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A new generation of tech entrepreneurs seeks to reinvent health care

The Rest Devices Infant Monitor can track an infant’s breathing, temperature, and movement and update parents wirelessly.

Scott Kirsner/Globe Staff

The Rest Devices Infant Monitor can track an infant’s breathing, temperature, and movement and update parents wirelessly.

A wristband will monitor your anxiety level throughout the course of the day. A headband will help you click into a state of complete concentration. A website will guide you to the contraceptive that will work best for you, with the fewest side effects. Your doctor will have access to your complete medical record via an iPad or mobile phone. Your physical therapist will prescribe a video game that you’ll play at home to speed your recovery.

Those are just fragments of the future of health care, being prototyped and tested by Boston area companies.

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“It just seems like there’s an explosion of people interested in building solutions for health care right now,” says Naomi Fried, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It’s great for those of us who work in the field, but the challenge will be finding the signal amidst all the noise.”

In other words, which new products will actually benefit the intended customer, whether hospital, patient, doctor, or insurer?

Thanks to its universities and research hospitals, Boston has always incubated new ideas in health care. But has there ever been quite this much activity before? Two health care-oriented “accelerator programs” took up residency this year in Kendall Square and Boston’s Longwood Medical Area. Between them, Healthbox and Rock Health will help 17 new companies develop and launch products. (Rock Health holds a “demo day” for investors this Friday.)

Successful mobile apps focused on helping users live healthier lives, like RunKeeper and LoseIt, have inspired other entrepreneurs to create their own apps. And the cost of designing and manufacturing consumer electronics has plummeted, enticing people to work on a new generation of monitoring devices that can be sold for $200 or less. Another factor fueling the explosion, says Joseph Kvedar, director of the Center for Connected Health at Partners HealthCare in Boston, is that “some of the biggest names in the industry just aren’t being terribly innovative.”

Rest Devices is a Boston start-up founded to develop a shirt with stretchy sensor strips that would measure your breathing as you sleep. Working with a local sleep specialist, the founders were exploring how it might be used to diagnose sleep apnea, which involves interruptions in breathing. Patients could simply slip on Rest Devices’ SleepShirt and climb into their own beds, instead of spending a night trying to get some shut-eye while wired up to equipment in a sleep lab.

But the path to getting the approval of the Food and Drug Administration proved too slow and expensive. (The company has raised $500,000 so far.) “We’re still selling the SleepShirt to researchers, and hoping to gather information that might eventually be useful with the FDA,” says chief executive Thomas Lipoma.

The company’s new strategy involves marketing a sleeping outfit for infants that parents will be able to purchase for $100 to $200. It would monitor a child’s breathing, temperature, and movement during sleep, sending alerts to a parent’s mobile phone when necessary. The price would include three garments, a turtle-shaped transmitter that clips onto the waist of the garment, and a base station. The company hopes to begin selling the outfit within the next six months.

Cambridge-based Axio is developing a headband to help improve your ability to focus, and Neumitra, a participant in this summer’s Rock Health program, is working on a wristband to gauge how anxious you are by monitoring the sweat on your skin and your heart rate. The company plans to deploy its product in collaboration with psychiatrists, supplying them with more information about what happens between patient visits.

GeckoCap, taking part in the Healthbox program, already has a prototype of a coin-sized wireless device that would sit atop a child’s asthma inhaler, lighting up to remind the child to take a puff, and logging any missed doses.

Using Microsoft’s motion-sensing Kinect accessory, Home Team Therapy is creating games that aim to keep patients motivated to do their exercises as they recover from injury. Wellframe is developing an app that gives patients who have just suffered heart attacks a personal guide to their recovery, reminding them about medications and collecting information about symptoms they may be experiencing.

“After a cardiac episode, you have this window of motivation, where patients ask, ‘Doc, what do I have to do to avoid this happening again?’” says Wellframe cofounder Jacob Sattelmair, formerly an executive at RunKeeper.

Once they develop a product that actually works, the start-ups will face the same fork in the road: Do they sell it directly to consumers, or work through medical professionals and hospitals? It can be difficult to get the attention of consumers, who are bombarded by pitches to try this new app or that website. But using doctors and hospitals as a distribution channel is also challenging.

“It’s really hard to make a sale in this economic environment,” says Fried at Boston Children’s Hospital. “You have to do a pilot test, prove your worth, and demonstrate that you really solve a problem before you can make a big enterprise sale.”

Kvedar at Partners adds that changes to the way the federal Medicare program reimburses hospitals and doctors make it “hard for a company to sell us anything right now.”

Given the gloom, why is everyone so enthusiastic about trying to reinvent health care?

Kvedar notes that many of the entrepreneurs hoping to change health care are in their 20s and early 30s. “Experience can sometimes be the enemy of creativity,” he says. “I’ve been at this for 18 years, and I sometimes have to bite my lip in meetings, when I want to say, ‘300 companies tried that before and it failed.’ Markets do change, and that makes it possible to catch the early wave of a new business model.”

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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