A new wave of data-intensive “health tech” companies is drawing talent from the internet world as cloud computing, artificial intelligence and intensive data analysis are brought to bear on health.
Former Facebook chief financial officer David Ebersman last week launched a start-up to crunch data and use analytics to improve the identification and treatment of behavioural health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Data gathered from the sensors in smartphones, as well as an analysis of social activity on sites such as Facebook, could one day be used to improve the diagnosis of mental illnesses, Mr Ebersman said. Other executives at his new company, Lyra Health, include chief technology officer Daniel Tunkelang, a data scientist who previously worked at professional social networking company LinkedIn.
The announcement followed news that Phil Mui, a former head of Google Analytics, had become chief technology officer at HeartFlow, another Silicon Valley start-up. The company uses sophisticated 3D computer modelling to diagnose heart disease from CAT scan images, without the need for more expensive invasive tests.
Mr Mui joined after a stint at Acxiom, one of the most ambitious companies applying “big data” techniques to advertising — another field that has sucked engineering talent from the internet world in recent years.
Companies such as HeartFlow and Lyra Health hope to use techniques honed in the internet world to bring sweeping change to large sectors of the healthcare industry.
HeartFlow, whose test has received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, is tackling a market estimated to be worth $25bn-$30bn in the advanced world. It claims to be able to cut the cost of a traditional test for coronary disease from $5,000 to below $2,000 while producing more accurate results.
However, the health tech entrepreneurs argue resistance to change in the health sector has made it hard for radical new technology approaches to take hold. These have included entrenched work practices among doctors and incentives in the US that reward providers for the number of tests or procedures they perform, rather than health outcomes.
“It’s like Uber, there are a lot of people who are very unhappy,” said John Stevens, chief executive of HeartFlow. “If we tried to do this five years ago it wouldn’t work. We’re taking too much money away from people that have a vested interest in it staying where it is.”
Investors in the health tech field say that the Affordable Care Act— known as “Obamacare” — and growing cost pressures on companies that foot most of the bill in the US healthcare system have tipped the scales in favour of change. Success in using technologies such as data analytics to improve productivity in other areas of their operations has taught companies the impact technology can have on health costs, said Bryan Roberts, a partner at Venrock, which has backed Lyra.
“Cost pressures in the US health system being what they are, the things that save money do win in the end,” added Jeffrey Lightcap of HealthCor Partners, the largest investor in Heartflow, which has raised $160m.
HeartFlow uses an advanced form of artificial intelligence known as deep learning to turn images into 3D models of the heart and runs on “public cloud” services provided by companies such as Amazon. It is also considering charging a subscription for access to its technology, echoing the approach used by business software companies. “We will not be like anything in healthcare, we will be like the rest of the tech breed,” said Mr Stevens.
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