Verily's goal: Make our bodies produce as much data as our cars

By Jonah Comstock
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All of the diverse operations of Verily, the life sciences technology company that began its life as Google X Life Sciences, can be summed up with a simple sentence: We should be treating our bodies at least as well as we treat our cars.

At the Health 2.0 Fall Conference in Santa Clara this week, Verily Chief Technology Officer Brian Otis spoke with Health 2.0 cofounder and CEO Dr. Indu Subaya on stage.

“We have instrumented cars with a huge number of sensors and communications devices constantly generating data, analyzing that data, and making decisions based on that data,” Otis said. “There are two types of feedback loops that are performed. One is the second-by-second tuning of the engine based on the sensor data. The other is longterm monitoring of maintenance conditions over time. Both of those things could apply to the human body, but we’re just doing a terrible job of it.”

In fact, Otis said, modern cars generate a million bits of data per second. A healthy person whose only self-tracking behavior is stepping on a scale every day, by contrast, might create 12 bits per day.

“If you do the math, there is basically ten orders of magnitude difference between the amount of data your car creates versus you,” Otis said. “And ostensibly, as people, our bodies are more important than cars.”

Of course, it isn’t easy to get healthy people to outfit themselves with sensors. Otis talked about a few different methods the company is using to do just that. One is to create very small, very cheap sensors. This is the road that has led the company to the glucose-sensing contact lens the company is developing with Alcon and its partnership with Dexcom, which is using some of the same miniaturized technologies to create a much smaller and cheaper continuous glucose monitor.

Liftware, the tremor-cancelling silverware company Google acquired in 2014, represents another approach to incorporating more sensors into our lives.

“This is a case where we’re not foisting technology on someone,” Otis said. “It’s where someone says ‘Oh this is great, this actually makes my life better.’ And if you’re doing that anyway, you’re helping that person anyway and collecting this tremor signal, it gives you additional hooks to look at disease prevention over time.”

Finally, of course, the car metaphor ties in to Verily’s Baseline study and the Study Watch that’s been developed for use in that and other longitudinal studies. Otis said the Study Watch is designed to fill a gap in the market for a wearable that collects a lot of data but is easy to get patients to wear for a long time.

“Battery life is job number one,” Otis said. “We need to make this device last for over a week, so a person isn’t charging it, they’re wearing it. The other thing we’ve done is made the device simple. It looks good, and we’ve crammed as much sensing capability as we possibly can into the device.”

Ultimately, Verily is working toward a version of preventative health where patients will know much earlier than they do now that they’ve developed a health condition. But the first step is to create the data in the first place.

“If we want healthcare to be more proactive, we need to start engaging with people before they get sick in the first place,” Otis said. “If you have someone who’s ill and you have a device that can help them, they’ll be much more likely to adopt new technology, even if its clunky, even if it looks like a medical device, even if it’s expensive. But if you’re trying to introduce someone to a technology and you’re saying ‘Hey, look, if you use this device we can probably prevent you from getting sick in 10 to 15 years’ that’s a much harder sell for the person.”