News & Views

Geek for Good

by Contagious Contributor
Debbie Klein, chief executive of Engine UK, looks at the intersection of tech and health at the SXSW festival, and shares why it won't be long before paramedics check a person's wearable tech device before a patient's body or brands employ a Chief Medical Officer 

SXSW is an uplifting experience for so many reasons. First, it’s inspiring to see so many brilliant minds in one place. It’s also great to encounter such a vast number of ambitious, inquisitive millennials – the future is indeed very bright. But what was also striking at this year’s festival was the overarching desire to geek for good. And more specifically, to use technology to make the world a healthier place.

There’s a multitude of ways that this is the case, far more than I could fit in one article. So I thought I’d instead try and outline some of the topline thoughts and stats that emerged from SXSW on the subject of health and tech.

And where else to start on this topic but with wearable technology? As one of my favourite quotes from the Festival put it: 'computers are becoming more like humans and humans are becoming more like computers.' 

Indeed, the wearable tech opportunities for commercial brands were widely debated in Austin, and advocates for the products on the SXSW stage ranged from MIT professors to Shaquille O’Neal

A number of other brands used the festival to demo their new health creations too – Garmin’s fitness sensor caught the eye in particular. Yet despite the hype it’s important to heed speaker Leslie Saxon’s advice that in music terms we’re still very much at the ‘vinyl’ stage of wearable health tech. Brands must therefore work to overcome some serious challenges in this field rather than just jump on the health tracker bandwagon.
For instance, if a commercial brand is looking at launching a wearable health tech product, it needs to be cheaper than the last, have better battery life and, most importantly, it needs to look good. In most cases, the tech is already fashionable, but is the design? 

However whilst the likes of the Nike FuelBand and Fitbit were being celebrated for enhancing lives, it was even more enthralling to see how tech is helping to save lives too. 

Already 27% of Americans wear some sort of health sensor, and it was predicted that by 2020 paramedics will check a person’s tricoder before they check their body, simply because there’s more and better info there. This could result in quicker and more accurate diagnoses. 

Tech is already saving lives all over the world though, and a great example was given by Chelsea Clinton in the closing Keynote. Clinton spoke about organisations in Africa like mPedigree, which allows people to use a text system to verify whether the consumer drugs they have acquired are counterfeit or not. A vital tool, both for users and for healthcare brands. 

SXSW really showed how seductive digital health can be. Not just for physicians – although Dr. Leslie Saxon wasn’t the only speaker at the festival getting excited 'to not spend 70% of my time on patients that don’t really need me' – it’s also clearly alluring for commercial companies too. Indeed, Walter De Brouwer predicted in his session that over the course of the next few years more and more mainstream brands will be asking what the health component of their business can be, even appointing Chief Medical Officers to identify the health opportunities for their company. 

It could be a wise move, particularly if one of the more headline-worthy health-related stats of SXSW comes true. 'If you can manage to live for another 25 years, there’s a chance that you might never die.' 

Debbie Klein is the Chief Executive of Engine UK