Apple Has Not-So-Secret Team Working on Diabetes Monitoring for Apple Watch

2 minute read
| Analysis

Apple has a no-longer secret team working on monitoring blood sugar through Apple Watch. CNBC scooped the story, citing three unnamed sources who said Apple’s efforts were originally envisioned by Steve Jobs.

Apple has a small team of biomedical engineers working on the project in Palo Alto, and the effort has been underway for five years. Monitoring blood sugar levels through sensors—rather than blood tests—is considered the “holy grail” of life sciences. Lots of money has been thrown at the problem by a lot of companies, but no one has succeeded.

The reason being that this is how it’s currently done:

A glucose test with a finger pricked

Glucose monitoring, with blood

Apple Watch Diabetes Monitoring

Most diabetics check their glucose 4-5 times a day, and still have problems with low blood sugar because they react poorly to insulin. If Apple Watch monitored glucose levels continually, and gave alerts when it was getting dangerously low, it could save lives.

Detecting Glucose Levels Could Take Billions

Terrance Gregg, executive chairman of biomed company DexCom, told Reuters in 2014 that developing this technology could take, “several hundred million dollars or even a billion dollars.”

That’s just one well-informed exec’s opinion, but the reality is that no one has cracked it yet. If Apple did so, it would be a real game changer for millions of people afflicted with diabetes.

It would also be a game changer for Apple Watch and Apple itself. It would position both the device and the company as significant players in the life sciences industry. CNBC suggested it would make Apple Watch a must-have device for anyone with diabetes.

This is significant because Apple would require substantial levels of regulatory clearance to market a device with that kind of ability. Reporter Christina Farr said that Apple’s efforts were far enough along that, “Apple has been conducting feasibility trials at clinical sites across the Bay Area and has hired consultants to help it figure out the regulatory pathways.”

Ms. Farr’s reporting included that as of a year ago, some 30 people were working on this team. She also wrote that the team reported to Johny Srouji, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware technologies, and that it used to report to Michael D. Hillman. Mr. Hillman left Apple in late 2015 for Facebook’s Oculus VR goggles as head of hardware.

The CNBC article has a video interview with Ms. Farr relating to her coverage.

Apple R&D

Apple’s R&D budgets have skyrockets in recent years, even as the number of new shipping products has declined. Projects such as a (probably-no-longer-happening) car, augment reality, and blood sugar monitoring, not to mention anything that has actually remained secret, account for that increase. More importantly, all represent large scale, long-term efforts.

Jeff Butts contributed to this article.

4 Comments Add a comment

  1. Bryan:

    Here is where many a whinging, first-world-concern-preoccupied Apple-critic miss the mark when, upon out-gassing about Apple not making their preferred product, or about Apple’s outward productivity falling below expectations – however determined – they conclude that Apple are actually ‘doing’ less.

    Mind you, I’m not levying criticism at TMO, not even one Mr John K, as TMO at least strives to make fact or evidence-based criticism, which is aimed at bettering Apple’s performance by addressing lesions and deficits in their performance. I mean that. Rather, there are legions of pundits who opine without reasoned or fact-based argument, and with no clear objective other than to vent, that Apple are simply dithering whilst steeping in their own broth of undeserved arrogant complacency, and being smoked by the competition on every front.

    Such vague hyperbole reflects, in my opinion, that such critics have never worked on an evolving enterprise or project, nor encountered that point in its development in which growth and resource expenditure is internal. This is organic growth, not unlike the development of a foetus in which, at key points in its development, its growth is not outwardly apparent, but internally structural and functional development of essential organs, without which further linear or mass augmentation would be futile. At some point in an enterprises development, this stage will inevitably be reached. If it does not, it signifies that this enterprise is not part of a living, dynamic system that is placing evolving demands on that enterprise. In other words, that enterprise is already dead.

    And speaking of rants, let me terminate mine here with my main point about hidden but essential development. Let’s go back to Apple’s core business ethos, which is about making products that leverage human creativity in order to better or at least benefit people’s lives. Apple have stated this time and again. For many companies, wearable tech has been about products in search of a market, let alone providing a solution to an existing problem or even filling a real need. Others, like Google Glass were both ahead of popular demand and social mores, not to mention law.

    Apple’s vision for wearables, specifically this first product, Apple Watch, was always about more than a gadget. Just as the iPhone was about more than just a phone cum portable email device, the AW was always about more than just a fitness tracker, as much as it fulfilled that need. The proof of this is that, although the market for fitness trackers and the AW overlap, they are not identical; as is evidenced by all of the satisfied fitness tracker owners who are not AW clients. Indeed, one could sacrifice the fitness tracking capability of the AW, and still have an impressive arsenal of capability, not to mention a very useful tool for many an AW client (present company included).

    This bid by Apple to put blood glucose monitoring sensor capability in their Watch signals two things: one that their commitment to their tech benefiting human life is ongoing; two, that the AW in particular is designed to go beyond personal well-being to protection and life quality enhancement. This is no mere gadget, and it has untapped and as yet unexplored potential for personal well-being, and perhaps societal as well. We’ve discussed before the potential for the AW to become a tool in the remote gathering, consented of course, of prospective, longitudinal data in clinical trials and life studies, without the limitations and biases inherent in self-completed patient diaries. This will be a game-changer, and will require the device to pass Good Clinical Practice (GCP) standard clinical trials and FDA certification, if it is to be certified and endorsed by professional organisations and lives are to depend upon its efficacy. Such an achievement will mark a milestone not only in Apple’s product evolution, but in commercially available personal devices writ large.

    I, for one, cannot wait for that milestone to be reached. And as many of the turning points in our technological and cultural development, will pass unmarked and unnoticed by the many, including the whinging, first-world-concern-preoccupied pundits.

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