By Matt Pillar, chief editor
A bit earlier this month, I had a unique opportunity to travel with a few of my colleagues to the BIO International Convention in Philadelphia. It’s a large conference and exposition, attended by some 17,000 life sciences professionals from 67 different countries. The event focuses largely on the pharma industry. Exhibitors and attendees span the gamut from biopharmaceutical manufacturing equipment builders to therapeutic research scientists to contract pharmaceutical manufacturers. It was a strange new place for a 20-year IT writer. What in the world was I doing there?
I took a few days to check out the show in part out of my growing curiosity about the advance of technology in the life sciences and healthcare spaces. You might know my employer, VertMarkets, as the publisher of Channel Executive and Software Executive magazines, VARinsights.com, MSPinsights.com, and SoftwareBusinessGrowth.com. But perhaps you’re not aware that we publish dozens of print and digital titles that serve virtually every industry you can think of. With thirteen active titles and events, our Life Science Connect division is the largest of those business groups. I often find myself discussing the technology trends impacting healthcare and the life sciences with my colleagues who edit those titles. One of said colleagues is Rob Wright, chief editor at our own Life Science Leader. He suggested I check out the BIO event, where he was leading one of the 11 education sessions planned for the conference’s Digital Health track.
During his session, Realizing the Promise of Innovative Digital Health Solutions: A Path Toward Treating the Whole Patient, Wright interviewed Kerry Willis, chief scientific officer at the National Kidney Foundation, Chandra Ramanathan, vice president and head of Bayer’s East Coast Innovation Center, and Herb Ryan, cofounder and CEO if Bitome, a life sciences-focused startup.
I’m compelled to share some of the inside skinny on the ensuing conversation with you, because it provides some insight into an industry that’s in the early days of an IT burgeon. The ground here is getting ever more fertile for IT solutions providers looking to plant some seeds. But expect to stub a toe or two getting your foot in the door.
Ryan tested that soil—and stubbed a toe—when he planted the seed for Bitome. His work as a scientist in the life sciences field gave him exposure to a variety of IT shortcomings in healthcare—unexplored opportunities to apply artificial intelligence in clinical trials, archaic diagnostic approaches and equipment in hospitals, and missed opportunities to leverage big data in global disease awareness and management initiatives, to name a few.
Take nephrologists (doctors who specialize in kidney health and kidney disease), for instance. Patient fluid levels are a keystone indicator in nephrology, yet Ryan says the state-of-the-art hydration assessment is the same today as it’s been for more than a century, since the Hippocratic oath was institutionalized: physical assessment. “There's a lot of variability in that way to determine a patient's fluid volume status. That can lead to a lot of variability in the treatment and, ultimately, the assessment and diagnosis to the patient.”
It’s also a huge economic burden. Fluid imbalance is a leading cause of hospitalization in the U.S., to the tune of $18-$20 billion per year.
Recognizing opportunities like that one, Ryan was inspired to seek funding to fire up a life sciences-facing tech firm called Bitome. But, he found the investment community a bit cool to early stage companies. The big money was flowing to late stage startups with mature technology and familiar business models. Ryan overcame that obstacle by seeking out an alternative investment pathway; it partnered with Bayer Pharmaceuticals in a deal managed in conjunction with MassBio, the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. Now, it makes a noninvasive fluid volume assessment device that measures intervascular and interstitial fluid volumes independently and at home.
Altruistic intentions aside, why would a nephrologist’s outdated approach to diagnostics inspire an entrepreneur to seek out a more modern and accurate means of hydration analysis? Because kidney disease is one massive and growing market opportunity. And, it’s representative of dozens more chronic and widespread health problems begging for solutions.
According to the National Kidney Foundation’s Willis, 37 million adults in the U.S. have chronic kidney disease, but only ten percent of them know they have it. There are a whole lot of nephrologists out there who would benefit financially and professionally from a better diagnostic tool. And presumably, the massive portion of the population walking around with kidney disease would, too.
“The largest numbers of those unaware people have other conditions too, mainly diabetes and high blood pressure,” says Willis. “If digital health could cue both their providers and the patients to say, hey, you might have kidney disease, have you been tested? it could really produce a revolution, just by asking that one simple question.”
Last month, the National Kidney Foundation and Bayer announced a partnership to support the development of the National Kidney Foundation Patient Network, a first-of-its-kind registry that combines patient-entered data with data from electronic health records for people living with chronic kidney disease. The concept behind this collaboration is to gather unique data through the registry that will improve patient outcomes, aim to bolster patient education resources, and allow for more patient-centered clinical trials.
But the digital health opportunity doesn’t end at research and diagnosis. For her part, Willis is most excited about the promise devices and applications hold for the 24/7 monitoring of chronic diseases. “You see your doctor once or twice a year,” she says, contrasting that observation with the promise of a tech-based tool that reminds patients of their self-management details and monitors their conditions every hour of every day. “Kidney disease is a war of attrition, and that is how you fight it, every day, a little bit at a time,” she says.
But in healthcare, apps that work “every day, a little bit at a time” produce lots and lots and lots of data. Sensitive, regulated, extremely valuable data. As companies like Bitome generate and facilitate more—and more valuable—data to the benefit of individual patients and whole populations alike, the integrity, security, movement, storage, and analysis of that data over enterprise and external IT architectures will only grow more critical and scrutinized. That’s where the IT community’s opportunity lives.
Ryan offers some sage advice to tech founders looking to break into the life sciences space. Look for partners that present no intellectual property conflicts, and who provide the broadest access to the market. “Find your champions,” he says.