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A Big Convergence: Wireless Health Care, Information Technologies, and Serial Entrepreneur James Sweeney

Xconomy San Diego — 

San Diego’s James Sweeney is a big-time health-care innovator and entrepreneur. Although he’s relatively unknown to the general public, Sweeney has founded and created eight successful health-care companies—Caremark, CarePartners, CareGivers, Central Admixture Pharmacy Services, or CAPS, McGaw, Coram, Bridge Medical, and CardioNet.

Sweeney founded his first company in 1979 as Home Health Care of America, (It later became Caremark) and gained recognition as a pioneer in the field of home infusion therapy. He sold Caremark in 1987 to Baxter (NYSE: BAX) for approximately $600 million.

Now Sweeney is focused on a wave of innovation he sees coming in the field of wireless healthcare, an area where he says he has been working “feverishly” for the past decade. He also happens to be listed as the keynote speaker on May 14th at a “Convergence Summit” organized by San Diego’s Wireless Life Sciences Alliance at the Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa.

james-sweeney-headshotSweeney founded CardioNet (It’s Nasdaq ticker symbol is BEAT, a great designation) in 1999, initially to focus on using remote wireless technology to diagnose irregular heartbeats, which can be transitory and therefore difficult to detect. CardioNet now is regarded as the first commercially successful wireless health company in the United States, with a market valuation of more than $425 million following its successful IPO in March 2008. (New management moved the company, which was based in San Diego, to Pennsylvania after Sweeney resigned last year.)

A month ago Sweeney started as CEO of San Diego-based IntelliDot, founded in 2002 to provide hand-held barcode solutions for hospitals. “This company in its current form is of no interest to me,” Sweeney says. “I have a vision of what can happen in terms of wireless technology and applications. I intend to take the company forward into providing lots of wireless connectivity to patients, nurses, and hospitals, and taking data out of the hospital into outside servers. That is where all of us are going.”

Sweeney says he identifies new business opportunities by seeing how healthcare fails to meet patient needs, and he uses common-sense and technology to provide a solution. The result is often a huge new business.

He says his vision for IntelliDot “starts with patient safety, with what we can do to protect patients in a hospital. Medicare has created a new descriptive category called Never Events—things that should never happen to you.” IntelliDot, with 65-70 employees is, according to Sweeney, now refocusing on 20 innovations that would dramatically reduce Never Events and create “smart hospital room.”

Sweeney says he became an entrepreneur out of frustration. “It took the large companies so long to execute an idea, mostly due to internal politics, instead of responding to what the market needs. I eventually found that I could start companies and create ideas that would lead to faster adoption of ideas.” Caremark was born out of a business plan Sweeney presented to a company he was working with. “They thought it was such a bad idea that they fired me.”

Sweeney says he takes a different approach. “I believe that ultimately the successful approach is entrepreneurial. If you plant the seed of an idea, it eventually grows. But big companies require many things to happen at high levels.” He says that he sees opportunities in health care because “it is very poorly managed and really focused on the wrong things. In many cases the patient is the last person who gets the attention of the system.

“The more we can design seamless technologies that do not require a lot of intervention from anyone the better. In CardioNet I designed a technology where a patient doesn’t have to physically do anything except wear a device. Patients told us they love it!”

CardioNet’s MCOT (Mobile Cadiac Outpatient Telemetry) is, to date, the only validated wireless health care device in the U.S. It has monitored heart data for over 175,000 patients. Patients wear three leads attached to a sensor which uses Qualcomm wireless technology to send data to a monitor in the patient’s home. The device sends an alarm to a monitoring center when it senses an irregular heartbeat so apporpriate action can be taken.

Health-care will see many similar wireless revolutions in the near future. People won’t need to see a doctor to have their conditions monitored, but they’ll carry their own sensor-monitor devices, which are becoming smaller, more-reasonably priced and reliable. All sorts of remote monitoring, such as tiny biosensors, even wireless pills may one day become commonplace.

“All of this sensed information leads to electronic medical records,” Sweeney says. “If we can collect your data and take that information from the doctor’s office to a server, it wouldn’t matter where you were in the world and which doctor you saw, that doctor would have access to your data. Now very expensive procedures like MRIs are repeated because six-month-old data is not available. Having this information available will dramatically reduce duplications and save money. The patient owns his medical information. What I envision is that he can also bring it with him.”

He wonders when health-care funding under the federal stimulus package will be in place. “I’m very excited about it providing money to hospitals to do many things we think need to be done.” But a single-payer system will be, in his opinion, the death of new technology. “Historically, the United States has been the world’s health-care innovator. But I’m hopeful that people who make decisions recognize that there are intelligent ways to embrace technology. And technology has to pay for itself. It hasn’t always been so in the past, but it will in the future.”

Sweeney also gave me his four concepts for other entrepreneurs who see opportunities in healthcare.They are:

—“Choose a Big Idea. The bigger, the better. Foremost it’s all about the size of an idea. It takes just as much energy to develop small ideas as large ones, so I try to focus on ideas that have billions of dollars of potential.

—“If you have a very big idea, you will attract very good people. And you will need them.

—“When you have an A management team, it’s very easy to raise money, even in the current environment!

—“Execution is the hard part. You are doing things that have been never done before. It’s hard to get people to support new technology.”

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