For people with asthma, the basic inhaler has long been the best weapon against attacks, but some companies are beginning to arm patients with even higher tech tools.
On Thursday, one those companies, Madison, Wisc.-based Asthmapolis, said it had raised $5 million from The Social+Capital Partnership for its system that combines sensor technology, smartphones and personalized support. The Series A funding follows an undisclosed amount raised in a seed round and a $1.9 convertible note.
Co-founder and CEO David Van Sickle, a medical anthropologist who has spent his career studying asthma, said he started experimenting with the use of electronics and inhalers in 2006.
The basic concept behind the Asthmapolis technology is that patients are given a re-attachable Bluetooth-enabled sensor to affix to the top of their inhaler. Each time a patient uses the inhaler, the sensor records when and where it was used and then wirelessly transmits that information to the patient’s smartphone.
“The idea was if we could track how and when [inhalers] were used, we’d get a rich and valuable perspective on where, when and among whom asthma was a problem,” he said. “That would let physicians do a better job figuring out who needed more help [and] we could use that information to help patients [with] guidance and personalized feedback.” It could also help public health officials identify and map patterns, he added.
In 2010, Van Sickle teamed up with co-founders Mark Gehring and Greg Tracy to commercialize the product. Since then, it’s received FDA clearance and has closed deals with health plans like Amerigroup Florida/WellPoint and providers like New York’s Wyckoff Heights Medical Center.
Data-driven insights for managing symptoms
From Asthmapolis iOS and Android apps, as well as online, patients — and their physicians — can see logs of their own inhaler use, as well as view where other nearby Asthmapolis users seem to be having symptoms. The data is intended to help patients get a sense of where environmental triggers may be, as well inform ways of avoiding or managing them.
Van Sickle said the system also starts to learn from users’ data and sends notifications and updates with suggestions and feedback. For example, if it notices that a patient continues to experience symptoms at his office, the app will send an alert with a list of ways to avoid them.
For patients without a smartphone, Asthmapolis has partnered with Qualcomm Life so that sensor information can be sent to a base station and reports and notifications can be received via email, text and phone support.
In a pilot study evaluating the system’s effectiveness, the company said 60 percent of the participating asthma patients started the program with an uncontrolled condition. After three months, 50 percent of those patients were able to control their asthma and 70 percent of all participants were able to improve their level of control.
A $50 billion problem
Considering that about 26 million people in the U.S. have asthma, according to the CDC, and that the condition costs the country about $3,300 per person in medical expenses, missed school and work days and early deaths, savings from a system like Asthmapolis could add up. In total, the annual health care cost of asthma is estimated to be about $50 billion.
Asthmapolis’ system is one of the most comprehensive asthma solutions available, but other companies are also experimenting with sensor technology and inhalers. For example, researchers at AT&T Labs are working on a wireless asthma sensor that scans the air for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that may exacerbate asthma symptoms and then alerts patients via smartphone and other devices. A device from Siemens aims to warn patients about impending attacks by measuring nitric oxide in a patient’s breath, which can be an early sign of airway inflammation. And startup Geckocap targets kids with a colorful sensor-based inhaler attachment that helps kids remember when to use their inhaler and helps parents monitor their child’s usage.