Wellpepper wins Alexa Diabetes Challenge

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Wellpepper's interactive diabetes care plan incorporates an Alexa-enabled scale into a patient's mobile device.

The Alexa Diabetes Challenge, a new competition sponsored by Merck, awarded health startup Wellpepper the $125,000 grand prize for its voice-enabled mobile system, which aims to help diagnose and treat foot ulcers sooner for patients with type 2 diabetes.  

The competition launched in April with an open call for concepts that seek to improve the experience of patients with type 2 diabetes using Amazon's Alexa voice technology. The challenge received 96 submissions, from a range of organizations including research institutions, software companies, startups, and healthcare providers.

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Wellpepper's interactive diabetes care plan incorporates an Alexa-enabled scale into a patient's mobile device. The scale has a foot scanner that can take photos of a patient's feet and can look for potential foot ulcers using a machine learning image classifier, said Anne Weiler, co-founder and CEO of Wellpepper.

The plan, called Sugarpod, offers tailored tasks for patients based on their preferences, and it can send diabetes information, foot scan photos, and physician's messages, using texts, emails, and the Sugarpod mobile app.

Using the voice-activated technology, patients can record blood glucose levels, blood pressure, receive educational information about diabetes and tips, and activate the use of the scale and foot scanner. 

Foot ulcers are the leading cause of amputation and costs the health system $9 billion a year, according to the American Diabetes Association.

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“Being able to detect them early, and do it at home, will help decrease costs and improve quality of life,” said Weiler.

“A person with diabetes or another chronic condition only sees their doctor four times a year,” said Kimberly Park, VP of customer strategy and innovation at Merck. “I would love to see how voice can support the patient's goals for their own healthcare. It's a technology that allows for much personalization and ease of interaction. You don't have to use your thumbs to type or spell. It provides 24/7 support while you're at home.”

Merck markets type 2 diabetes drugs Januvia and Janumet. In 2016, Januvia was the second top-selling product among metabolic brands in the U.S. in 2016, with a projected $2.39 billion in U.S. sales in 2016.

The drugmaker is considering a collaboration with Wellpepper and the other finalists of the challenge.

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“We'll work with our business development organizations to ensure we put the right processes in place,” said Park. “Based on the interest in the company, we'll decide what the best path is for any potential collaborations.”

Other finalists in the competition include DiaBetty by the University of Illinois, My GluCoach by HCL America, PIA by Ejenta, and T2D2 by a Columbia University team.

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