This year’s HealthSpark 2018 event, Igniting the Next Wave of Health Tech, presented by AbelsonTaylor, Juice Pharma, HCB Health, and MIT Hacking Medicine, demonstrated that if your aim is to improve healthcare, you’ll have to disrupt it. 

It’s an official event at South by Southwest, the festival that has become an ideal platform for companies to showcase the latest in health tech, as well as startups seeking funding and exposure. 

Emceed by Shwen Gwee, MIT Hacking Medicine community team member and member of SXSW’s advisory board for health, the event had three innovative content tracks: BioSensors and Digital Therapeutics, AI and the Future of Healthcare, and The Future of Healthcare Hacking. 

Each segment also had a round of the Barracuda Bowl, an intense Shark Tank-style pitch competition that gave emerging health startups a platform on which to present to top venture capital firms. 

The startups competed for funding, introductions to top incubators such as Matter, TMC, and the Bayer G4A generator program, a chance to pitch the Philips Healthworks team, and a year of complimentary domain hosting from .health. 

The event brought companies with dedicated health verticals such as Philips and Amazon together with the innovation units of pharma companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Bayer to discuss how tech is improving personal health. 

Day one kicked off with a presentation by Scarlet Shore of Verily (formerly Google Life Sciences), who spoke about Project Baseline, which collects health data to create a more holistic understanding of people’s health. 

“The heart of Project Baseline is to empower people and connect with them on a daily basis,” Shore said. “Actual biology is not episodic, it’s continuous, and that’s the way we want to present it to our audience, allowing them to know what’s going on with their health in ways that were never before possible.” 

Shore shared that within 24 hours of the website’s launch, thousands of participants were willing to take part in the company’s research. Each volunteer was given a wearable sensor that collected up to six terabytes of data within the first two days, including immunization records, cognitive function, echocardiogram readings, and allergies. 

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To help empower people to use this data in their daily lives and extract it to have a meaningful conversation with their physician, Shore explained, the project worked closely with patient advocates.

“People don’t want to sift through useless information to get to what they need,” she noted. “They want to know, ‘Should I make an appointment with my physician?’ ‘Is this reading something I need to be concerned about?’ Our goal was to get rid of the one-size-fits-all approach to collecting healthcare data and keep it simple, engaging, and effective.” 

Ed Leibowitz, digital diabetes product leader at BD Digital Health, highlighted the company’s development of a new patient tool, BD Bright, that provides education and information to patients living with diabetes so they can have more freedom to be people, not just patients.

“What’s often missing in the diabetes space are ways to fill the emotional void,” Leibowitz said. “Our goal was to create a highly personalized resource that reduced the burden of management on the patient, while also supporting them emotionally.”

Wearables continued to be a focus of the event. Kate Merton of JLABS predicted that by 2019 there will be 90 million wearables users in the U.S. and that the healthcare industry’s primary focus should be to ensure wearables are giving patients useful feedback on their conditions rather than just gathering data. 

“We want to make it so that ‘I don’t know’ is never an acceptable answer when a patient is asked what a reading means,” Merton explained. “The only way to do that is to give patients information in real time so they can spend more time living life.” 

Jenny Barnett, Ph.D., chief scientific officer at Cambridge Cognition, also spoke about incorporating wearable tech into healthcare, specifically in mental health. She stressed that while depression affects one in four people worldwide, only half of people diagnosed each year receive treatment, often due to difficulties in assessment. She and her team are working on creating wearables to measure and monitor brain health. 

“By bringing brain assessment into the home and making the findings easy to follow, we can help people take control of their health and make better overall decisions,” Barnett noted.

Dr. Michelle Longmire, cofounder and CEO of Medable, a platform that healthcare companies can utilize to build HIPAA-compliant apps, spoke about the company’s ambitious objectives. 

“We need to step away from the ways we currently measure disease, such as the six-minute walk down the corridor, and start utilizing the tech we have to measure things digitally,” she said. 

Since its inception in 2012, Medable has been able to identify a critical gap between the academic medical researchers and study participants, the data they generate, and the ability of the biopharma industry to harness this ecosystem, which led to the creation of Insight, a blockchain-based tech that will facilitate medical data exchange between all of the above. 

Longmire noted this tech will greatly improve the accuracy of clinical trials by allowing patients to participate virtually. For example, disabled patients can have difficulty traveling. With these new data sharing mechanisms, patient data from all over the world can be collected digitally, allowing researchers to compile a more accurate reading of disease states.

The importance of AI was emphasized at the event. Keith Steward, Ph.D., of Amazon Web Services, stressed how heavily AI and machine learning depend on upstream big data capabilities. He called on healthcare companies to take the necessary measures to secure private data and make user experience as enjoyable and efficient as possible. 

ConversationHealth’s Lexi Kaplin and Alexandra Reeves gave a thought-provoking talk on the impact chatbots and other messaging and voice recognition tools will have on the future of healthcare. 

Reeves, cofounder of ConversationHealth, reminisced about how at the age of 16 — a mere three years ago — she came up with the idea to use chatbots to obtain and provide healthcare information. She was researching for a friend who was battling anorexia and found that the available sites were either too clinical or reinforcing unhealthy behaviors. 

“At the time I did not feel comfortable asking my parents, who are both physicians, for help,” Reeves explained. “I wanted to remain anonymous, but also make sure my friend was getting accurate and useful information.” Her concept led to the creation of emojiHealth, a chatbot that lives on Facebook Messenger and connects with users through health alerts, reminders, and emojis. “There are plenty of teens who would be more comfortable engaging with a bot when it comes to some of the more uncomfortable or taboo topics in health,” Reeves noted. 

Kaplin, chief product officer at ConversationHealth, predicted the tech will allow pharma companies to create patient-specific bots that cater to certain disease states. 

“The back and forth model of chatbots will allow us to interact with the healthcare environment the same way we do with other sites and social media outlets throughout the day,” Kaplin said. “We need to get back to a point where conversation along with content is also king.” 

Day two kicked off with Matter, a community of healthcare innovators that is part consultancy, part incubator. CEO Steven Collens led an abbreviated version of its Tales from the Trenches workshop that showcased entrepreneurs who have “built interesting things and led interesting lives,” featuring Dr. Alex Leow and Sandeep Pulim, M.D.

The event’s grand finale was the Barracuda Bowl final, which featured the winners from the previous day’s contests, PhotoniCare, Motiv, Sunrise Health, b.well, Gryt Health, and Nuro, a neurotech app that helps touchless and voiceless patients communicate. Nuro’s creator, Francois Gand, walked away with the grand prize of $7,000 cash and one year of .health domain support. 

While all the leaders of the startups were focused on the importance of tech in improving healthcare, they emphasized the patient must be at the heart of any successful healthcare initiative. As Eugene Borukhovich of Bayer said, “At the end of the day, it’s still all about people.”