Democratization of healthcare innovation: Stethocloud

StethoCloudHere is a summer story that is a counterpoint to the daily gloom and doom in the news. It’s about healthcare innovation, unlocked by some of my favorite trends: democratization of innovation;  low-cost startups; and the “death of geography”. On reflection, I am reminded of just what powerful drivers of better medicine and reduced healthcare costs these trends can be if they are allowed to flourish.

The story starts in mid-July, when I saw these two thought-leader tweets:

Artificial Intelligence, Big data, Mobile App’s, Digital health

These tweets hit several of my “high interest” buttons, and I checked out the articles, expecting to read about another Silicon Valley or San Diego digital health startup. It turns out, this is a student team from Melbourne, Australia, who had been successful in an innovation competition. The concept combines digital health, a mobile app, cloud-based big data analysis of bio-signal patterns, and artificial intelligence to turn diagnosis (of respiratory disease such as pneumonia) from an art practiced solely by highly trained clinicians into something that can be done by a non-expert user (family member, or healthcare technician, for example).

Death of Geography

What happened next illustrates the powerful themes of death of geography and interconnectedness. I am pretty sure that even 5 years ago, the work of a Melbourne-based, student team would not have crossed the radar screens of US luminaries like Dr Topol and Vinod Khosla. But Twitter has changed that. And their tweets popped up on my radar screen, and it just so happened I was planning my annual trip “down under” (where I grew up).

So, I turned to LinkedIn, where I found the names of the Stethocloud student team with minimal effort, and where sending them a brief message took only a few keyboard clicks. My message was along the lines of “Cool stuff you are doing, Australian expat, long-time Si-valley-ite, returning for a visit, love to chat about your ideas”.

Within 24 hours, they replied along the lines of “We love talking about our ideas. How cool you tracked us down. Let’s meet”.

Two weeks later we were sitting across the table from each other and comparing notes. It was all effortless. No need for complex introductions, or intermediaries with Rolodexes. It just happened.

Democratization of innovation

When I met the Stethocloud team, and they showed me their prototype, I was extremely impressed to discover they had a quite complete, “proof of principle” prototype of the hardware component, a nice looking mobile app prototype, and a clear vision of how the cloud-based data analysis would operate both in the shorter term, as well as for more fully featured, future products. Not to mention the compelling vision and value statement, captured in Vinod Khosla’s tweet above.

And as far as I can understand, they did all this for almost no money and in their spare time while pursuing their degrees at University of Melbourne.

I think this is a good example of a quite different type of innovation than we have been used to in the life sciences space. No question, it takes great creativity, and system thinking of an uncommon type. And it takes some really smart engineers, and some technical/clinical interdisciplinary thinking that is rare. But it does not require a large team that has devoted the last decade to becoming world experts in a specific signaling pathway or molecular receptor or biotech technique, as would be the case for a startup developing a new drug. Nor does it require the insights of one of the world’s leading luminary surgeons who has spent her career perfecting a specific surgical procedure and thus has a unique ability to visualize the right “tool” to make surgery more successful (as has often been the case for past medical device startups).

And most likely it will take only a modest amount of capital to get to the point where many investors will be able to see the potential, instead of the $tens/hundreds of millions typically needed by many medical device and biotech startups of yesteryears.

I think of this as the democratization of innovation. Suddenly, there is a much larger pool of potential innovators with the right set of skills to create meaningful healthcare innovations. And because of the lower capital requirements, and the death of geography, this type of innovation can now come from a far broader geographic base than the typical Boston/Silicon Valley haunts of the majority of Venture Capitalists.

Opportunity: better medicine, lower costs

It’s hard not to get excited about the potential of this quite radical change to the ecosystem.

I am a believer that the best type of innovation is one that bubbles up from below, rather than one that is mandated by “wise men” from above (see a talk on this here). I believe in the traditional Si Valley model, in which there are lots of whacky entrepreneurs, each with their own wild-eyed vision of the future. And an equally large number of different investors, with their own visions of the future to support them. And lots of them fail (as may Stethocloud). But out of this ecosystem come things like Google, Facebook, Genentech, and Balloon angioplasty.

If you believe in this approach, it can only be good that now we have a far broader population in many more countries than before who are active participants in this innovation ecosystem. And I believe from that will come both failures and successes. And among the successes will be as yet unthought of approaches for better medicine, and perhaps more importantly more cost effective medicine.

How much more fun it is to dwell on this thought, and look for the next exciting digital health idea, than to worry about Grexit and the like. Happy Labor Day. 🙂


  1. […] in-patient treatment might be interesting. Perhaps the approach being pioneered by companies like Stethocloud might be relevant to this […]

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