Company / division: Verily
The US Food and Drug Administration has pushed forward with plans to test a fast-track process for approving technological approaches to healthcare problems, and has selected nine companies to be part of its pilot program, including Apple, Fitbit, Samsung, and Alphabet’s Verily life sciences unit. Apple has long said that the need to get FDA approval for health-related products would likely dissuade it from entering that market directly, though it’s managed to serve that market indirectly through partners taking advantage of its ResearchKit and other programs. Both Apple and Fitbit have been pursuing health-related applications for their devices, and Samsung launched a virtual doctor service as part of its Galaxy S8 launch earlier this year, so this is clearly a hot area for these consumer tech companies. The FDA deals mostly with products with diagnostic or treatment applications, which is why so much health and wellness tech tends to stop short of those categories and merely provide data and alerts. But the potential for doing more is already clear, and with faster FDA approval we could well see these companies go deeper into this field. It’s still early in this process, and there might still be other downsides including the potential for leaks while approval is being sought, which is likely to give Apple in particular pause, but this is a positive step for both the industry and for end users.
Alphabet’s Verily Launches Baseline Health Study (Apr 19, 2017)
I did a deep dive on Alphabet’s Verily subsidiary a while back for my Beyond Devices Podcast, and also wrote up some of the key themes for Techpinions subscribers here. What I discovered is that Verily, perhaps more than any other Alphabet subsidiary, has been characterized by hubris in trying to solve the world’s problems with technology. Its two most high-profile early initiatives – a glucose monitoring contact lens and a Star Trek-like “tricorder” to check patients’ vitals – both turned out to be vaporware. But at the same time, Verily is doing enough interesting work that it’s managed to secure partnerships with some big names from the traditional pharmaceutical industry (see this chart from my Techpinions piece), and is working with two big research universities on what it calls its Baseline longitudinal health study. It’s that study that’s now kicking off in earnest (and for which the watch Verily announced last week will be used), as the first 10,000 participants come in for their first set of tests and measurements. The Bloomberg article here does a good job characterizing both the current state of Verily and its return to reality after that early hubris, as well as some of the issues that still dog the tech people who run Verily when it comes to privacy and other related issues. It’s very clear that some of the people in charge have very little common sense when it comes to those issues in the healthcare realm, something that’s been a problem for Google too. And of course the biggest problem with the Baseline project is that – as a longitudinal study – it will literally take years for it to deliver meaningful results. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, especially when it comes to solving the world’s big problems, but it has to be grounded in reality and good practices, especially in the healthcare realm.
Verily is one of the most fascinating Other Bets – in some ways, it’s the most completely removed from much of the rest of what Alphabet/Google does, both in terms of its focus and in terms of the business model, which has largely involved partnering with big pharmaceutical firms so far. (We devoted a big chunk of an episode of the Beyond Devices Podcast to Verily a while back, so if you’re interested it’s probably worth a listen – I also wrote a brief summary of my findings here.) Getting outside investment is an interesting way to reduce Alphabet’s exposure to the risks associated with what are rightly called “Bets”, while also potentially allowing these businesses to move faster than they could with Alphabet cash alone, and move into new markets – Temasek is Singaporean, but invests heavily in China. I’m curious to see whether we’ll see this model applied to additional Other Bets, or whether it’s another unique facet of the Verily business which we won’t see repeated elsewhere.