Apple Inc <AAPL.O>, Samsung Electronics Co and Google Inc,
searching for applications that could turn nascent wearable
technology like smartwatches and bracelets from curiosities into
must-have items, have all set their sites on monitoring blood sugar,
several people familiar with the plans say.
These firms are variously hiring medical scientists and engineers,
asking U.S. regulators about oversight and developing
glucose-measuring features in future wearable devices, the sources
The first round of technology may be limited, but eventually the
companies could compete in a global blood-sugar tracking market
worth over $12 billion by 2017, according to research firm
Diabetes afflicts 29 million Americans and costs the economy some
$245 billion in 2012, a 41 percent rise in five years. Many
diabetics prick their fingers as much as 10 times daily in order to
check levels of a type of sugar called glucose.
Non-invasive technology could take many forms. Electricity or
ultrasound could pull glucose through the skin for measurement, for
instance, or a light could be shined through the skin so that a
spectroscope could measure for indications of glucose.
"All the biggies want glucose on their phone," said John Smith,
former chief scientific officer of Johnson & Johnson's LifeScan,
which makes blood glucose monitoring supplies. "Get it right, and
there's an enormous payoff."
Apple, Google and Samsung declined to comment, but Courtney Lias,
director at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's chemistry and
toxicology devices division, told Reuters a marriage between mobile
devices and glucose-sensing is "made in heaven."
In a December meeting with Apple executives, the FDA described how
it may regulate a glucometer that measures blood sugar, according to
an FDA summary of the discussion.
Such a device could avoid regulation if used for nutrition, but if
marketed to diabetics, it likely would be regulated as a medical
device, according to the summary, first reported by the Apple
The tech companies are likely to start off focusing on non-medical
applications, such as fitness and education.
Even an educational device would need a breakthrough from current
technology, though, and some in the medical industry say the tech
firms, new to the medical world, don't understand the core
"There is a cemetery full of efforts" to measure glucose in a
non-invasive way, said DexCom chief executive Terrance Gregg, whose
firm is known for minimally invasive techniques. To succeed would
require "several hundred million dollars or even a billion dollars,"
Silicon Valley is already opening its vast wallet.
Medtronic Inc Senior Vice President of Medicine and Technology
Stephen Oesterle recently said he now considers Google to be the
medical device firm's next great rival, thanks to its funding for
research and development, or R&D.
“We spend $1.5 billion a year on R&D at Medtronic – and it’s mostly
D,” he told the audience at a recent conference. “Google is spending
$8 billion a year on R&D and, as far as I can tell, it’s mostly R.”
Google has been public about some of its plans: it has developed a
"smart" contact lens that measures glucose. In a blog post detailing
plans for its smart contact lens, Google described an LED system
that could warn of high or low blood sugar by flashing tiny lights.
It has recently said it is looking for partners to bring the lens to
The device, which uses tiny chips and sensors that resemble bits of
glitter to measure glucose levels in tears, is expected to be years
away from commercial development, and skeptics wonder if it will
ever be ready.
Previous attempts at accurate non-invasive measurement have been
foiled by body movement, and fluctuations in hydration and
temperature. Tears also have lower concentrations of glucose, which
are harder to track.
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But the Life Sciences team in charge of the lens and other related
research is housed at the Google X facility, where it works on major
breakthroughs such as the self-driving car, a former employee who
requested anonymity said.
Apple's efforts center on its iWatch, which is on track to ship in
October, three sources at leading supply chain firms told Reuters.
It is not clear whether the initial release will incorporate
Still, Apple has poached executives and bio-sensor engineers from
such medical technology firms as Masimo Corp , Vital Connect, and
the now-defunct glucose monitoring startup C8 Medisensors.
"It has scooped up many of the most talented people with
glucose-sensing expertise," said George Palikaras, CEO of Mediwise,
a startup that hopes to measure blood sugar levels beneath the
skin's surface by transmitting radio waves through a section of the
The tech companies are also drawing mainstream interest to the
field, he said. "When Google announced its smart contact lens, that
was one of the best days of my career. We started getting a ton of
emails," Palikaras said.
Samsung was among the first tech companies to produce a smartwatch,
which failed to catch on widely. It since has introduced a platform
for mobile health, called Simband, which could be used on smart
wrist bands and other mobile devices.
Samsung is looking for partners and will allow developers to try out
different sensors and software. One Samsung employee, who declined
to be named, said the company expects to foster noninvasive glucose
Sources said Samsung is working with startups to implement a
“traffic light” system in future Galaxy Gear smartwatches that
flashes blood-sugar warnings.
Samsung Ventures has made a number of investments in the field,
including in Glooko, a startup that helps physicians access their
patients' glucose readings, and in an Israeli glucose monitoring
startup through its $50 million Digital Health Fund.
Ted Driscoll, a health investor with Claremont Creek Ventures, told
Reuters he's heard pitches from potentially promising glucose
monitoring startups, over a dozen in recent memory.
Software developers say they hope to incorporate blood glucose data
into health apps, which is of particular interest to athletes and
"We're paying close attention to research around how sugar impacts
weight loss," said Mike Lee, cofounder of MyFitnessPal.
After decades of false starts, many medical scientists are confident
about a breakthrough on glucose monitoring. Processing power allows
quick testing of complex ideas, and the miniaturization of sensors,
the low cost of electronics, and the rapid proliferation of mobile
devices have given rise to new opportunities.
One optimist is Jay Subhash, a recently-departed senior product
manager for Samsung Electronics. "I wouldn't be at all surprised to
see it one of these days," he said.
(Editing by Edwin Chan and Peter Henderson)
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