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05 May 2014 16:42
Aggressive hiring of biomedical experts is raising hackles in the biotechnology community. (AFP)
Over the past year, Apple
has snapped up at least half a dozen prominent experts in biomedicine,
according to LinkedIn profile changes. One prominent researcher moved two weeks
ago, and Apple is recruiting other medical professionals and hardware experts,
although the number of hirings is not clear, said two people familiar with the moves,
who declined to be named.
Much of the hiring is in
sensor technology, an area chief executive Tim Cook singled out last year as
primed “to explode”.
Industry insiders say the moves show a vision for
monitoring everything from blood-sugar levels to nutrition, beyond the
fitness-oriented devices now on the market.
“This is a very
specific play in the bio-sensing space,” said Malay Gandhi, chief strategy
officer at Rock Health, a San Francisco venture capital firm that has backed
prominent wearable-tech startups, such as Augmedix and Spire.
Apple is under pressure to
deliver on Cook’s promise of new product categories this year. The company has
not introduced a new type of product since the iPad in 2010, a fact that weighs
on investors’ minds as its stock remains well off its previous highs despite a
series of buybacks and dividend payouts.
Investor Carl Icahn tweeted
his approval of Apple quarterly results and buyback plans on April 23.
“Believe we’ll also be happy when we see new products,” he added.
Apple has registered the
trademark “iWatch” in Japan. Several Apple patents point to
wrist-worn devices, and in February, Apple filed a patent for a smart earbud
patent that could track steps and detect gestures of the head.
One mobile health executive,
who asked not to be named, told Reuters he recently sat down with an Apple
executive from the iWatch team. He said the company has aspirations beyond
wearable devices, and is considering a full health and fitness services
platform modeled on its apps store.
Apple spokesperson Steve
Dowling declined to comment on the company’s health-tech plans or its recent
The med-tech community is
betting on Apple to develop the apps-store style platform so startups can
develop their own software and hardware mobile medical applications.
“There’s no doubt that
Apple is sniffing around this area,” said Ted Driscoll, a Silicon
Valley-based partner at Claremont Creek Ventures, which specialises in digital
health and medical devices. He said Apple seemed primarily focused on
recruiting engineers with experience in “monitoring the body’s perimeters”.
Apple has poached biomedical
engineers from companies including Vital Connect, Masimo Corp, Sano
Intelligence and O2 MedTech.
Masimo is best known for its
pulse oximetry device, which non-invasively measures patients’ oxygen
saturation, an indicator of respiratory function. Vital Connect focuses on
tracking vitals like heart rate and body temperature. O2 Med Tech also is
experimenting with biosensors and developing new devices.
A LinkedIn search shows
Masimo chief medical officer Michael O’Reilly; Cercacor chief technology
officer Marcelo Lamego; and Vital Connect’s Ravi Narasimhan, vice president of
biosensor technology, and Nima Ferdosi, an embedded sensors expert, are among
those who have moved over to the Cupertino company.
One source said Alexander
Chan, a former biomedical engineer at Vital Connect, has also defected. His
LinkedIn profile states he now works at a “technology company”.
Apple has also hired
hardware experts Nancy Dougherty, formerly of wearable sensor company Sano
Intelligence, and Todd Whitehurst, vice president of product at Senseonics Inc,
a glucose monitoring product, according to their LinkedIn profiles.
And most recently, Divya
Nag, founder of StartX Med, a Stanford-affiliated startup accelerator, joined
an Apple research and development team two weeks ago to focus on an unspecified
healthcare product. Nag did not respond to requests for comment.
Attempts to contact the
people on LinkedIn were not successful, except for Ferdosi, who declined to
comment. Sano and Vital Connect declined to comment, Masimo and Cercacor
confirmed the departures, Senseonics did not return an email requesting comment
and O2 MedTech could not be reached.
Daniel Kraft, who chairs the FutureMed program that explores developing
technologies and their potential in biomedicine, said the first version of the
iWatch might track blood pressure and heart rate, among other vitals.
Eventually he expects Apple
to release a device that could continuously monitor glucose levels without
requiring a blood draw.
“Some of the talent [Apple recruited] has access to deep wells of trade secrets and
information,” said Joe Kiani, chief executive officer of medical device
firm Masimo Corp, who lost his chief medical officer to Apple in mid-2013.
Kiani said that Apple was
offering sizeable salaries with little indication of what researchers would be
doing. “They are just buying people,” he said. “I just hope
Apple is not doing what we’re doing.”
Apple may face regulatory
hurdles if it aims for devices which do more than monitor fitness. In January,
the New York Times reported that
Apple executives, including O’Reilly, met with senior officials at the Food and
Drug Administration (FDA), including Bakul Patel, who drafted the FDA’s final
guidance for mobile health.
In late 2013, the FDA
announced that it would focus on regulating applications that attempt to turn a
smartphone into a medical device, or that are intended to be used as an
accessory to a regulated medical device. That might include apps and attachments
to measure lung function or analyze urine, for instance, but not devices such
as Nike’s FuelBand, which tracks your steps but does not offer medical
Apple also has witnessed
rivals trying, and failing, to produce devices that reach a mass market.
Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smartwatch was panned by critics and consumer reviews
have been tepid at best.
A report from Endeavour
Partners found that one-third of American consumers who have owned a wearable
ditched it within six months. Key challenges include battery life, style,
usefulness, and medical relevance, it said. And this month, Nike confirmed to
Re/code that it had laid off some of its FuelBand team.
Meanwhile, Google is taking
a different approach. In March, it pre-empted Apple by unveiling Android Wear,
a version of its Android software tailored for wearable devices. Like Apple,
it’s shown interest in medical technology and is exploring contact lenses that
can monitor glucose levels in tears. –Reuters
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