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January 13, 2016updated 31 Aug 2016 10:18am

Are Google X moon shots aiming disruptive technology at healthcare?

Analysis: How does Google's acquisitions and positioning of Google Glass point to a future in healthcare?

By James Nunns

Google is one of the great disruptors of industries around the world and often it comes out of the blue. Ten years ago who would have thought that the internet giant, known for its search engine, would break into the car industry?

Google’s power to break into different markets and to try out different things is supported by its sheer financial weight, its revenue of $66 billion in 2014 means that it can afford to try out new things without the fear that it may bankrupt them.

Identifying where the company is likely to disrupt is a difficult task but one that is worth undertaking. With fingers in so many pies where will be the next big target?

In my humble opinion the next area could be in healthcare and I’ll explain to you why.

Since 2013, Google has acquired 13 different companies with technologies that could potentially be applied to the healthcare sector.

On March the 12th, 2013, a company called DNNresearch was integrated into both Google and Google X. In the same year six companies working on different forms of robotics were acquired, such as SCHAFT, Redwood Robotics and Meka Robotics,with all of these being incorporated into Google X.

2014 saw a focus on artificial intelligence and augmented reality with the acquisitions of Dark Blue Labs, Vision Factory and Quest Visual. Some of these acquisitions went into a division called Google DeepMind, while others went to Google X.

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Meanwhile the acquisition of Lift Labs on the 10th of September, 2014, went into the Life Sciences division of Google X. Lift Labs created Liftware, which is a brand name for a spoon that is designed to counteract the tremor associated with medical conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

You may be wondering what Google X is, well this is a semi-secret research and development facility that was created by Google and is the area of the company responsible for the self-driving car and Google Glass, known as project Glass. Special projects like Google Glass are labelled ‘moon shots’, which keeps the nature of any product in development well under wraps.

It should be said that these acquisitions could point to the technology being used in a number of different ways, but when you align this information with how the Google Glass is now being utilised, as well as partnerships in the healthcare space, you can formulate the idea that a future move in healthcare could be on the cards.

Previews of the next generation of Google Glass drew focus on how the technology can be used and a number of health tech start-ups have been utilising the technology.

Vital Medical for example has been using the technology as a way to do hands-free checks of medical images such as videos and review checklists. In addition to this it can provide a way to do surgical consultations and medical education from the perspective of a surgeon.

In the US there has been some examples of medical students using the technology to aid their studies, using augmented reality to learn medical procedures proving one way that the technology could be used.

The University of Massachusetts Medical School has been using Google Glass for consulting with medical experts in difficult cases. The idea is that an expert could be in a different part of the country and unable to deliver hands on help, using the Glass technology instead to deliver a consultation.

For example, the treatment of a patient that has been poisoned would require a toxicologist, but these are hard to come by. So instead of talking by phone you can visually communicate via Glass to help diagnose and treat.

Dr. Peter Chai, a medical toxicology fellow at UMass Medical School, said: "They (toxicologists) would be able to see, watch the exam, watch the history, send messages if they had to.

"We took photos of things like EKGs, their vital signs or if clinicians had questions about the medications someone took and help make recommendations for a cure."

This isn’t the only example of how Google Glass can be used in healthcare, nor is it the only technology that Google has that can be used in the industry.

Clive Longbottom, founder and analyst of Quocirca, told CBR: "Healthcare will move far more toward a remote healthcare model – using the likes of wearables and remote devices to monitor, track and administer care. So, a patient could be wearing an Android watch that monitors basic health functions, providing information through to both their GP and their healthcare insurer."

Combining these technologies from Google means that if anything is picked up that could require further investigation then a video call with the patient can be done, creating an easier and more proactive care process.

Longbottom highlights the example of type 2 diabetes, suggesting that a patient could have a device that tracks sugar levels in their blood or urine. He said: "Once it gets to a certain level, the GP (or the insurer) can raise a flag that the patient is becoming borderline diabetic.

"A regime of more exercise and less food could be put forward – and could then be tracked. If the patient sticks to the regime, then their insurance shouldn’t need to go up, and diabetes could be avoided."

The acquisition in the robotics space could see the company move into the area around keyhole surgery, while it’s learning platform, which could take on IBM with Watson, would assure that surgeries became better and better until finally they could be done autonomously.

While autonomous surgeries may be far down the line, the ability for a surgeon to take control of a machine from thousands of miles away and do the operation remotely may not be so far away.

An early example of Virtual Reality being used in healthcare has been seen in Florida where a surgery was carried out using a Google Cardboard device on a four month old baby. The device allowed the doctor to carry out the procedure by viewing the baby’s heart, chest wall and other relevant parts.

The challenge for Google to break into healthcare effectively is being focused. The company already tried and failed to enter into the consumer healthcare information technology space with ‘personal healthcare records’ and a guiding hand by someone that knows the industry could be required.

This brings me on to the final element of Google’s positioning – partnerships.

A partnership with Dexcom will see the two develop a wearable glucose monitor, highlighting that the above point about type 2 diabetes is an area that the company is already looking at.

Work with the likes of Philips Healthcare and Accenture could be where Google really sees dividends.

Companies like Philips and Accenture already have expertise in the space and this count’s for a great deal. It cuts out the learning phase to some extent for Google, meaning that it is less likely to make costly mistakes, like killing patients.

Longbottom said: "Providing platforms and IoT domain expertise to those who have the healthcare expertise is far more likely to lead to success that going for it all alone – and killing off several patients during the ‘learning phase’."

As I have previously outlined, it is difficult to judge where Google is heading, but the combination of the acquisitions and the work it has done in life sciences suggests that healthcare could be the next big play.

Partnerships and work is already underway for the internet giant that highlights the interest it has in healthcare and while I wouldn’t tell you to place your bets now, I would advise you to watch this space.

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