Google, Wired vets team up to launch D2C drug data startup

By Jonah Comstock
09:42 am
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IodineFormer Wired executive editor Thomas Goetz and Matt Mohebbi, a former Google engineer, have teamed up to launch the drug-focused digital health startup Iodine, which Goetz unveiled this week at the Health 2.0 event in Santa Clara, California.

"There’s a massive amount of search traffic on medications," Goetz told MobiHealthNews. "People use the internet for health decisions as much as they use it for email. The problem is what they end up with are static resources that don’t understand who they are. Google becomes the surrogate healthcare."

Iodine is a direct-to-consumer price and quality comparison tool for pharmaceuticals that's currently in an open beta. Eventually, the data will be sourced from the users, but to kick off the site Goetz and Mohebbi purchased 100,000 Google consumer surveys of drugs and used them to build the initial tool.

"It says beta on our website, but iodine.com is an open for business resource," Goetz said. "We hope people will use it like they use Yelp when they look for restaurants, Netflix when they look for movies, or OKCupid when they’re looking for a mate. It’s not quite as sexy as those other ones but we’re trying."

What Iodine has in common with those services is that it collects user data and then turns that into actionable big data. Users can enter a drug name on the website and see almost any information someone could want, some of it sources from user reviews and Google surveys, and some of it sourced from the clinical data created by the pharma companies that developed the drug. 

On a drug page, the user can see the different brand and generic names for a drug, its indications and how it works, as well as common side effects sorted by the frequency with which they're reported (sourced from the FDA). The user reviews take the form of answers to three questions: Is the drug worth it over all, how well does it work for you, and how much of a hassle is it. A user can see those three values graphed against each other, or see the answers for a particular age or gender demographic.

You can dig into a tab labelled "real life" to see more specific, unstructured reviews from users of a drug. Another tab, "tradeoffs", lists upsides and downsides of a drug and provides links to alternatives, while "warnings" provides just what it says.

But the area that could be a real game changer is cost, which doesn't just show the wholesale or market rate for a drug, but allows users to select the value of their copay, then shows what both the branded and generic version of the drug would likely cost them. What appears to be a very simple tool on the front end actually required a complex approach to the data, Goetz said.

"The obvious way to approach it is to say ‘I want to understand who your insurance company is, whether they cover it or not’,” he said. “Well if you try to solve that problem, you will never get to a solution because any given company has 30 different plans, and those plans have multiple formularies inside each plan. ... Instead, the approach we’ve taken is to have a database built on a CMS survey of 2,500 pharmacists. They say what price they pay, the average wholesale cost. It’s averages, but you can combine it with the average markup and that creates a ballpark for what people will be paying."

Iodine is working off an undisclosed amount of seed funding from investors including MESA+ and SparkLabs Global Ventures. It's enough, Goetz said, to spend two years developing the product without thinking too much about the business model (the service is currently free on a mobile-optimized website, with free mobile apps to come). When that model does emerge, Goetz said, it will probably have to do with identifying who the data Iodine is collecting is valuable to.

The focus for now is to build up that user base and to develop the filters and algorithms that will allow the database to scale. If the site can reach a large number of users, it can generate more data, which will make it even more appealing to users.

"We honestly believe this is a benevolent feedback loop," Goetz said. "We have gone to great lengths to make what we do with the data transparent and clear. Ultimately, the goal is to build a more powerful and better tool for our users."

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