Are Apple, Google, and IBM MedTech’s Friends or Foes?

Tech titans Apple, Google, and IBM are bringing their reputation and resources to the health, wellness, and even medtech sectors. So what does this mean for you?

January 30, 2014

5 Min Read
Are Apple, Google, and IBM MedTech’s Friends or Foes?

Google is developing a glucose-monitoring smart contact lens. Apple is rumored to be perfecting an iWatch with biometrics functionality. And IBM is grooming Watson to be a doctor’s aide. Beyond name recognition and innovation, however, what does the high-tech healthcare invasion mean for medtech?

Watch-ing Apple

Although wearables haven’t quite lived up to the hype in healthcare just yet, many speculate that Apple will soon swoop in and change everything—as it always does.

Apple has remained incredibly tight-lipped about the purported iWatch—down to whether it even exists or not—but the rumor mill has been working overtime recently in response to some intriguing hires. On the heels of a spate of hires last year boasting backgrounds in biomedical technologies, glucose sensing, and the like, Apple has poached several telling medtech talents, according to 9to5Mac.

Nancy Dougherty, former hardware lead at Sano Intelligence, brings to Apple her experience in the development of a novel sensor-equipped transdermal patch that is capable of monitoring the results found in a basic metabolic panel. She also formerly worked for Proteus Digital Health, according to mobihealthnews. Ravi Narasimham also recently made the jump to Apple, leaving device firm Vital Connect, which specializes in biosensors that capture “clinical-grade biometric measurements.” Michael O’Reilly, Masimo’s former chief medical officer, is rumored to be the latest recruit.

This impressive array of medtech talent has everyone buzzing that the iWatch will include sophisticated health and wellness tracking that’s far beyond calorie counting or pedometers.

Learn more about the consumerization of medical devices at MD&M Westduring a keynote presentation by Peter Tippett, CMO and VP of innovation at Verizon Enterprise Solutions, on February 10.

All Eyes on Google

Creative use of the futuristic Google Glass in operating environments as well as its Calico initiative have thrust the tech giant into the healthcare sector. More recently, however, Google officially threw its hat in the medtech ring with the announcement that it is developing a smart contact lens that measures glucose levels in diabetics. 

“We’re now testing a smart contact lens that’s built to measure glucose levels in tears using a tiny wireless chip and miniaturized glucose sensor that are embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material,” project cofounders Brian Otis and Babak Parviz wrote in a blog. “It’s still early days for this technology, but we’ve completed multiple clinical research studies, which are helping to refine our prototype. We hope this could someday lead to a new way for people with diabetes to manage their disease.”

Google has noted that it will seek experienced partners in order to bring the product to market.

IBM: Solving Medical Mysteries with Watson

IBM’s supercomputer and jeopardy champion Watson—into which the company has invested $1 billion for development and commercialization—could also shake things up on the healthcare horizon. Boasting a 240% improvement in performance and 75% reduction in size, Watson wields cognitive technology that could enable it to help physicians assist in patient diagnosis and treatment.

“Watson uses natural language capabilities, hypothesis generation, and evidence-based learning to support medical professionals as they make decisions,” according to IBM’s Web site. More specifically, Watson mines and analyzes extensive data such as a patient’s medical and family history, test results, clinical studies, journal articles, and physician notes and subsequently presents possible diagnoses supported by a score indicating the supercomputer’s level of confidence in each option. Recent training efforts have been focused on helping Watson "study" oncology, in particular.

Watson won’t be replacing doctors any time soon; however, its cognitive technology and advanced analytics may help clinicians arrive at the proper diagnosis or treatment faster. As a result, Watson can potentially contribute to improved—and expedited—patient outcomes while reducing healthcare costs.

Where High Tech Meets MedTech

So with such projects in the works, are these tech giants friends or foe to medtech? The answer may be a little of both, according to Venkat Rajan, advanced medical technologies principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan. 

“Those big guys have a role to play in some of the new developments that we’ll be seeing coming out, but I think they’ll be more involved in health technologies than [regulated] medical devices,” he says. “I don’t think a lot of these companies want to deal with FDA and medical products tied to fixed reimbursement. They want to go after the consumer angle; consumers are more willing to pay out of pocket.”

These innovative high-tech companies have technologies and know-how that could benefit the medtech sector. And if they were willing—like with Google’s smart contact lens—they could be invaluable partners on certain projects, thanks to serious name recognition and clout with consumers.

But the extent of their potential involvement in the sector is still somewhat murky.

While these companies won’t likely start producing pacemakers, high-end catheters, or orthopedic implants any time soon, that doesn’t mean they won’t create some form of competition—especially in the new era of outcomes-based healthcare. 

As nimble medtech companies seek out new business models and get into the services and solutions game, they could cross paths with the high-tech companies, according to Rajan. Services, solutions, and technologies focused on preventive care are, after all, among the biggest growth areas.

“These companies—whether it’s Google, Apple, or IBM—they better understand consumer behavior, consumer spending, and using products as a platform for services. In healthcare technologies, the products are increasingly commoditized, so you’re selling services to reduce errors, improve outcomes, and helping patients better manage their disease,” Rajan says. “That’s where these guys are ahead of the curve in terms of understanding the future of health and wellness technology than more traditional companies that are stuck in that old business models and trying to reinvent themselves.”

Hear Venkat Rajan speak at MD&M Weston "The top 10 technology and business model changes poised to disrupt the medical technology industry," on February 10.

 —Shana Leonard, group editorial director, medical content
[email protected]

[Image: Jon Simon/Feature Photo Service]

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