Samsung, Withings, Fitbit, Garmin, and Jawbone are just some of the 75 most prominent companies entering the mobile health market with consumer applications. It’s a crowded space, and many companies are moving in with a consumer gadget mindset rather than seeing technology as a key enabler and targeting real unmet clinical needs.

Consumer devices such as fitness trackers offer quick feedback loops to motivated users interested in monitoring their daily activity, but to really deliver value, new healthcare applications need to demonstrate clinical utility and, to do so, will likely need to exist in a regulated environment.

We can visualize the model of value as a pyramid. At the bottom are the easily accessible, low-cost sensing technologies that these players are leveraging to collect data from users. Moving up, this data becomes impactful when it is synthesized into information — whether for the benefit of recommendations to individuals around their health habits or to aggregate data from a population. This information supports decision making as users and caregivers make choices around care and lifestyle, which can lead to improved clinical outcomes and, ultimately, to financial return for successful companies.

Image Credit: Continuum
Health tech value pyramid

The climb up this pyramid of value — from low-cost sensing to seeing significant financial return in a regulated environment — is no easy task and depends on many different skills and competencies. For complex, high-value clinical applications that address multiple health care stakeholders, partnerships will continue to be a key enabler of success. Companies can either target such applications from day one or plan a commercial roadmap that starts at the consumer end of the market (which allows for rapid and iterative prototyping efforts) and moves up the value chain to clinical applications once technical or usability kinks have been resolved and early revenues are flowing.

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One organization that chose to enter the market at a higher level in this pyramid is Proteus Digital Health, the creator of an ingestible sensor for medication monitoring. Proteus has forged partnerships with pharmaceutical companies including Otsuka and Novartis and is leveraging their clinical know-how and market access. By recognizing where it is strong and where it needs to partner, Proteus has enabled a system that has high clinical potential and placed itself in a very strong position to share in significant financial returns.

Following a different path, Misfit Wearables is a wearable tech company that started out at the bottom of the pyramid with a focus on consumer applications. It deliberately designed sleep and activity monitoring devices for consumers because it sees the value of customer feedback and the potential for rapid iterative development. The commercial trajectory, though, is to develop and deploy clinical applications once the consumer experience has been tuned.

Overall, successful development should drive clinical outcomes rather than the production of a gadget that reports on behavior without helpful context or actionable recommendations. Of course, technology is often a key enabler of such an experience, but successful players at any level of the pyramid will focus on the unmet needs they are solving for by designing a positive experience, which is strengthened by their deep understanding of the regulatory framework and the clinical value they are delivering.

Mike Dunkley is VP at Continuum, a global innovation design consultancy.