Novartis-Qualcomm deal leads race to bring wearable tech to pharma

By Fiona Barry

- Last updated on GMT

Wearable technology is moving beyond Google Glass and into clinical applications. (Image: Karlis Dambrans)
Wearable technology is moving beyond Google Glass and into clinical applications. (Image: Karlis Dambrans)

Related tags Medicine

Big pharma and CROs looking to exploit wearable technology in clinical trials will need to overcome reliability and regulatory problems, says an expert.

Novartis has announced an alliance with Qualcomm Life, a subsidiary of digital tech firm Qualcomm Inc, to use its cloud-based 2net platform to collect medical device data during in-home remote monitoring of clinical trial participants. The pharma giant recently launched an observational trial collecting biometric data from chronic lung disease patients using smartphones connected to 2net.

It separately announced it has formed a company with Qualcomm's investment arm, Qualcomm Ventures, offering up to $100m to support early-stage firms with mobile technologies that “go beyond the pill.​”

Google: ‘painful’ regulation

Pharmaceutical applications are still “a relatively small sliver​” of the wearable tech market because of regulatory issues, James Moar, a research analyst at telecoms expert Juniper Research, told

It’s fine if all you want to do it count your steps, but for medically reliable data for clinical trials there’s quite a bit of debate around the accuracy of what comes out.​”

Qualcomm is the most vocal player about using data from wearables for medical purposes, he said.

They’re convinced that’s where a lot of the revenue’s going to come from.​”

Samsung is also moving into the market with its wrist-based Simband, although the device remains underdeveloped. The company describes it as “not as product. It’s a reference design​.”

At the moment it’s a prototype for other vendors to take the design and use it build a marketable device around,​” said Moar.  

The Microsoft Band, Apple Health App and Google Fit for Android also allow the public to check up on their own health with wearable devices, such as diabetes and cardio outpatient monitoring. These areas are much less regulated than clinical trials.

During a discussion about wearables, Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin told last year’s Khosla Ventures CEO summit that health is a “painful business to be in​” because it “is just so heavily regulated […] I think the regulatory burden in the US is so high that I think it would dissuade a lot of entrepreneurs.​”

Nevertheless, Moar told us if accuracy problems can be ironed out, mobile biometric tech “absolutely has the potential to grow and become a bigger market.

The reason for other companies becoming hesitant is they’re used to much more rapid markets than healthcare is generally, because of timescales for regulatory approval.

But the amount of people likely to use the data for medical purposes is huge because you’re going to get more attention being paid to the medical benefits, rather than what’s being done currently which is concentrating on fitness metrics.​”

Novartis said using 2net would integrate several medical devices in one place, improving “flexibility and scalability​” and producing more efficient, cheaper trials.

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