Tag Archives: PatientsLikeMe.com

Google Health is Dead, Long Live Google+

A Boston Biotech Watch guest post by Rich Whalley*

(Cross-posted to The Health Care Blog on July 20, 2011)

Now that Google has put its ill-fated Google Health project to rest, we are wondering who will make the next big attempt to establish a personal health record (PHR) platform for healthy people. Many have tried and many have failed, and there is still no popular platform for gathering, analyzing and sharing health data.

Adam Bosworth founded Google Health in 2006 to provide an online place for consumers to store their own health data. Bosworth left shortly thereafter and went on to found Keas, a SF-based web startup which takes a more social approach to tracking one’s health via a competitive point system. In a recent interview on TechCrunch, Bosworth spoke about why he thought Google Health had failed, “It’s not social,” and “Google didn’t push to see what they could do that people would want.”

Google Health failed in part because the user interface did not motivate most users to upload their health data. By contrast, one of the fastest-growing health sites on the internet, PatientsLikeMe.com, has built its online health community to an impressive 105,000 subscribers, focused first on patients suffering from chronic diseases like ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). The implied reward for this was high given the unmet health need, so it was an easy choice for patients to take the time to enter their valuable data. Healthy people have no such incentive for using PatientsLikeMe, but many seem to want to get in on the action. Armed with smartphones and social network memberships, a new health-savvy generation is looking to catalyze the growth of a new movement.

For every startup entering this field, the million dollar question is “just how easy can we make it for people to enter data and track their health?” It practically has to be automated in order to go viral, a prerequisite for aggregating the “big data” that could lead to marketable conclusions. There is a new line of VC-backed startups tackling this daunting task.

Withings internet-connected scale

Coming to a Twitter feed near you

Withings, based in France, has produced a Body Mass Index (BMI) weight scale which tracks BMI via iPhone or computer and even sends automatic tweets. Americans can get in-shape, and French people can laugh at the tweets of overweight Americans. With all parties happy, why haven’t we seen more development in this area of diagnostic innovation for healthy people? For one, there’s a large VC question around whether or not these startups can make a large ROI with their one-trick ponies. Won’t they be killed off by apps or hardware add-ons created for next-generation smart phones?

Consider Fitbit, a small, lightweight device that functions as a pedometer that tracks sleep and burnt calories throughout the day. One could argue that a small body clip is much more comfortable to wear than an iPhone 4, but Fitbit is primarily a consumer software play. Its hardware is no more than a tricked-out accelerometer, not unlike the ones found inside Nintendo Wii controllers. Recalling Flip Video, I can’t help but think the VCs at Softtech and True Ventures are losing some precious Fitbit-measured “actual sleep time” over certain prickly questions. Will next-gen smart phones eventually eat up FitBit’s market? Will Fitbit be lucky enough to get an exit before time runs out?

Sleeping Guy

Looking to share data on a universal personalized health platform? Dream on!

Withings, despite being partnered with the late Google Health, seems to have a flop-proof strategy of targeting diagnostic applications that are unlikely to be eaten up by new-fangled mobile devices. They recently released an FDA-approved blood pressure monitor that connects directly to the iPhone, and more impressively, already have two products on the market – with a baby monitor expected to hit the market later this year. While they may not be making big returns just yet, they might be able to become a leader in this space by putting up a solid enough barrier to entry.

What would need to happen for these companies to really take off? It’s probably going to involve a concerted effort from players in social networking to form better integrated health networks – a place for the data to live. Even though Google Health flopped, Adam Bosworth seems pretty confident about his new gig, but Keas is not exactly going viral just yet. So who’s left to take charge of the movement?

Google Health recycled

Is Google Health really going to waste, or will it be strategically recycled into a 100% post-consumer product?

PatientsLikeMe is currently limited to the chronically ill, and Facebook doesn’t seem to be making strides in this direction anytime soon. One of the most promising new platforms is Google+, termed “the Facebook killer.” If successful, Google has a golden opportunity to use Google+’s platform to provide a framework for people to manage personal healthcare data. For example, Circles allows users to select specific people and groups for sharing personal data of all varieties, including health data. Importantly, the platform can aggregate anonymized data across a very large user base. Will Google+ eventually become the personal health data platform? I would love to see this happen, but so far there is no hint that anyone at Google is working on healthcare apps for Google+. We can’t wait to see some startups tackle this. It’s only a matter of time.

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Convergence West Highlights: From iPhone Sequencing Apps to Funding Innovation in Biotech

Last Friday, Dec. 3, 2010, I attended the excellent Convergence West conference in San Francisco. Here are some highlights. I’ll be doing an additional post on my “fireside chat” with Jamie Heywood of PatientsLikeMe.com.

Topics covered:

  • We have seen the future of high speed genome sequencing – and it’s a bit of a gross-out
  • Diagnostics regulation and iPhone blood tests
  • Diabetes costs are immense
  • MEDCO gets it
  • Creative financing for mainstream biotech

Convergence Forum logo

We have seen the future of high speed genome sequencing – and it’s a bit of a gross-out

With three high-profile liquidity events* in 2010 for high-speed genomics companies, the financial markets seem to have embraced the prospect of low-cost, ubiquitous sequencing for all. But what will the sequencers be sequencing?

During a panel Q&A, I asked Eric Schadt, the Pacific Biosciences CSO, how close we are to wide clinical or even consumer use of that company’s world-beating technology. The applications he named ranged from the not-apparently-useful to the gross:

  • “In four to five years, we will be able to use our third-generation technology to sequence hundreds of gigabases for $100 in 15 minutes.”
  • “In 10 years it will be like an AT&T plan: sign up and get 10 genomes for your family.”
  • “Integrate the sequencer into your iPhone, wave it around and see the genomes of all the pathogens swirling around you all the time.”

We realize that there are plenty of applications for the sequencing of genomes besides the human one. We blogged about the genome-mining of gut bacteria here. But judging from the facial expressions, the reaction to the iPhone app for skin bacterium sequencing was a visceral ‘yuck.’

*Pacific Biosciences raised $200 million in its IPO on Oct. 27; rival Complete Genomics raised $54M in its IPO on Nov. 10. Ion Torrent was acquired on Aug. 18 by Life Technologies for $375M upfront and $350M in possible future milestones.

Diagnostics regulation and iPhone blood tests

A previous panel I moderated (at the Wolfe Biopharma conference in Boston on Oct. 19) featured a discussion of a new regulatory path for MDx at FDA, currently in a bill sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch to be introduced in the U.S. Congress’ “lame-duck” session in late 2010 or early 2011. During the Q&A, I asked the MDx panel about this and heard this groan from MDx company Saladax CEO Sal Salamone:

“I’ve been in diagnostics for twenty-five years. There were not a lot of big advances in the technology for diagnostics in that time but the costs of compliance with regulations have increased an order of magnitude.”

On a similar note, FDA is not the only new hurdle that MDx startups encounter on the way to the market. From entrepreneur Sridhar Iyengar, Founder of New Hampshire-based AgaMatrix, which has successfully partnered with Apple to bring real-time glucose testing to the iPhone:

  • “Working with Apple is a lot more difficult than working with FDA.”

Diabetes costs are immense

Tethys Bioscience is one of the highest-profile VC-backed MDx companies around, with a commercial platform, $48 million raised in the recent Series D round alone, high-profile investors from inside and outside healthcare and an indication focus – Type 2 diabetes – that is one of the most prevalent and expensive of those facing society. CEO Mickey Urdea therefore has a bias but he also has a point: Type 2 diabetes is a societal scourge.

  • “If you have gained 30-60 pounds in 6 months, it probably means you just retired from the Air Force” said Urdea.
  • Furthermore, Urdea said, the Air Force believes it will “go into bankruptcy” by 2017 if it doesn’t find a better way to combat diabetes.

MEDCO gets it

We heard from two panels that Medco Health is the company that is most on top of the shift in the U.S. health care system to a more incentive-driven and value-based model.

“Medco has the potential to change the paradigm for diagnostics. They are working on pairing diagnostics with generics to prove they are better than new drugs.” (Saladax CEO Sal Salamone). As one recent article on Medco’s MDx initiative put it, “With Medco Around for Dx Shops Developing PGx Tests Independently, Who Needs Pharma?”

  • Jamie Heywood, Founder-Chairman of PatientsLikeMe.com said jokingly that “Medco is starting to look like it could buy Merck.” This is not quite true – Medco (NYSE: MHS) at a $26 billion market cap is still much smaller than Merck (NYSE: MRK) at $108 billion. But since Merck spun out Medco back in 2003, Medco is up five-fold and Merck’s value is down.

Creative financing for mainstream biotech

The VC funding panel featured several successful examples of the high-risk, high-reward approach needed to pursue innovation in biotech.

  • Very encouraging: The VCs that are still investing in biotech “are more interested in in funding innovation today than at any time in the last 15 years,” said VC Bryan Roberts of Venrock. But, he continued, this is because “they are so scared by regulatory & commercial risks and [they fund earlier-stage projects because they] think they can get out before [they face those other risks].”
  • Pick your poison: “If you are not getting financial dilution (via VC) or IP dilution (via partnerships) then you have to have ‘bandwidth dilution’ through government funding,” said Oncomed CEO Paul Hastings
  • Find a contrarian: Hastings said that it takes a true contrarian within Big Pharma to push a deal with an innovative biotech. Hastings cited Moncef Slaoui, chairman of R&D at GlaxoSmithKline – who backed GSK’s 2008 acquisition of Sirtris – as one example. Roberts agreed: “Great decisions don’t get made by groups.” This was certainly true when Roberts and Jim Neidel helped CEO Howard Robin sell our Sirna Therapeutics for $1.1 billion to Peter Kim at Merck in 2006. (Sirna’s turnaround PIPE was a deal I did as a VC with TVM Capital in 2003.)
  • Power raiser: Oncomed (which is developing drugs targeting what it calls “tumor-initiating cells” aka cancer stem cells) has raised a lot more money than I had realized: $229M in equity including its investment from GSK & a further $100M from partnerships including GSK and Bayer Schering. Hastings said that Bayer Schering had struck the right attitude by
    • Showing up on a Saturday morning for a kickoff meeting; and
    • By the Bayer Schering team leader telling his 20-person team (visiting the 3-person Oncomed team) “We are here to learn from them and not the other way around.”

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