On the surface, it seems somewhat fair -- a quid pro quo for our data. We can get something useful in exchange for things like driving directions or the ability to connect and network on a social media platform. And, of course, this narrative is quickly peppered with terms like depersonalized, anonymous and compliance, to help soften the firm grasp of companies that become tachycardic at the prospect of your owning your elevated heart rate data.
But let's set the healthcare data aside and go where the real action is: the money.
In July, 23andMe entered into a 4-year agreement with GSK to leverage their (yes, I struggled with the word "their") genetic insights to drive drug discovery. Here's the wording from their press release.
GSK and 23andMe today unveiled an exclusive four-year collaboration that will focus on research and development of innovative new medicines and potential cures, using human genetics as the basis for discovery. The collaboration will combine 23andMe’s large-scale genetic resources and advanced data science skills, with the scientific and medical knowledge and commercialisation expertise of GSK. The goal of the collaboration is to gather insights and discover novel drug targets driving disease progression and develop therapies for serious unmet medical needs based on those discoveries.
It didn't take long for people to notice what was going on here and how the value of this relationship -- a $3oo million -- seemed to potentially dwarf the commercial potential of a $99 genetic test to consumers. The value is in the data and it appears that value also belongs to 23andMe.
Another interesting example is the digital thermometer from Kinsa. It's an attractive device that provides ease of use, an app that supports added clinical information such as symptom tracking, and medication reminders. But buried in the promotional copy, the 5th point out of five, presents a subtle but valuable feature. Here's how Kinsa says it:
Shows which illnesses are circulating nearby for a better idea of what bug you’re fighting.
Kinsa is a digital thermometer. But it's also a sophisticated data collection device that allows marketers to find customers based upon health data. A recent New York Times article, presented how Kinsa's data allowed Clorox to see which zip codes around the country were associated with populations that had increases in fever rates. Using this information, Clorox could target those areas with increased advertising. Yes, it's only zip code-based targeting, but the concept is clear and powerful: data often trumps the device and can offer the health tech industry (as many others) another potentially profitable income stream.
Now, Kinsa and 23andMe are great companies with outstanding products. It's clear that they offer a service that certainly fills a consumer need. They just seem to be caught in the evolving aspects of data ownership and the tricky balance between providing a service and being a mechanism for collecting personal data. We can suggest the same thing of Facebook and Google. The drive to profitability is very strong and the desire to exploit acquired data, well, congers thoughts of that Faustian bargain. And even beyond the secondary benefits of data mining, looms the concern that some savvy health tech entrepreneurs may put data (money) ahead of their device (health). While it might make good business sense, the emerging consumerization of healthcare and the popularity of the quantified self movement, force us to take a closer look at data ownership and the precarious facade that some companies establish in the name of health and wellness. Health might be the inflection point in data collection and privacy where standards need to be revisited, and in some cases, established from the ground up.
I am the Founder of NOSTALAB -- a leading digital health think tank providing business and marketing insights to help the life science industry navigate the complex aspects of innovation in the context of exponential change. I help define, dissect and deliberate global trends in digital health as an active participant working with clinicians, innovators and patients.
Follow me @JohnNosta for an enlightening and unexpected view of the future.
A version of this article first appeared on Forbes.
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