GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and more pharmas made big bets on digital health in Q3 2018

MobiHealthNews tracked investments, pilots, partnerships and app launches from major pharma companies during the quarter.
By Jonah Comstock
05:44 am

By and large, Q3 2018 was a slow and steady quarter for pharma moves in digital health, at least in terms of publicly disclosed operations. At events during the quarter, the likes of Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Novartis and Sanofi discussed digital therapeutics and expressed a healthy mixture of skepticism and enthusiasm for the space.

“These technologies have a tremendous opportunity to bring benefits to patients, but realistically none of them are out there,” Jorvis van Dam, executive director of digital therapeutics at Novartis, said at a Digital Therapeutics conference in September in Boston. “We have a collective obligation to get it right. So what I don’t like is conversations [saying] pharma just doesn’t get it. I’m sure we don’t, but nobody gets it. …This discussion isn't about who is the smartest person in the room, [it’s about] how can we work together, how can we change what we have done before to get the benefits for patients.”

We’re likely to see more concrete action on digital therapeutics from pharma in the months to come. In the meantime, here’s a look back at a quarter characterized by big investments, small studies and a lot of startup partnerships.


British pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline made one large investment in digital health this quarter and began to see profits from another. The big buy was a $300 million investment in 23andMe that also gave the company exclusive access to the genetic testing startup’s DNA database. The deal could accelerate GSK’s drug development work and, according to reports at the time, the company intends to use the data to develop an experimental Parkinson’s drug.

That data became even more valuable in August when 23andMe emailed developers a warning that an API permitting use of anonymized customer datasets for third-party app development would be shut down — but that GSK’s access to that data would be unaffected.

GSK also started to see some proceeds from its agreement with NeuroMetrix, inked in January, to serve as the exclusive non-US distributor of the latter’s wearable pain relief brand Quell. According to a Nuerometrix quarterly report, the deal met its first milestone and triggered a $3.8 million payment to Neurometrix during the quarter.

Finally, GSK also got some good news when New Zealand-based Adherium got over-the-counter FDA clearance for several new versions of its Hailie sensor, formerly known as Smartinhaler. Two of those new versions were for GlaxoSmithKline inhalers (the third was for ProAir HFA, an inhaler from Teva.)

At the same time, Adherium also announced that it will be launching an online portal that allows providers to access patient-group data collected and wirelessly uploaded via Bluetooth by Hailie sensors.


Another pharma company that has seen a busy Q3 is Switzerland-based Novartis. In July, Novartis announced that it would be launching the Galaxies of Hope app, which lets patients, providers, and caregivers explore the challenges of coping with neuroendocrine tumor (NET) cancer through a multimodal approach. The app uses the real-world stories of people and providers dealing with NET, which encompasses several types of cancers, to guide users through the experience. With the help of developer Numinous Games, the app was designed to help patients and caregivers cope with the illness.

Novartis also tapped Medidata Solutions subsidiary Shyft Analytics for its new intelligent platform for life sciences. Specifically, Novartis plans on using Shyft’s Strata data platform and Lumen Insights Platform. The deal is expected to help the pharma giant commercialize certain therapies in Europe. 

In August, a presentation given at the Fourth Congress of the European Academy of Neurology by headache-focused digital health company Healint and Novartis found that chronic migraines may induce anxiety and depression instead of the other way around, contradicting previous thought. Researchers were able to look at the responses of more than 1 million users of the migraine tracking app Migraine Buddy, zeroing in on a sample of 43,189 users' responses.

Finally, Novartis was one of two pharma companies, along with Otsuka, to contribute to StartUp Health’s $31 million round this quarter.


Though not quite on the scale of GSK’s $300 million, Sanofi was also active this quarter as a digital health investor. Sanofi Ventures led Click Therapeutics’ $17 million round in July.

This qualifies as a concrete pharma move in the digital therapeutics space as well. Funding is expected to help the company work on its proprietary platform and the pipeline of its digital therapeutics offering. Currently the New York-based company is working on digital prescription therapeutics for depression, insomnia, acute coronary syndrome and chronic pain. 

The quarter also saw a deal between Sanofi and nutrition-focused digital health company Nutrino. Sanofi will offer Nutrino’s FoodPrint service, which helps show users the connection between what they eat and how that impacts their health. The technology aims to help users manage their chronic disease, identify food trends, improve wellbeing and manage weight. 


Healthy Interactions, a population health company that offers both digital and in-person programs for chronic disease management and education, teamed up with Merck in August to launch a diabetes management and engagement platform designed to support in-person counseling programs. Debuted at the American Association of Diabetes Educators Annual Conference in Baltimore, the map4health platform includes a patient-facing app that consists of text and video messaging, goal tracking and peer support forums. In addition to communicating with their patients, providers can view patient data trends and analytics using a dashboard included in the offering.

Merck was also the driving force for a pilot to deliver temperature-controlled medications via drone to health centers in Puerto Rico that were affected by Hurricane Maria. Merck funded the test and donated the medications, but AT&T, Direct Relief, Softbox and Volans-i were all involved in different aspects of the pilot.

Johnson & Johnson

Healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson, including its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals, made a few smaller moves this past quarter. In July, Janssen provided funding for a study on wearable biosensors and artificial intelligence at Haga Teaching Hospital in the Netherlands. Incorporating technology from startups VitalConnect and physIQ, the study is looking to see how the technology can detect adverse events in cancer treatment early on. 

J&J’s other move this quarter was actually a step away from digital health, as the company sold its Calibra product (marketed as OneTouch Via, but never launched) to CeQur, a 10-year-old company working on a similar insulin delivery wearable. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but CeQur has acquired an exclusive worldwide license for the technology.

Other players

In August, we learned that Otsuka Pharmaceuticals and Proteus Digital Health’s sensor-carrying pill Abilify MyCite is on its way to US patients, thanks to a new collaboration agreement between Otsuka and Magellan Health. The rollout will initially be limited to give Otsuka and Magellan a better idea of how best to deploy the technology at scale.

And Otsuka isn’t the only pharma company with an eye on Proteus’s technology. Among the featured data presented at July’s International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam was a trial that outfitted Gilead Sciences’ preventive HIV drug Truvada (tenofovir/emtricitabine) with the tracking technology. Here, researchers found that the sensor-equipped drug was well received by most users and pharmacokinetically equivalent to Truvada alone, paving the way for its potential use in clinical practice.

Pharma and medical device company Abbott received FDA approval of a 14-day version of its Freestyle Libre continuous glucose monitoring system. The disposable, fingerstick-free system is comprised of a tiny insertable sensor and a patch roughly the size of a quarter that is worn on the arm. It was first approved by the agency in September 2017, for up to 10 days.

Outside the world of traditional pharma companies, Dthera Sciences, a San Diego-based developer of clinical and consumer digital therapeutics for individuals with neurodegenerative conditions, announced in August that its development stage intervention, DTHR-ALZ, has been granted Breakthrough Device designation by the FDA. DTHR-ALZ is a digital intervention “intended to mitigate the symptoms of agitation and depression associated with major neurocognitive disorder of the Alzheimer’s type,” according to the current proposed indication for use.


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