One of the more fascinating panels for this year’s TechCrunch Distrupt conference was the Healthcare panel held on the final day. The “New Diagnosis” panel members talked about some of the amazing changes in the health space for diagnostic tools, data management and venture capital.
One of the companies represented on the panel, CellScope, helped lead the discussion on the latest mobile diagnostic devices and apps. The company has created “lab-on-a-chip” hardware that you can attach to smart phones that allows for doctors to remotely diagnose symptoms from patients. It’s called the “otoscope,” and Co-Founder Erik Douglas showed the crowd how it can be used to diagnose an ear infection (pic below).
“We can record video and extract frames,” Douglas said. “But the exciting thing is for people to not actually have to get prescriptions, because they don’t need help, therefore saving money. There’s also the move to wearable tech. It’s showing that people are willing to engage with tech in a different way and move beyond the smart phone.”
Tracking All the Information
One of the primary ways that health technology is changing involves companies that are starting to track massive amounts of information related to genetics and disease. Neurotrack is a company that is using this bioinformatics data to more accurately track Alzheimer’s disease. CEO Elli Kaplan and her colleagues are using blood bio-markers, cat scans, MRIs and visual cognitive tests that can identify the disease up to 6 years before onset. “This wasn’t possible five years ago, because the whole market wasn’t ready yet for thinking about a diagnosis of this type using computer tech,” she said.
Neurotrack’s testing is available in some of the major hospitals around the country, including Harvard, Emory, Johns Hopkins and others. Kaplan says it will be available for mass commercial use in late 2014.
Dr. Katherine Pollard, a research scientist in bioinformatics at Gladstone Institute participated in the discussion. She’s been studying the genetic basis for human-specific traits as well as the genetics of the microorganisms that inhabit the human body. She says there is more data sitting around about disease and genetics than anyone is able to actually use right now. “We’re focused on developing hardware and software for mining through this huge amount of data that may go into the diagnostic tools like the otoscope,” she said.
Money has increasingly been pouring into these companies and many others, in part because of several ongoing changes in the health space. “We’re really excited about digital health,” says Halle Tecco, CEO and founder of Rock Health, a digital healthcare startup incubator. “We’re seeing 50 percent growth. There’s a tremendous amount of money flowing into digital health.”
The space has faced a series of hurdles, which are slowly becoming less burdensome. Tecco said there weren’t as many large scale institutional investors willing to put their money into the space in the past. However she says that is changing as people become more knowledgeable about the field and the possibilities. Most people working with digital health companies have expressed concerns about the vagueness of the FDA regulatory process. There have also been concerns about finding the right talent. Many people who apply for jobs know about healthcare but have little tech experience. The reverse can also be true. These issues are all changing as time goes by and more folks learn about the space.
The venture scene for the space seems bullish. Rock Health is now funded by corporate sponsors like Microsoft, Quest Diagnostics and Qualcomm, which took years to happen. The incubator is now working with its 5th class of companies. Some of the more well-known investors in Silicon Valley like Vinod Khosla are getting involved too. Tecco is confident that her work, and those of digital companies, will help drive down costs for consumers, and help people live healthier lives. “The goal is to try and find the business model where the more money you make, the more good you’re doing in the healthcare system.”