Wearables in digital health and biometrics

Wearables are electronic devices in the form of accessories that incorporate software applications. They can track personal activities or monitor physical information not visible to human eyes.

Due to the embedding of such applications in an interconnected data exchange environment, they are associated with the ‘Internet of Things’ (cf. one of our last blog entries: IoT: Venture Fundings).

This article focuses on how wearables are or could be used one day in a medical context.

The possibility to closely observe and assess certain features of an individual’s health state such as blood pressure or sugar level might be promising to governments eager to tackle rising health care expenditures or to the pharmaceutical industry expanding into completely new fields of commercial activity. Therefore, we will develop some insights on what players are currently present in the market, who is financing ongoing projects, and what innovations are foreseeable in the near future.

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The above snippet from a Company/Technology knowledge graph based on the search results for “health wearables” reveals that Silicon Valley top corporations Google and Microsoft dominate this emerging technology sector. However, Jawbone and FitBit as the market leader in wearable fitness devices also play a central role. Although well-established names associated with “Internet of Things” appear to make out a clear majority of the market share and are well connected, we can also find some unknown companies like EchoSign, MedWhat or established sports companies like Adidas.

Most existing applications process information from electronic, thermal or mechanical stimuli from the user. Innovative expansions take advantage of personal information from social interaction (e.g. a wearable application calculating the probability of getting infected with a current flu) or magnetic resonance, as Google seeks to create an app that is able to spot pointers of strokes or cancer via nanoparticles in the patient’s blood system. Other examples are retina or DNA recognition. Furthermore, innovations in wearable technology for medical use are not confined to software engineering. Narrowing down our research to patents, we find an example of a piece of clothing with integral sensors and electrodes that are able detect and process critical electrocardiographic (ECG) data (i.e. on electronic activities of heart muscle fibres). The construction is even thought to implement defibrillator shocks in case of a patient’s heart attack.

Ongoing projects and ideas in development are mainly grounded on extensive know-how and research. In contrast to fitness apps, most applications that aim at displaying and monitoring of crucial medical indicators clearly address patients under professional surveillance, and do not provide a hands-on advantage to single costumers. Nevertheless, as we have seen above, established producers of smart devices and wearables try to grab their share in the health sector.

As presumed in our initial hypothesis, it is easy to figure out that main drivers behind respective enterprises are often public and governmental agencies. Interestingly, the U.S. army has a high stake in corresponding cooperation and investments. The Pentagon has founded a Silicon Valley-based institute for health state wearables development including private companies such as Apple and Boing and others such as Harvard University. The conglomerate will draw on funds over $160 million in the next 5 years, which stem from private investors and local governments as well. Still, the largest single sums raised to feed into the development of innovative wearable health applications originate from the private sector which move in a range similar to the principal of the Pentagon conglomerate. Not surprisingly, world leader Jawbone with $113 million and Proteus Digital Health, dominant in electronic diagnostics, with a record single amount of $172 million and an overall sum of nearly $300 million raised the most money. Interestingly, innovative insurance company Oscar, that promotes health monitoring devices to screen and reward a healthy way of life also secured an enormous sum of $145 million.

Although spread over many single firms, the other innovative start-up companies are hardly negligible with financial backings up to $4 billion from venture capitalists in 2014, which is a record year according to Rock Health.

 

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Since health-state wearable applications in the ‘digital health’ or ‘biometrics’ market are characterized by research-induced capital intensity and the quite homogenous nature of demand from public financiers, we expect future pervasive products from Silicon Valley-based firms. Consequently, start-ups will continue to exploit primarily existing technologies for new causes. Additionally, progressive focus on software usage in the professional context of physician-patient relations draws on the initial hypothesis that main commercial interest comes from bearers of social health care expenditures.

Also the findings about the military interest in medically valuable wearable technology seem to be plausible. In midst of armed conflicts as well as heavy attacks or air strokes, public health infrastructure tends to be awfully overcharged or simply absent in case of war regions. Hence, facilitating the monitoring of the real-time health state of wounded soldiers or civil victims in sickbays under the surveillance of only a few professional physicians could deliver a crucial value added.