Can Apple Teach Silicon Valley to Think Different About Healthcare?

Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 4.22.24 PMI was thrilled to learn that Stephen Friend, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit open data platform Sage Bionetworks, has accepted a role at Apple and is stepping away from day-to-day operations at Sage (he will continue to serve as chair of the board).

I’ve known Friend for over decade, starting when I was at Merck (he led cancer research), and continuing through his cofounding of Sage with Eric Schadt (I was at the Boston Consulting Group by then and served as a founding advisor).

(Disclosure/reminder: I am chief medical officer of DNAnexus, a cloud-based health data management platform based in Silicon Valley.)

Under Friend’s leadership, Sage pursued a powerful vision of open science, where data are richly shared and scientists (and citizen-scientists) collaborate to accelerate knowledge turns–a point Josh Sommer (later a Forbes 30 Under 30 awardee) made at the First Sage Commons Congress in 2010, as I described in an early Forbes post, here.

Sage has tackled head-on some of the most vexing issues around data-sharing, including consent (an effort spearheaded by John Wilbanks, as discussed on the Tech Tonics podcast here) and the complicated dynamics around collaboration (as I discussed here).

Sage has also worked closely with Apple AAPL +0.87% on the ResearchKit platform. As I wrote last year, “The most important enabling ‘technology’ for ResearchKit–and for participatory research more generally–may well be the forward-thinking eConsent form developed by John Wilbanks and his colleagues at Sage Bionetworks.”

I added:

The key limitation to the sort of patient-led change Sage and others have long advocated has traditionally been the difficulties of scaling–the challenges of getting beyond the ultra-engaged quantified-selfers and the severely afflicted patients (and associated stakeholders). ResearchKit (in partnership with Sage) offers the possibility of changing this, and bringing participatory research to the masses (those with an iPhone, anyway), and extracting at least a measure of control from the medical centers who have dominated it in the past.

Apple, of course, isn’t the only Silicon Valley behemoth with an interest in health, but I’d argue they’re well positioned to have the greatest impact, for the simple reason that while many companies (such as, traditionally, Google GOOGL +0.53%) seem to focus first on the data, Apple’s efforts seem centered around the patient-participant. In health, as in other domains, Apple appears to be approaching its mission with a level of empathy for the user that many data-crunching companies seem to lack.

Apple also seems to have recognized from the outset the magnitude of their challenge, and their approach to health seems characterized less by overheated proclamations and more by a methodical, responsible, relatively low-key approach that seeks to develop a series of health-related capabilities, including the recently reported ability of iOS10 to manage electronic health data, “allowing users to store their health records directly in the [Health] app using the Health Level 7 Continuity of Care Document (HL7 CCD) standard.”

The recent setbacks experienced by companies like Theranos and Zenefits (as highlighted by Fast Company’s Chrissy Farr) seem to have contributed to a more general lack of confidence in Silicon Valley’s ability to meaningfully “disrupt” healthcare.

Today’s comments on Twitter by physician-investor Bijan Salehizadeh’s (his Tech Tonics podcast here) seem representative: “I always applaud the efforts” of Silicon Valley giants in healthcare, he said, but “like all prior valley tech attempts to ‘get’ healthcare, [the latest attempts by Apple and Google] too will fail…I don’t mean wellness/fitness/ads.” Many others agreed.

I understand where these skeptics are coming from, but I think they’re wrong.

From my vantage point, it seems like Silicon Valley is doing what it does best–learning from experience, iterating, adjusting, trying again. And it’s not just Apple. Verily’s fairly recent recruitment of Harvard cardiologist Jessica Mega (see thisrecent profile by Leena Rao in Fortune) seems like an incredibly positive step in the right direction, as Mega brings both clinical savvy and a deep sense of empathy for patients to an organization that has long seemed to need a bit more of both.

To be sure, the Valley has a way to go; when I listen to a number of well-known tech VCs describe their data-focused efforts and ambitions in health, it’s hard to feel confident that these guys (yes, all guys) really get it.

But someone will.

And based on the recent tactical decisions and savvy hires, that someone might well be Apple, perhaps teaching Silicon Valley how to think different about health.


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