure that our products meet all local requirements. In the telecommunications business regulatory aspects are part of everyday product development —and we do not see the situation for medical sensing being any different. In addition this competition has the potential to enable a meaningful conversation in government circles around the use and sharing of personal health data, but ultimately key decisions in regulation need to be made at a government level.

MD+DI:  I understand that you worked in academia in computer science before working at Nokia. What was it about the company that lured you away?

Tirri: I spent many decades in academia and am privileged to have worked with great people in many fields. I believe in continuous learning and self-development and when the opportunity presented itself, I felt it was time for me to learn something different, outside academia. Little did I know how steep the learning curve would become. Another factor was looking to make a different type of impact than one could make in science, especially in the lives of people in growth economies.

 Brian Buntz is the editor-at-large at UBM Canon's medical group. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.

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