Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer at LifeQ and Co-Founder at HealthQ Technologies, Dr Riaan Conradie, talks about his vision of revolutionising healthcare by harnessing the wearable trend and combining it with quality physiological information.
Tell us about yourself.
I did my BSc in Molecular and Cellular Biology, and from there I immediately ventured into biochemistry. For me biochemistry is the science that underpins all living creatures – it’s the chemistry of life. For example, even your DNA that contains your genetic makeup is nothing more than a very long molecule with a specific arrangement of atoms. The biochemistry that governs bacteria is also the exact same biochemistry that governs us humans.
It was however not enough for me to just learn about biochemistry. The key question was: What is the framework in which I can gather all biochemical knowledge to understand how things work at a systems-level? That question inspired me to focus my PhD in Computational Systems Biology. I focussed on the cell cycle: a process whereby every cell in your body is governed by molecular machinery that very tightly controls how and when cells grow and divide. So my PhD was about deciphering the control structures that govern that machinery, and identifying a general structure that was prevalent in all organisms – from bacteria to humans. There was only one framework that I could use to get to that level, and it was to mathematically model all these systems and then to do computational analysis on all these models to try and decipher how the molecular cell cycle machinery was regulated. I found two or three key biochemical processes that seemed to control this molecular machine. These processes have since been implicated in cancer, illustrating how computational analysis can be used for drug targeting, drug development, etc.
My need to fundamentally understand the human body, my love for people and building teams as well as my need to make rapid progress to package this understanding into tangible and disruptive products drew me towards the world of business. I was raised in a very entrepreneurial home, and my fascination with how business principles could be leveraged to rapidly scale disruptive solutions into the world made entrepreneurship an obvious route to pursue. Furthermore, I was eager to apply the knowledge I gained while studying biology and apply them in all aspects of business and business ecosystems.
Give us a summary of what LifeQ does and how HealthQ fits in with that.
LifeQ has developed a bio-mathematical platform that uses continuous, periodic, episodic and static data streams to create a personalised digital representation of your physiology in the cloud. We have an extremely multi-disciplinary team – underpinned by skilled computational systems biologists – which is focused on generating high value health and lifestyle information that can be used to help people live longer and higher quality lives.
HealthQ Technologies is essentially the testing and industrialisation leg of LifeQ; it’s where integration teams work to incorporate the LifeQ tech into the products of global companies.
What’s your take on the much-talked about global healthcare crisis?
The crisis is defined by the fact that 10% of the global GDP is spent on healthcare. At this rate, we’ll see a fifth, or 20%, of the US GDP allocated to keeping their people healthy within the next four years, and that’s not sustainable. At LifeQ, we believe that there are a few key systemic weaknesses that are causing this extreme healthcare cost increase, including: limited resources; prohibitive costs of access to relevant technologies, treatments and information; and the need for the involvement of highly trained clinicians and specialists to get detailed information on health.
I think one of the biggest obstacles to improving healthcare or realising preventative care is this lack of access to valuable and relevant health information. The frequency at which key physiological measurements take place is too periodic. It’s as if a clinician has a hand in front of his/her eyes, and gets to quickly take a peak before their eyes are covered again for another year until the next annual check-up. How can one expect that clinician to make an informed diagnosis with that snapshot of information? It is actually remarkable what clinicians are able to achieve with only the current limited information streams. Now imagine a future where doctors have a more continuous stream of all the relevant information to make a diagnosis, or even prevent you from getting disease.
How is LifeQ trying to solve that crisis?
We constructed the first version of a bio-mathematical model to create a personalised digital representation of a person’s physiology in the cloud. This bio-mathematical model and the LifeQ platform are able to digest continuous, periodic, episodic and static physiological data streams to then deliver high value personalised health information through an API to downstream value adding service and application providers.
The first source of data for our bio-mathematical model is continuous wearable device data streams because they enable high volume data acquisition and the wearable device market started growing at a rapid pace. However, when we reviewed the wearable device landscape a few years ago to find out what information streams could be obtained from them, we were dissatisfied by the quality of data they produced. So we set up a division within the company that could enable wearables to collect accurate, clinically relevant data by partnering with global companies. We didn’t want to build hardware ourselves because it’s very difficult to compete with the large hardware corporations. So, instead we provide a solution to wearable device companies that allows these wearable devices to provide intelligent, sophisticated and precise key physiological measurements. This approach seems to be working; the TomTom Spark Watch has launched with the LifeQ solution integrated, we have just announced a global partnership with Garmin to develop a joint solution for the health space and we have a few other big collaborations in the pipeline that we’ll be announcing during 2016.
You touched on the impact this sort of monitoring and information can have on population health. Tell us more about that strategy?
LifeQ’s mission is simple: We want to build a digital representation (also called a virtual human model) of every person’s unique physiology in the cloud so that they can – through the help of service and application providers – get actionable insights and health improving content, be more productive or save money on their insurance premiums.
The key ingredient to what we’re doing is non-invasive, affordable and accessible data acquisition.While we currently do this with wearables, going forward, we will augment this with other information streams: it can be anything from your genetic profile, your gut micro flora composition to your unique epigenetic profiles. Once we apply highly sophisticated bio-mathematical transformations on that information, we can detect and elucidate things that would be very difficult to detect without direct measurements.
It is important to note that users have to physically opt-in to share information with LifeQ when purchasing a new wearable device. The incentive to them is the wealth of knowledge they can access on the other end.
Let’s talk about data security. Have you noticed any resistance from consumers to share their data?
Not really – at least not for the younger generation. Using a real world analogy: Most people understand that they can stay in a protected environment like their house for their whole life – free from the risks of the outside world, but also deprived of learning and growth opportunities. Alternatively, they can go outside and experience the world (with the associated risks involved). It’s a risk assessment that every individual has to do – there’s no way around it. The same trade-off decision has to be made in the world of personal health data. Some people might find the idea of sharing their data scary, but it’s the only way to get valuable insights and to find out what’s really going on with your health.
We at LifeQ are doing everything we can to guarantee safety of the data. I also think companies have to play a role in educating users and communicating the probability of risk and what that means for the individual.
Can you give us some examples of the kind of research you do and what we can learn from it?
We worked with a South African athlete (who is also our faithful human guinea pig) to test our solution. He had to wear a LifeQ-enabled wearable device for 48 hours while he underwent a lot of traditional, invasive health tests (including exhausting fitness tests and some bloodwork). With the LifeQ enabled wearable we collected two input streams: heart rate and acceleration measurements so that we could do a cloud-based analysis of his 48 hour data stream. Using only this, we were able to see exactly when he exercised (and to what extent he exerted himself), when he slept (and what his sleep quality was) and even when he was stressed.
There’s a global trend where everyone is looking at sleep and exercise for clues as to why things in healthcare are as they are. But from our research we know that stress affects one’s gut microbiome, circadian rhythm, eating patterns and even whether you want to exercise or not. For us it was very important to unlock all this information so that we can now look at all these things together and automatically see how they affect one another to understand what stress actually does to an individual. In a real world scenario, clinicians will be able to predict how the stress hormone will fluctuate in a patient’s blood during a stressful event and then use that information to help the individual manage stress better for better overall health.
Our technology will also be used by wrist-based wearable devices to enable accurate tracking of REM sleep. A lot of the sleep disturbances that we see manifest in how the REM and non-REM cycles relay each other. So for us it was very critical to properly separate and track the different sleep phases. Currently, loads of people are buying TomTom devices to measure exercise and physical activity. Soon they will all have access to a range of applications that have never been available on a wearable before – including a sophisticated and precise sleep expert.
Have you seen a trend in clinicians being interested in this sort of information?
Yes, definitely. Obviously platforms like eHealthNews help because we’ve seen that it’s not always the technology that’s the driving force but the awareness that it even exists. Although there is definitely more interest globally than there is locally, in the US clinicians are realising that they need to embrace this sort of information because medicine is evolving and more and more we’re seeing the individual at the centre of healthcare, as opposed to the doctor.
I mean, why should healthcare be different to any other industry? 20 years ago you took your vehicle in for a service once a year, but now your dashboard lights up, telling you to go to the nearest service station. Why are we still 20 years behind with our own bodies?That for me is the key question. And while I don’t think technology will replace the clinician, I’d like to use technology to enable the clinician as much as possible. This does not mean overwhelming the clinician but rather highlighting the key things that they need to be aware of.
HealthQ made the news as home to one of 20 metabolic chambers in the world and the world’s first metabolic chamber based on open source technology. Tell us about that.
A key factor in developing information streams is that you always need to validate them against gold standard information. The metabolic chamber was a gold standard we required but they’re hard to come by and very expensive. We weren’t able to find one in the southern hemisphere that was properly functioning and accurate enough so that was one of the reasons why we built it.
One of the other reasons was that we wanted to showcase our innovative company to the world. We have a bunch of scientists, mathematicians and engineers that – in a matter of weeks – put together a complete, highly sophisticated metabolic chamber. It would usually cost about $2 million to build, but we did it for R200,000 using off-the-shelf components and the help of a number of benefactors.
Since then, we’ve moved to conducting all our gold standard testing in collaboration with university partners. For instance, we recently partnered with the Sports Physiology Lab at Stellenbosch University to test between 50 and 100 overweight and obese people, and now we are back to testing extreme athletes again.
Can you share with us some of the projects LifeQ is currently working on?
We’ve started on a medical platform validation project. We’ve partnered with a number of hospital groups, healthcare professionals and application providers, basically all the people that can deliver high value information through apps and services and LifeQ is the central gluing agent.
We’re also now building an implant that will be implanted in me. It’s not for the mainstream market, but rather to showcase where wearables are going. The implant was designed to measure my oxygen levels, heart rate and heart rate variability continuously and in real-time. It will be powered through my skin and stream the information back to a mobile phone, so no battery will be required.
Any final messages you’d like to leave us with?
There’s only one way we can solve the healthcare problem, and that’s if we build ecosystems around our expertise.
Interested companies and parties are welcome to contact our company to find out about forming partnerships. We’re also constantly looking for employees who are looking for a challenge, so anyone with a strong sciences, science technology, engineering or mathematics background is welcome to apply.