Note: this post was originally published as a guest column on 'Building a Smarter Planet' on November 14, 2013
I’ve spent much of my life surrounded by doctors. Literally. Both of my parents are physicians. One of my sisters is a doctor; the other is studying to become one. So it’s no wonder that I was bitten by the medical bug. I, however, gravitated toward the business and company-building side of healthcare, where I have spent my entire career.
Today, I co-head the healthcare IT and healthcare services investment practice at global venture capital firm NEA (New Enterprise Associates), which has been investing in healthcare companies for 35 years. We back companies with the goal of transforming the healthcare system by improving access, increasing quality, and reducing costs. We currently have more than 10 active companies in the healthcare IT and services space with more than $250 million of committed capital. I work directly with these innovative companies.
This perspective leads me to believe that the US healthcare system is at a turning point, primed for real change. A new generation of social, cloud, mobile and big data and analytics technologies has arrived that promises to dramatically improve the performance of the healthcare system for all of its constituents: individuals, care providers, insurers, employers and taxpayers.
NEA’s initial involvement in this new wave of healthcare technology came with our investment in Welltok. The Denver-based company operates a social healthcare management platform that combines innovative social, personalization, and incentive based technologies to motivate people to adopt healthy lifestyles. The company aims to improve health for members while reducing costs for all involved. Welltok, led by CEO Jeff Margolis, has seen tremendous traction in its first three years and is already serving more than 17 million people. Now it’s part of a new initiative launched by IBM that I believe will further accelerate pivotal changes for healthcare management and consumption.
IBM is fueling an ecosystem of entrepreneurial software application providers that share a vision for embedding cognitive computing intelligence into apps — apps that can learn from their experiences, improve their performance for users, and strengthen decision making for a range of users, from physicians to patients.
This initiative is built on IBM Watson and is now being used to try and change how healthcare is practiced, paid for and taught. The significance here is that IBM is enabling other companies to embed Watson into their services or build applications on top of it. A key component: the Watson Developer Cloud, where organizations large and small can collaborate with IBM to create new apps and services. There’s also a Watson Content Store, where companies connect with content providers whose data can fuel Watson’s ever-expanding knowledge base. Organizations can also tap into Elance, another NEA portfolio company with an online community of more than 3 million freelancers armed with skills ranging from Web service designer to natural language processing and machine learning.
How will this all work? Take what Welltok is doing, for example. Its newest offering, CaféWell Concierge, leverages IBM Watson to guide individuals through the process of learning about their health and modifying their lifestyles to improve it. It interacts with people through text or spoken dialogues, guides them to useful information, chimes in with suggestions as they live their day-to-day lives, and learns about them through interactions so it can understand their needs better. The end goal being evidence-based personalization in a manner that expands brand equity for sponsoring population management entities while enhancing revenue, reducing administrative costs, and increasing overall healthcare value for all.
I’ve spent my career at the crossroads between healthcare and information technology and as such I have seen firsthand the power of technology platforms and ecosystems. During the PC Era, the combination of Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Intel’s microprocessors gave rise to a vast ecosystem of computer and chipmakers, application developers, and resellers. In the Smartphone Era, Apple and Google have created large ecosystems of app developers.
I believe that ahead of us lies the Cognitive Era, which IBM aims to advance by opening its Watson technology to a range of entrepreneurial businesses, from start-ups and VC backed companies, to established market leaders. It may be too early to gauge just how far this new era of cognitive systems will bring us, but this much is clear: it has the potential to be a game changer for the healthcare industry. In working with Welltok, I am thrilled to have a front row seat to witness the impact of the partnership with IBM Watson and I’m eager to see where this path of disruption will lead. It’s entirely possible that this could bring about a paradigm shift in how people interact with computers, information and the social systems that determine how—and how well—we all live our lives.