Cool Startup: Bloom Technologies

bloom tech sensor
checking for contractions with the Bloom sensor

It’s hard to read Peter Thiel’s Zero to One book and not start thinking in an entrepreneurial way.  Afterwards, I thought about where we have gaps in healthcare.  There is a lot of technology out there (apps, wearables) right now that has empowered patients to take charge of their own health.  One area that seems to be lacking is in women’s health.

There are a number of critical challenges in women’s health right now that could benefit from innovation.

First is the growing problem of access to women’s health providers, particularly Ob/Gyn’s, which will only increase in the years to come.  Demand remains constant, while supply is dwindling, because of factors such as an aging workforce and its low appeal to medical students related to demanding work hours and professional liability.  The Association of American Medical Colleges anticipates a shortage of 159,300 Ob/Gyn’s by the year 2025.

Second is the persistent scourge of preterm birth.  According to the CDC, preterm birth affects 1 in 9 of pregnancies and is the number one cause of infant death and long-term neurologic disability in the U.S.  It has been estimated that preterm birth costs our healthcare system more than $26 billion a year, though the societal costs are likely much greater.

Thinking about these two major problems made me wonder if anyone out there is working on technology that could positively impact either of these problems.  That’s how I stumbled across and connected with Bloom Technologies, a healthcare tech startup based out of San Francisco.  Bloom is currently developing a wearable contraction monitor that could help pregnant women determine first, if they are having contractions, and second, if those contractions are of the true, labor-inducing variety, or the false, Braxton-Hicks, variety.

Obviously, this product could have a great deal of potential.  It’s almost a right-of-passage in pregnancy for women to make frequent visits to the hospital only to be sent home, after being told that it’s not “real labor” yet.  Might this wearable device be able to tell patients when it’s the real deal?  And are there patients that would be interested in such a thing?  Molly Dickens, the head of Content and Consumer Experience at Bloom, feels that women are often confused and overwhelmed by all the rapid changes of pregnancy and anything that could help them to better understand what’s going may be welcome.

I think the Bloom sensor has even greater potential beyond just the obvious.  In light of our impending Ob/Gyn shortage, might we be able to use this device to remotely monitor patients in the future?  Could this be integrated into a telehealth approach for obstetrical care in the future?  Remote visits could obviously help to decrease over-utilization and costs of healthcare.  Also, in light of our epidemic of preterm birth, might this help us to detect preterm labor earlier, and therefore intervene in a more timely manner?  I would love to see this device studied in clinical trials.

The other thing that I find exciting about this product is that Bloom is developing this device to be of clinical-grade quality, one that could potentially rival current inpatient systems for contraction monitoring.  Currently, in Ob/Gyn, we use tocodynamometers, which measure pressure changes in the abdomen to get information about contractions.  Toco’s (as they’re called) are accurate as far as determining the timing of contractions, but pretty dismal at telling the strength of uterine contractions.  Bloom CEO, Eric Dy, shares that he and his colleagues are working at the circuit level on the signal, size, quality, and power of these devices to assure an exceptional product that–unlike traditional tocodynamometers–will measure electrical signals much like cardiac monitoring (the uterus, after all, is a muscle, too).  If these devices are better than the traditional toco’s used at every hospital across the country, we might see a real transformation of inpatient obstetrics as well.

I, for one, would also love the convenience of being able to just check my phone to see what’s going on with my patient & her baby, instead of having to solely rely on a single, static inpatient site to evaluate them.

In addition to contraction monitoring, Bloom is also working on other technologies that will help women to gain valuable information about their health from conception to the postpartum period, which they hope will ultimately help to drive better outcomes.

If you’d like to learn more about Bloom, check out their links below:

Website 

Twitter

Facebook

Innovation for All

Innovation-in-Healthcare

I was in an interesting discussion yesterday with some colleagues on Medstro (a social media site for doctors).  We were talking about the pace of innovation at academic medical centers, but the topic got me thinking more broadly about who is driving innovation in healthcare right now.  The short answer seems to be:  “everybody”.

Innovation happens wherever people are desperately trying to solve problems.  On a global level, we have organizations like the Gates Foundation pouring funding into research and innovation to help eradicate deadly diseases in underdeveloped countries.  On a national level, our legislators and President have brought about the Affordable Care Act in recent years in an effort to improve healthcare disparity, cost, and quality.  (I’m going to have to defer the final verdict on this for another blog post in the future…).  On the healthcare delivery side, in the life sciences, among employers and insurers, we see efforts to innovate and improve healthcare quality, access, and/or cost.  In private industry, we see the proliferation of healthcare tools–apps, wearables, and other devices.  And, lately I’ve heard about some of the most inspiring innovators:  patients.  Recently, I read a couple of stories about patients hacking their diabetes devices to better suit their needs and another story about patients’ families starting biotech companies to work on developing drugs for rare diseases that have been typically neglected by industry.

Healthcare is big business.  A recent study by Deloitte estimates aggregate US healthcare spending at $3.8 trillion dollars for 2013..!

So, the question is:  who should be working on innovations that improve healthcare?

Is it appropriate for our government to fund efforts (as they’ve done with the CMS Centers for Innovation) to develop new models of care?  Should it be left to insurers?  Employers?  Should improving healthcare be left to the experts, scientists and doctors at elite academic institutions?  What about private citizens with the deep pockets, like Bill and Melinda?  What about all the companies making those wearables?  Have any of these devices even been shown to be helpful?  Are people just wasting their time on all these devices and collecting all this useless data that will only drive their doctors nuts and cause them to just order more tests and drive up healthcare costs some more?  Is it appropriate for patients with their non-medical backgrounds to drive healthcare innovations?

Among doctors (and others), these are controversial topics.

I have my own opinion and it is this:  Everyone that identifies problems within healthcare (and feels inspired) should work on finding solutions.  I admit that this may not be a popular answer if your only goal is to reduce that $3.8 trillion bill.  But, I like to think that we can actually reduce healthcare spending…but the key is not to start with that as the primary goal in mind.  The primary goal should be to cure disease and to improve quality of life and longevity.  One never knows  where the next great revolutionary idea will come from (maybe from a kid in a garage jailbreaking his medical device)?  Maybe this idea will transform not just the health and wellbeing of individuals, but solve the healthcare financial crunch we’re in.  After all, if someone finds a way to solve the obesity epidemic, they will effectively decrease a host of other very expensive diseases, like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

What are your thoughts?  Should innovation in healthcare be democratized and open to all, public and private, expert or not?  Or should it be left to the realm of scientists and doctors, the experts in the field?

Books: Zero to One

zero to one

I read an interview recently on Peter Thiel (unfortunately, I can’t remember where now and googling it didn’t help because he’s been giving interviews everywhere) and I was impressed with some of the stuff he had to say so I decided to read his new book.

For those of you who may not have heard of him, he’s one of the founders of Paypal (as well as other companies) and an investor that is interested in funding innovative, cutting-edge companies, many of which are in the biotechnology sector.  (That’s what drew me in.)

Apparently, this book is based on a course on entrepreneurship that he taught at Stanford.

He admits that entrepreneurship is something that can’t exactly be taught, but he begins with a compelling question that he often asks his students and potential employees to think about:  “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”  The proper answer to this question, he suggests, might just be the key to the next great innovation.

(This question alone made the book worth reading for me…it was fun to try and brainstorm answers…)

Mr. Thiel goes on to discuss his belief that making new, technological advances is really an imperative for society if we expect to thrive in a world with scarce resources.  He describes this technological progress as being “vertical”, or going from “zero to 1” as opposed to globalization (improving on existing products in the same market) which is “horizontal”, or going from “1 to n”.  He goes on to discuss that new enterprises should seek to monopolize their market, by essentially introducing a needed innovation that is so unique that it has no competitor.  He frowns upon the typical aim of startups: to disrupt an existing market.   It’s hard to question his logic, considering his track record, but also because he backs it up with historical evidence.  He also goes on to give more practical advice about the successful building of a company, particularly its people, its organization, and its inner-workings.

But this book goes beyond offering just advice for entrepreneurs or investors.  Mr. Thiel is clearly brilliant, well-versed in a number of fields–a “polymath”–and this makes for a really entertaining read.  There’s economic theory, philosophy, sociology, history, science/technology, literary references (JRR Tolkein, Shakespeare, Ayn Rand and more), mythology (seriously), and of course, the requisite business development advice.  Really, it’s a perfect book for anybody that enjoys reading the thoughts of great thinkers, and not just for the entrepreneurs.

The book closes by forecasting 4 possible versions of our future world–three are frankly terrifying, but one vision is very compelling and inspiring.  If all goes well and we play these cards well, according to Peter Thiel, our future world will be one where we continue to create innovations that improve life as we know it, to a level that is beyond our imaginations.

I hope he’s right!

Past, Present, & Future

Medicine in Ancient Egypt
Medicine in Ancient Egypt

The progress of medicine in modern times is pretty awe-inspiring.

Just think–

Modern human beings (homo sapiens) have existed on Earth for a staggering 200,000 years. For most of that time, we lived as nomads, hunting and gathering in small tribes. Organized civilizations came to be only a mere few thousand years ago.  It was then that we were able to gather our collective knowledge and resources to make advances in myriad fields, including science and technology.

The first evidence of the practice of medicine was found in ancient Egypt in the 2nd millennium BCE.  The first doctor (Imhotep), the first surgery, and the first medical text were identified from that time period.  Other civilizations throughout the world–Indian, Chinese, Greek, Roman, and Latin American—have also left remnants of the practice of medicine.

Medical practice for most of this time was nebulous at best:  part magical and part animal, vegetable, or mineral. It was of questionable integrity and success, and oftentimes deadly.

The real breakthroughs were discovered in only the last 200 (or so) years:

1796: the first vaccine (smallpox)

1842: inhaled anesthesia

1847:  hand-washing before procedures

1860: germ theory of disease proven

1865:  antisepsis

1895: X-rays

1901-1937: ABO blood types and Rhesus antigens, blood transfusions

1900’s: advances in surgery and cancer treatment with radiation, chemotherapy

1953: DNA

1950: first successful transplant (kidney)

1950s: first laparoscopic surgery

1960: first hormonal contraceptive

1970s: CT, MRI

1978: stem cells identified

1978: first successful in vitro baby born

1983: first robotic-assisted surgery

It’s amazing that all of this has happened in just the past 200 years.  Also amazing is the fact that from 1800 to now, medical advances have more than doubled the life expectancy of human beings, from 35 years of age in 1800 to 75 years of age.

We live in an age now when reality sounds almost like science fiction: surgery can be performed remotely with computer-assisted robots, patients can use brain waves to control prosthetic devices, vital signs can be collected on smart phones, therapies can be targeted to a patient’s particular genetic identity, and transplantation surgeries have advanced to include face, limb, and even uterine transplants.

We’ve managed to expand our “civilization” now to the point that we’re going to be able to aggregate the collective knowledge of the entire world and be able to use this to advance humanity further. Computer technology has also advanced to the point that it can, with a little human guidance, do things no human being could ever do. Technology can be used to create far greater inventions than we could create ourselves. We can use it to solve problems that have confounded us for centuries.

It’s hard to imagine (but fun): what will the world look like in the next 200 years? The next 2000 years? The next 20,000 years?

For some, the future can be scary to think about. (Just think of the ancient Egyptians, who embalmed their Kings and sequestered them in colossal tombs to carry them to safety in the world to come…) But I just think of how far we’ve come and how each step has been a huge leap forward in terms of our health and longevity. The world is full of potential and possibility, limited only by our imaginations.

We’re lucky to be here at this moment in time.

Instead of fearing the unknown, we should try to harness the arsenal of our collective knowledge and the tools at our disposal to create the future we want.

Let’s ask ourselves:  How can we advance medicine further?  What diseases can we eradicate or prevent? How can we enhance and improve our lives and that of our fellow man? How long can we live? What abilities can we gain?