Ideas fresh off the wire

Digital Health Q&A with Buzzfeed’s Stephanie Lee

With leaders like Apple continuing to invest heavily in consumer health and wellness technology and a slew of new health-focused upstarts popping up every day, digital health is white-hot. To chat about the trends affecting the industry—and what’s next on the horizon—Highwire sat down with Buzzfeed’s senior technology reporter and resident expert on all things digital health Stephanie Lee for a quick Q&A on what’s coming next.

What do you see as the “next big thing” in digital health?

There are a couple of things on the horizon. I’m really personally interested in genetic testing, genomics and in seeing how it will become more and more a part of mainstream healthcare. The price of testing has dropped a lot and it’s become affordable for normal people. Startups like 23andMe and Ancestry DNA are collecting DNA and sharing results. But there are so many more possibilities for what people can learn and what traditional healthcare providers can do—this is only the beginning. It would be really interesting to see genomics incorporated more into a normal doctor’s visit, like seeing what a doctor can do based on patient DNA. That’s sort of begun but there’s more room for mainstream adoption.

What excites you most about digital health? What drives your interest?

I think it’s always just so interesting to see technologies that have been adopted in other industries—banking, communication with friends, transportation—making their way into health. I’m always interested in seeing how these technologies can transform people’s lives for the better and give people all kinds of data about their own bodies that people didn’t have access to a decade ago.

Today, you can track anything and everything about yourself, and access it on the go. That didn’t exist a decade ago. I’m always looking to see proof that things are working, as opposed to just the hype. Seeing that people are able to interpret the data and put it to good use versus just being overwhelmed. I’m also watching what huge, powerful tech companies like Apple and Google do in health and biotech—whether they’re inventing new medical devices or allowing researchers to do studies through phones—and if those projects are actually working.

What are the trends you’re sick of hearing about?

I wouldn’t say “sick of,” but the wearables world has changed a lot. When I started covering it, it was thought that consumer fitness wearables would be the end-all be-all of digital health. And many of them are useful, but there have been so many acquisitions of the smaller trackers, like Misfit or Runtastic, by larger companies and athletic companies. There aren’t going to be as many trackers on the market as people thought there were. It seems like it has peaked; everyone who’s wanted to try one has tried one. There will be more medical usage, though. More medical applications and trackers regulated by the FDA are coming down the pipeline.

What’s the biggest challenge for digital health innovators?

Proving that something works. The big challenge in “normal” consumer technology is that you put out a product, you test it, you figure out what works and doesn’t work. You can make changes and iterate without consequences. Health has a backward timeline. If you’re putting something out that goes beyond a wellness use, something people rely on for medical use or healthcare, you need to prove out of the gate that there’s evidence behind it. Otherwise, the stakes are too high.

You see that tension a lot—tech entrepreneurs who come over to healthcare are surprised by how long it takes to prove something, how long it takes to turn a paper into an actually workable business model. They want to get right to market but it’s not always doable. It’s hard to match health outcomes with revenue streams. Just because something makes money doesn’t mean it works. Companies are trying to reconcile those two.

Do you see any rising hotspots for digital health innovation in the U.S. or globally?

Definitely, Boston and to an extent New York. There’s also San Diego or LA.

Do you think it’s easier or harder to start a digital health company in San Francisco/Silicon Valley than some of those other locations?

Obviously, there’s so much brainpower here—established research universities, an established biotech/pharma hub, and, on the tech side, everything from VCs to software engineers. Resource-wise, it’s an ideal place to be. Getting off the ground, you face the same challenges as any other tech company—it’s expensive, it’s hard to find office space, there’s competition for talent. The challenges here are the same for any tech startup but the resources are plentiful. And there are lots of incubators and accelerators geared toward that. If you’re going to start a startup in the space, you should be here or expect to travel here a lot.

Want to learn more about the digital health landscape? Check out TechCrunch’s Sarah Buhr’s take on the Highwire blog here.