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Opportunities in consumer health

I’m on a panel tonight at the launch of the startupbootcamp healthXL Accelerator programme sponsored by IBM. Ahead of that I have been rethinking why and where I think there are startup opportunities in consumer health:

  1. Population ageing in the developed world is increasing the target market of people who might pay for health services
  2. These populations are increasingly aware that improved health leads to improved quality of life
  3. They will pay to improve their health – particularly for minor cases that the mainstream medical industry doesn’t cater for – e.g. mild obesity
  4. Advances in technology (particularly sensors) and psychology are enabling effective services to be built and sold at consumer prices
  5. Widespread availability of high quality information gives consumers the confidence to take control of their health

In other words the demand is growing at the same time as enabling technologies are coming on stream. Exciting times.

We are still early in this revolution. One area that is getting traction is life tracking devices like the Fitbit, Jawbone’s Up, and Nike’s Fuelband. These are all great devices, but still relatively simple, whilst more powerful equivalents like the BodyMedia armband aren’t quite mass market ready yet (and not available in the UK….). The other area that is getting traction is apps for tracking exercise and food consumption. Myfitnesspal and Runkeeper stand out as the most successful services here, but they are still a bit too much effort for most people.

In his recent essay on Ambitious Startup Ideas Paul Graham (founder of Y Combinator) suggested that ‘Ongoing Diagnosis’ will be a huge area for innovation going forward. By that he meant that we will continuously run diagnostics that tell us when the very first signs of illness emerge so that we can be treated long before we have symptoms. The services I mentioned above are early examples of that, as are smartphone connected blood glucose monitors, heart rate monitors and diagnostics for other conditions. The USA Today did a good roundup back in August.

  • neil_lewis

    Agreed Nic – I’ve been active in consumer health for 16 years now and there has been a gradual but significant change in consumer attitudes during that time. The current generation of 40s and 50s people will pay to look good and feel good – they are the generation that doesn’t want to grow old – and will spend.

    We are also in a period where the authority of doctors has been questioned and many people now regard medical science as a work in progress rather than writ in stone. As a result, people are far more willing to try things, where as previously they were not.

    My view is that products which promise to ‘keep you young’ are the one’s that will succeed and a lot of the early tech stuff is rich on features but weak on this key benefit.

  • http://www.theequitykicker.com brisbourne

    Hi Neil – the point about doctor’s authority is a good one (mirrors the problems for authority figures everywhere). Many of the current products are about exercise and weight loss – which are both key to staying young. Maybe they need your help in marketing….

  • neil_lewis

    :-) thanks Nic – you are right – consumer health tech is, at its heart, a marketing issue. Most of the growth in consumer health has been via the network marketing companies – and they are now huge global businesses – and they make the face to face recommendation and marketing efficient. How to translate that degree of personal recommendation into a tech product or tool is definitely a challenge.

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