Seeing into 2017: Fitness trackers’ chill, clinical and specialized wearables warm up

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/crystal-ball.jpg” thumb_width=”150″ /]The first in a series of brief projections for 2017. Fitness wearables aren’t even lukewarm anymore, and it’s visible in consolidation and the nay-saying articles. In late November, Fitbit bought one of the pioneers, Pebble, for a cut price of $40 million (TechCrunch). Fitbit shares are also cut price at below $7.50, whereas the 2015 IPO debuted at $50. Editor Charles’ favorite, Jawbone, is moribund; the springtime rumors of company sale and shutdown of the fitness band line have not been contradicted since [TTA 27 July]. Research/analytics company CB Insights calculated that 2015 wearable computing (a broader category) investment funding fell 63 percent from 2014 to a level comparable to 2012-13, in large part due to the cooling of the fitness segment.

A sure sign that fitness bands have chilled is negative play in the consumer press. ‘My fitness band has made me fat’, spun off the JAMA article [TTA 28 Sep], is now the theme of hilarious ‘dieters gone wild’ articles like this from the New York Post (warning, eye bleach photos!). But The Sun (UK) waves a warning flag that the information could be sold, sent to your employer or insurance company to profile and/or discriminate against you, or cyberhacked. All this can knock a pricey band off the Christmas shopping list. And no, it hasn’t shifted to smartwatches as most insiders predicted, as smartwatch sales have leveled off–as expected–until their functionality and appearance improve to justify their high price.

What’s in our crystal ball? Clinical-quality and specialized wearables will rise from these ashes.

  • Doctors are simply not interested in the current poor quality of data generated by current wearables–‘it’s worthless, Jim!’ ZDNet’s much-discussed article on this subject paradoxically stresses this, then focuses in on the clinical quality data generated by startup VivaLnk’s eSkin for temperature and stress. Clinical quality data is what is required for a health and wellness research partnership like the one recently announced by RTI and Validic.
  • Industry buzz is that Fitbit bought Pebble for its better IP, apps and stable of developers, not its smartwatch hardware, and that IP includes clinical quality measurement.  Other biosensor companies on the rise according to CB Insights are Thync, Thalmic Labs, YBrain and mCube.
  • In specialty wearables, there’s the recent funding success of Owlet, the High Cute Factor baby monitor sock. Lifebeam transfers multiple sensing technology to helmets and hats for richer data.

And if sensor patches develop with speed, in two to three years they may eliminate all of these!

The mixed picture of health tech investment: a potpourri

One picture is generally positive–plenty of opportunity in the aging and ill population, particularly in data integration from various sources, and value-based care. Everyone loves the excitement that a startup with a novel technology or way it can make knowledge more useful brings to the field.  Another picture is one of pitfalls aplenty, from overhyping technology (poster child, Theranos) to overestimating growth, overspending and especially picking the wrong (nervous, impatient) investors at the wrong time, which have left a general patina of mistrust around digital health. There’s also the fact that healthcare is a highly, confusingly regulated, long-cycle business that’s challenged money-wise, whether in the US, UK, Europe or Asia. Some advice to startups contained in these two articles, including from the principals of StartUp Health accelerator (who’ve seen it all), has to do with building trust, finding the right investors, the right advice/advisors, collaboration (though that is difficult with IP), finding proven (affordable) management and a sustainable (and resilient) culture. Underpromise, overdeliver.  TechCrunch, Healthcare Dive

No wonder that investment was flat in 2015, and that much of the news is around acquisitions that rearrange companies and/or offerings. The latest today is Allscripts‘ and GI Partners’ acquisition of behavioral EHR/care coordination company Netsmart for $950 million; Allscripts is moving its homecare business into Netsmart’s CareFabric suite. Kansas City Business Journal, Healthcare Dive  In addition we’ll cite our earlier Mo’ Money article on the $600 million in various digital health investments. UPMC, which had invested in Vivify Health’s telehealth/RPM platform, is spreading $3 million around partly in-house to six health tech projects developed under the Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance. And in an example of Wearables Confusion, investors put $16 million into LifeBeam to develop another DTC ‘holistic’ health wearable (LifeBeam’s origins are sensors for aerospace and defense) while early wrist fitness entrant Pebble has laid off 40 staff in an attempt to refocus on…fitness.

Early-stage companies are also alliancing and merging. Fresh out of Newark and the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s NJ Innovation Institute, the merger of Practice Unite (which knits together secure mobile clinician/patient communications into a customized platform) and Uniphy Health (physician engagement), is an example of complimentary enlargement. This expands care collaboration offerings and shades over into patient engagement if you look at the PHM quadrant here. According to Director/Chief Medical Officer Stuart Hochron, MD (who was a Practice Unite founder), “We’re really pleased with the outcome of this merger. It’s given us the capital and resources that we need to scale.” It’s also good to see that both the founders and the CTO are moving into the new Uniphy Health–and staying in Newark.  Release