[We are reporting this week from the mHealth Summit in Washington DC. As is typical with large meetings, the breadth of activities and the diversity of attendees is almost as interesting as the subject matter itself. We will highlight some of activities that might be of interest to our readers.]
Vocel is a company which is early in its growth phase but has a very interesting and flexible platform that, if it plays its cards right, it could reach ubiquity in revenue generating transactions in the mHealth field. The company has one major product at this time, PillPhone, which is designed to be a mobile phone equivalent of the low technology pill box. The idea is that users sign up using a simple website what medications they are using. Then, they are given reminders every time time to take one of their pills. To learn more, check out our video interview [at end of the post] with the CEO of Vocel, Carl Washburn.
While this seems mundane enough, and medication reminders are indeed one of the most ubiquitous of mHealth applications, Vocel has three important tricks up its sleeve. The first is that the application platform works on almost any phone. While much of the excitement in medical apps is focussed on iPhone and Android, the reality is that the majority of phones deployed are so-called “feature phones”, such as the ubiquitous flip phones made by Nokia and Motorola. In fact, it may be that the population that takes the most pills is the one more likely to have such a phone rather than a Droid or an iPhone. The technology underlying PillPhone is extensible since it is built on a series of XML fields, which any developer can easily customize. This text file generates a series of screens and questions that are automatically translated to work across 125 types of feature phones as well as smart phones. Vocel built this application platform on top of a secure messaging system which has already been incorporated by the major carriers.
Even more intriguing is that the application already directly interfaces with pharmacies, so that patients can be reminded when their prescription are about to run out. And, if they wish, they can issue a refill request directly from the phone which, in turn, returns a message saying their pills are ready for pick up at their chosen pharmacy. While the convenience of this is nice for the patient, the real interested party in this case is the pharmacy, which earns a returning customer. Therefore, the most likely place for customers to hear about PillPhone may be their local drug store. In fact, we were told Vocel has already inked a deal with a “major, national” pharmacy chain to distribute the app and share revenue. Therefore, the business model is already passing an early validation test. Other possibilities for partnership may be large employers or insurers who may have an interest in increasing wellness among their employees or subscribers. If patients are willing to get reminders and report diet, weight, blood pressure, etc., perhaps incentives may be provided such as discounts or free downloads.
Last, and perhaps most important in the short term, is that Vocel has already obtained 510k FDA clearance for its platform. Before obtaining clearance, the company asked for a “513g” ruling as to whether their application platform would require clearance. To their surprise, the resulting ruling was quite broad. So they pushed forward and obtained approval, the first of its kind in this sector. I suspect this will be a significant competitive advantage for Vocel. While the public comments by the FDA on the regulation of mobile medical applications have been somewhat vague, actions certainly speak louder than words and we suspect that the net cast by FDA regulation will be wide enough to ensnare many more apps makers in the future. Vocel is already contracting with the major carriers to make sure their app is available to their subscribers and has an ambitious road map to use their reminder and communication platform for much more than pill reminders. Keep an eye on Vocel in coming months.
Check out this video interview with Vocel CEO Carl Washburn:
This major wireless company has a large presence at the mHealth Summit, having reserved a large segment of floor space to “sublet” its many technology partners. Vocel, above, is one of those companies but Qualcomm also had a few new technologies of its own to show off. One in its early stages is a very low power near-field communication platform, akin to Bluetooth. However, this early phase technology is designed to consume even less power and be deployed in even smaller devices, as small as 15mm in size, compared to Bluetooth. Other important features would be that communication would be peer-to-peer (instead of “master slave” as in Bluetooth), devices could report proximity so that security could be designed around distance. Encryption would be supported. The idea is that this technology could be the basis of “body area networks”, i.e. devices and monitors that are worn by patients and consumers. The first generation chips will be deployed in the “first half of 2011”.
Another interesting technology is the Wearable Mobile Device. This is effectively a cellphone on a chip that incorporates the radio & modem as well as a programmable application layer on a single, very small circuit board. Included on this tiny circuit board is GPS, Bluetooth and an accelerometer. They could be embedded in almost any kind of device to allow it access to the cellular networks, and thus to the internet. The idea is that these small communication devices can be programmed and provisioned, all before deployment to consumers. The customer would not even be aware that the device is connected to the same cell networks as their mobile phone – think Kindle. All kinds of connected monitoring devices are imagined by Qualcomm, the most obvious being a wearable fall indicator for seniors. Other uses will no doubt be developed by creative entrepreneurs.