Alphabet's 2018 was big on AI diagnostics, chronic disease partnerships and investments

Headlines also highlighted changes to Wear OS and designs for sensor-laden smart diapers.
By Dave Muoio
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Alphabet’s business interests cover a wide range of industries, and healthcare is certainly among them. With each passing year, Alphabet (or Google, or Verily) unveils a growing collection of tech-driven partnerships and healthcare tools — read on for a compilation of the company’s news in 2018.


January 4: Cityblock Health, the urban-focused public health startup that spun out of Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs in 2017, raised $20.8 million in a round led by Maverick Ventures. The company said it would use the funds to continue developing Common, its custom-built care facilitation platform that includes a two-way channel between clinicians and patient apps, Telehealth and chat features.

February 20: A team of Google researchers published an article in the journal Nature describing how Google AI could successfully predict cardiovascular problems using retina images. Trained on data from 284,335 patients, the researchers wrote that this system could identify potential heart attacks or strokes without requiring blood draws or other invasive tests.

February 22: The Department of Veterans Affairs and Alphabet subsidiary DeepMind announced a research partnership targeting patient deterioration during hospital care. Specifically, DeepMind’s machine learning platform would use a dataset comprised of 700,000 historical, de-personalized health records to help the VA identify risk factors for deterioration while predicting its onset.

March 14: A study by Google AI researchers published in Ophthalmology demonstrated how AI could be used to screen retinal images for diabetic retinopathy. Compared to a team of US board-certified ophthalmologists and retinal specialists, the algorithm demonstrated a sensitivity of .97 and .92.

March 15: Google announced in a blog post that it would rebrand Android Wear into Wear OS, a move designed to reflect the fact that one in three users also owned an iPhone. Around the same time rumors began circulating that a version of the Google Fit app would soon be coming to iOS.

April 10: The American Medical Association and Google launched the AMA Health Care Interoperability and Innovation Challenge, looking for new ideas about the ways wearable devices and apps can be more effectively monitored and the data shared. The pair sought new projects that could show how patient-generated health data can be captured by mobile monitoring devices, transferred to medical practices and rendered into "accessible and actionable" data that physician and patient can use toward better outcomes.

April 19: A patent filed by Verily in October 2016 for a “smart diaper” carrying a sensor for detection and differentiation of feces and urine was published by the US Patent and Trademark Office. Designs included in the patent suggested that the device would also contain a transmitter capable of wirelessly communicating whether waste is present to a separate device via Bluetooth, WiFi, or other means.

April 30: Fitbit and Google entered a partnership focused on better leveraging wearables and cloud-based technologies for digital health. The effort, they said, would be largely focused on refining EHRs to give medical practitioners a comprehensive look into a patient’s health during treatment.

May 2: Speaking at Dev4Health at the HIMSS Innovation Center in Cleveland, Verily’s Health IT lead Dr. Joshua Mandel recounted his time working to build the open, standards-based platform SMART Health IT, but that even in its early days the platform was hampered by a lack of standards.

May 9: Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s Google I/O developers’ conference keynote paid ample tribute to the companies various health-focused AI projects, with a special focus on the diabetic retinopathy tech and its implications.

May 14: Reports surfaced that researchers at Verily have been working on a prototype device for painless blood collection using a system of “exploding” micro-needles, magnets and a blood storage chamber. The device’s most likely outcome is serving as a tracker of key blood markers for those enrolled in clinical trials, according to the reports, although it could also be pitched as a replacement to blood draws in certain medical settings.

May 24: New York City-based Owkin raised $5 million in Series A follow-on funds from GV, the venture arm of Alphabet. Owkin uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to organize, validate, predict, and compare information. It then builds mathematical models and algorithms to interpret biostatistics data and patient profiles.

June 20: An independent investigation of UK-based Alphabet subsidiary DeepMind raised questions about the AI company’s business model, relationship with its parent company and potential to monopolize its industry. The panel also noted that DeepMind’s revenue source is still somewhat murky and that turning to the sale of depersonalized data would create a “deep concern.” In response, DeepMind pledged to examine the panel’s questions specific to its business model.

June 28: Dr. Joshua Mandel left his position at Verily as health IT ecosystem lead for a chief architect role at Microsoft Healthcare.

July 3: The AMA and Google announced the three winners of its Interoperability and Innovation Challenge: HealthSteps ($25,000 Google Cloud credit), I-deal Health ($15,000) and Futureassure ($10,000).

July 11: Verily partnered with sleep technology company ResMed for a new venture focused on the development of sleep apnea treatments and connected health products. The project was said to be investigating how machine learning and other technologies could quickly identify at-risk individuals and promote treatment adherence.

August 15: Alphabet invested $375 million into Oscar Health, the technology-driven health insurer cofounded by Mario Schlosser and Joshua Kushner. The funds were intended to help move the New York City-based insurer into its next phase of expansion: entering the Medicare Advantage market.

August 23: A number of Verily researchers and Former FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf penned an npj Digital Medicine editorial calling for the psychiatric field to embrace digital sensors and the data sciences. The article looked to other fields such as oncology to describe how these methods could reduce the variability and subjectivity inherent to psychology while still allowing for targeted interventions.

September 29: Aiva, which specializes in hands-free communication between patients and caregivers, announces new investments from the Google Assistant Investment Program and Amazon’s Alexa Fund.

November 16: Verily shut down an ambitious joint project with Novartis subsidiary Alcon to develop a glucose-sensing contact lens. The company said that it would continue to work on two other medical contact lens projects, aimed at presbyopia and cataract surgery recovery.

December 13: Onduo, a Verily-Sanofi joint venture focused on digitally-driven diabetes management, announced that it would begin offering Orpyx Medical Technologies’ diabetic foot ulcers to its program members in 2019. Orpyx’s device consists of a thin sensor that is placed in a patient’s shoes and a wirelessly connected smartwatch, which displays readings and alerts to the user when dangerous pressure levels are detected.

December 19: Walgreens Boots Alliance and Verily announced a multi-project collaboration focused on chronic conditions and low-cost care. First on the list will be the development of a medication adherence device pilot project, as well as the distribution of Onduo’s virtual diabetes tools to Walgreens employees and their family members.