Fitbit eyes sleep apnea space for next digital innovation

By Heather Mack
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As we’ve reported regularly for the past several months, Fitbit has made increasingly targeted moves to wedge itself deeper into the healthcare ecosystem. No longer able to rely on the consumer market alone to stay financially healthy, the company has continually upped the ante to prime itself as a digital health company in its own right.

There have been many efforts as of late, including developing more sophisticated wearables to enable tracking of more varied biometric data, participating in a large amount of clinical research, making itself a regular fixture in many corporate wellness programs and merging their digital health and enterprise health sectors into one. And now, as CNBC reports, the company is working to make itself a part of the booming “sleep tech” market by developing tools to help diagnose and monitor sleep apnea, a common condition that is marked by shallow breathing and pauses in respiration during sleep.  

While it isn’t yet known exactly what form that will take, Fitbit already has much of the technological capabilities to start building such a device. Conor Heneghan, the company’s lead research scientist told CNBC they are exploring the use of heart rate monitoring and optical technologies to track changes in oxygen levels. By shining a light into the skin, the technology can detect the difference between highly oxygenated red blood and that which is more blue due to less oxygen saturation. If the levels fluctuate during the night, it could indicate sleep apnea. 

"We'd perform a useful public service by alerting users to the fact that they have a problem," Heneghan told CNBC.

It’s obvious why Fitbit, which has suffered declines in sales and products shipped in the last few quarters, would want to get into sleep tech. The space has been heating up for the last year, and it was decreed the hottest topic at CES 2017. Even Apple is betting on it, with the acquisition of Beddit in May. The market for sleep apnea is expected to hit $6.7 billion in the next four years, and many digital health companies such as ResMed have enjoyed considerable success with their connected, medical-grade devices to diagnose and treat the condition.

It’s also unknown whether Fitbit would seek to develop a diagnostic device, one that works as a prompt to get people to seek medical attention. Additionally, they could be working on something that monitors treatment adherence and effectiveness, and any such device would require different regulatory pathways.  

Heneghan told CNBC Fitbit is currently working with sleep labs to learn how prototypes to detect sleep apnea are performing. If they can develop a device that stands up to accuracy standards of existing sleep apnea-detecting tests and devices (digital or otherwise), the company expects to bring a product to market within a year.