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Scale, Science and Sensors: When Will the Digital Revolution Reach Healthcare?

November 12, 2015

I conduct phone interviews using Skype because it’s easy to record decent-quality audio that way, but it turns out that the program’s video features also come in handy.

When I was interviewing Chris Anderson, founder and chief executive of drone maker, 3DRobotics, he said “I’m going to turn on my video just for a second so you can see what I’m looking at here.” He showed me a golden cylinder that looked like a very fat lipstick case and said: “That is a gyro sensor. It is mechanical, it cost $10,000, it was made by some very talented ladies in a factory and hand-wound, et cetera. That’s one axis. On our drones we have, let me think about this, we have 24 of these. We have 24 sensors like this [on our current drones]. That would have been $10,000 each. That would have $240,000 of sensors, and by the way, it would be the size of a refrigerator. Instead, we have a tiny little chip or a few tiny little chips that cost $3 and are almost invisible. Simply the switch to the MEM [micro-electric mechanical] sensors was the big enabler.”

Anderson calls the remarkable improvements in sensors “the peace dividend of the smartphone wars.” He makes an excellent point. All the gear packed into most modern phones — compasses, accelerometers, gyroscopes, thermometers, WiFi and cellular antennas, and so on — have been getting better, smaller and cheaper at a rate that makes Moore’s Law look pokey by comparison. It’s easy to conclude that this is just what happens when the protean properties of silicon are brought to bear on an industry.

At a private event I attended recently, however, the CEO of a global pharmaceutical company said that sensors for healthcare were not improving quickly enough, and that we don’t yet have the gear we need for next-generation diagnosis and monitoring.

The current turmoil at the U.S. blood diagnostics start-up Theranos seems to support this view. A damning expose in the Wall Street Journal revealed (and Theranos has confirmed) that the company uses industry-standard machines instead of its own equipment for most of the blood work it performs, and that its proprietary methods have so far only been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a single test.

So, will the sensor revolution skip healthcare? Will our bodies not ever be brought into the “internet of things”? I think the answer to these questions is “no.”

We’ll get great gear in [healthcare], but it might take a while. Biology and medicine are fiendishly complex, for one thing, so a lot of research and engineering are needed before we get powerful and cheap labs-on-a-chip and the other science-fiction health tools we’ve been promised.

These promises will be kept, but it’ll take a bit of time.

It’ll also take a lot of science, by which I mean peer review and publication of advances. Theranos was a famously secretive company, so much so that the prominent researcher of research, John Ioannidis, wrote about it in the Journal of the American Medical Association in February, stating that “stealth research creates total ambiguity about what evidence can be trusted in a mix of possibly brilliant ideas, aggressive corporate announcements, and mass-media hype.”

Luckily, many healthcare innovators are being public about their work and subjecting it to the scientific method. This method does not work perfectly, but it does work.

We also need to keep in mind that the huge markets and scale economies of production that help drive Moore’s Law take time to develop. The sensors in smartphones are so cheap now in large part because billions of them have been sold around the world since the birth of the category in 2007. Biosensors will get a lot cheaper and better once the virtuous cycle of growing demand and ever-bigger factories begins to operate. Which it will.

This blog first appeared on Oct. 27, 2015, here.