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Qualcomm’s Don Jones and the Year of Inflection for Wireless Health

Xconomy San Diego — 

At the Wireless-Life Sciences Convergence Summit in San Diego a few weeks ago, healthcare industry veteran Rob McCray told me, “We may well look back and say 2009 was the year of inflection for wireless health.”

By wireless health, he means healthcare information and services delivered via wireless networks and devices. The emerging industry certainly got off to a strong start in 2009, with the formation of the San Diego-based West Wireless Health Institute in March. That was followed in April by the CTIA Wireless annual convention in Las Vegas, which devoted substantial attention this year to wireless health. In May, San Diego’s Wireless-Life Sciences Alliance (WLSA) sponsored its fourth annual convergence summit.

One person guiding the nascent industry is Don Jones, a longtime healthcare industry executive who helped get San Diego-based Qualcomm interested in the field. Qualcomm reciprocated by recruiting Jones, who now heads the wireless giant’s health and life sciences initiatives. Because Jones also is a founder of the WLSA and serves as a founding board member of the West Wireless Health Institute, I sat down with him to ask how it all came together.

One thing that became clear in our conversation is that Qualcomm has been working for at least a decade to develop healthcare as a market for innovative wireless technologies.

Don Jones

Don Jones

In fact, Jones traces the roots of his involvement to an invitation he got in 1999 or 2000 from Paul Jacobs, who was then overseeing Qualcomm Consumer Products, among other things. The son of Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs succeeded his dad as CEO in 2005, after a stint as president of Qualcomm’s Wireless and Internet Group. But it’s clear that Paul Jacobs continues to closely follow the emerging field of wireless healthcare. The Qualcomm CEO attended at least some sessions of last month’s invitation-only convergence summit, and has been a speaker at previous summits.

In its promotional literature, Qualcomm says wireless healthcare is projected to become a $7 billion industry by 2012. But Jones says a larger and more influential force also is at work. “More important than anything—or more visible—is the Obama Administration’s goal of bringing healthcare costs down,” he says.

Some innovations offer immediate savings. Jones says technology that enables doctors to write electronic prescriptions has “a pretty good return on investment right away.” But he sees the real economic gains in such advances as telemedicine, saying, “50 percent of primary care does not have to be delivered face-to-face. Why leave your home? Why leave your desk when you don’t have to?”

Amid the Obama Administration’s drive on healthcare reform, the CTIA wireless industry association has organized a June 24 forum on mobile health in Washington D.C.

Jones’ experience with wireless medicine began as far back as 1979, when he was working with a company that provided emergency medical services. At MedTrans (Now American Response), Jones said dispatchers used two-way radio, doctors used numeric pagers, and EMTs used cardiac telemetry units to transmit electrocardiogram data from ambulances to hospital emergency rooms. “I was in the health services business, which was using technology but just not thinking of it as [wireless] technology,” Jones says.

Jones says he really began thinking about the convergence of healthcare and wireless technologies in 1999 or 2000, when he was working with OnCall Medicine, a San Diego company that provided medical house calls. Jones says he was invited by Qualcomm’s Paul Jacobs to look at wireless technology that Qualcomm had developed as a data management and device platform. Jones says the technology later became the platform used by CardioNet, a San Diego startup now based in Pennsylvania, to continuously monitor and transmit patients’ heartbeat data without requiring them to be hospitalized.

Jones later joined forces with McCray, who was a co-founder of OnCall Medicine and who had worked with Jones at a physician practice management company called HealthCap. McCray became “involved when Qualcomm started to focus attention on healthcare as a vertical industry,” said Peter Erickson, managing partner of Triple Tree, a Minneapolis, MN, investment banking firm. “We did some initial work with Qualcomm in evaluating the market opportunity.”

Triple Tree’s work for Qualcomm “was a little bit outside of our normal role, which is transaction-based,” said McCray, who was a Triple Tree advisor. “This was more consultative work.”

In 2005, McCray says he worked with Jones to get San Diego’s biotech industry and telecom industry together “via their trade associations” to co-sponsor a conference, “but we just couldn’t pull it off.”

As a result, McCray and Jones decided to do it on their own. They persuaded Qualcomm and Johnson & Johnson to provide corporate support, and co-founded the Wireless-Life Sciences Alliance. McCray says San Diego’s first wireless-life sciences convergence summit was a one-day affair in 2006 that drew only about 30 people, but he counted it as a success. Last month, nearly 300 people registered for the event.

Nowadays, Jones spends less time explaining what wireless-healthcare convergence means, and says the area is “starting to bubble to the top” with an increasing presence by healthcare companies. And he adds, “This is kind of the year when a lot of new companies have been coming out of the garage.”

Some examples of emerging companies in wireless healthcare:

Epocrates. Based in San Mateo, CA, Epocrates has developed medical reference software and clinical information and decision support tools for wireless mobile devices and PDAs. Epocrates’ recently alerted 225,000 physicians via its mobile and online alert services that the psoriasis drug Raptiva had been pulled from the market because it may play a role in a potentially fatal brain condition called progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML).

Proteus Biomedical. Based in Redwood City, CA, Proteus is developing an “intelligent systems” approach that integrates integrate electronics, sensors, and wireless communications into medical devices and pharmaceuticals. For example, Proteus is developing devices that allow cardiac resynchronization therapy to be optimized to a patient’s cardiovascular physiology.

IntelliDot. Based in San Diego, has developed a handheld wireless device for nurses and other caregivers that enables them to perform safety checks—right patient, right medication, right dose, right time—and enables hospitals to meet a variety of joint commission standards.