DHC Co-Founder, Mark Bard, recently had the opportunity to interview one DHC member and leader of the Boston digital health innovation scene, Cris De Luca. Cris was recently recognized as a Top 40 Healthcare Transformer by MM&M Magazine. He is currently the Global Director of Digital Innovation for Johnson & Johnson Innovation, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
From his LinkedIN profile: “With entrepreneurial DNA, Cris is most notably known for his role in the innovation economy since Co-Founding Ultra Light Startups, the oldest and largest startup-investor pitch accelerator in Boston and New York City with additional chapters in Silicon Valley and London. ULS accelerated 700+ bootstrapping startups with 26% having gone on to raise angel/venture funding, leading to several large-scale acquisitions by companies such as Apple, Trip Advisor and Singapore Telecom.”
We are happy to share Cris’s interview with Mark for you below.
Digital Health Coalition: Boston has clearly played a critical role over the past two decades as a destination for cutting edge innovation with regard to the integration of technology, startups, health, and life sciences. What is driving this success and how do you see Boston playing a role in digital health and digital pharma 10 years from now?
Cris De Luca: Boston has a deep heritage in innovation and inventor culture but it didn’t happen overnight, 380 years of Harvard and 150 years of MIT definitely played an important role. With 40+ colleges and universities offering advanced degrees in life sciences, surrounded by 550+ biotech’s, presence by the top 10 global pharma companies, world leading hospitals, 90+ venture capital firms investing in healthcare and 8000+ startups. Massachusetts has the highest industry concentration of R&D in biotech.
Proximity is really the key to making it all click. Boston is a digital health leader because of the intersectionality of world class education, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, with the entire life sciences, research, medical, startup, venture capital community and strong mentor culture (all within a < 5-mile radius). The State of Massachusetts also plays an active role in catalyzing this community. What’s special is that people eat, work, play and live all within this area which creates natural creative collisions between healthcare and technology.
Boston has already produced key digital health exits which is important for certain audiences but moreover, Boston has a particularly differentiated community of doctors and nurses turned entrepreneurs (doc-preneurs and entrepre-nurses). These are clinical professionals with a mission from the frontlines who understand patient empathy, what’s broken, and the need for evidence-based solutions.
Digital Health Coalition: What are some of your favorite examples of “invisible” digital health innovations?
Cris De Luca: Despite the continuous push for human-centered design, the reality is that health tech solutions are still quite fragmented and single-use. (ie. an app, an alert, a badge notification or a wearable for each feature or function). Tech solutions can be overwhelming for patients while they are already managing the burden of disease.
I’m passionate about passive sensing and Invisibles because it pushes the technology behind the scenes, as opposed to relying more on the individual to interface with it. The advent of passive sensing, touchless and low friction technologies present incredible opportunities to objectively measure and gain better insight into the understanding of diseases.
Technologies such as facial recognition to sense emotion, analytics of typing/touch patterns to detect neurological conditions earlier, voice/audio analysis to screen for mental health, respiratory diseases, and radio wave signals in the home to measure gait, fall detection, sleep, and rehabilitation are examples of ways that technology can be capturing high quality data streams, while putting less of a burden on the individual – nothing to recharge, nothing to remember, all happening in the background with computational machine learning algorithms and data science analysis. Soon mini-radar is likely to be available in everyday devices and this will launch an entirely new paradigm for how we think about invisibles in the future of health experiences and sensing.
Digital Health Coalition: Voice has transformed how we access information, music, and even our shopping lists (with Amazon). Where will the biggest changes be in the realm of voice and health over the next decade?
Cris De Luca: Voice is on track to be a primary interface for human-machine interaction within the next decade. Speaking is quick, natural, and highly accessible for all ages from toddlers to elderly populations. Fit-for-purpose applications requiring hands-free settings such as an operating theater, or elderly-care setting, make a lot of sense. While smart speakers are quickly penetrating consumer homes, I am most excited about Voice as a vital sign (the vocal biomarker) beyond the pure modality. Along the line of invisibles, being able to analyze changes in health based on changes in your voice over time becomes a compelling promise.
There is an early signal already indicating that vocal biomarkers can be an early predictor of cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease, years before one may be symptomatic. Or analysis of cough acoustics to determine the severity of a respiratory illness as a digital diagnostic for remote patient monitoring. It is still early days for voice and more work needs to be done removing bias from training data, transparency and robustness in data privacy, but the low friction modality and early data signals provide a reason to believe that we are just scratching the surface of something big.
Digital Health Coalition: Telehealth seems like one of those emerging trends … that has been “emerging” for the past twenty years. The combination of mobile, AI, and payers willing to subsidize remote care seems to be setting the stage for a perfect storm. We see chatbot companies automating communication to power remote care (and diagnostics). How can traditional pharma and biotech play a part in the next wave of intelligent and seamless telehealth and remote care?
Cris De Luca: Human telehealth providers are adding technology to increase automation, while fully automated telemedicine bots are trying to add a more human touch. We will see convergence and some mix of health solutions fuse.
I am particularly excited about software-based therapy or digital therapeutics opening doors for new treatment options for individuals.
Software as a Medical Device (SaMD regulatory framework) has provided a guide for startups to develop evidence based and prescription digital therapeutics which are on track to treating conditions such as addiction, depression, insomnia, chronic pain and more. Largely based on cognitive behavioral therapy techniques delivered in digital form, this form factor can be accessed in very conventional methods where your doctor writes a prescription, a patient follows the software based treatment regimen with rich analytics and payers explore how this form of therapy can affect reimbursement models. This is a good example of how Pharma-Tech partnerships may improve outcomes by augmenting traditional therapy in combination of a digital therapy.
Digital Health Coalition: You have seen thousands of ideas related to startups over the years. In a recent interview with Shaquille O’Neal – he said his primary metric for investing is to focus on companies and ideas that … will change people lives. What is your primary metric when you look at a company, founder, or idea?
Cris De Luca: Prioritizing a highly-capable team and tackling a significant unmet medical need with a potentially transformative solution is key. A founding team entirely rooted in a scientific field with conviction to transform the space through a plausible innovation, is reason to believe. While many technology assessment teams tend to prioritize product market fit, I find incredible insight by prioritizing founder market fit.
You can find Cris De Luca on LinkedIn.