Continuous Human Body Measurements Will Make Us Better

Shankar Chandran
Shankar Chandran

As Vice President of the Samsung Catalyst Fund at the Samsung Strategy and Innovation Center in Menlo Park, Calif., Shankar Chandran spearheads strategic investments in disruptive technologies with a special focus on mobile health. Earlier positions in engineering, business development, and management, as well as experience inventing and taking eight technologies through the patent process, and degrees in engineering, materials science, and business equip Chandran for eyeing early stage and disruptive venture capital investments in technologies targeted at high growth sectors including cloud infrastructure, mobile technology, mobile health, next-generation user interfaces, and the internet of things.

TEDMED: What’s the most remarkable innovation you are seeing in health tech or medicine, and what is driving it?

Chandran: It’s the coming together of sensors and algorithms. The human body is the most complex system out there and the only time we are used to measuring anything in the human body is when we go for our annual physical. Now, technology and market forces are converging to the point where sensors are becoming accurate enough and algorithms are becoming sophisticated enough to take continuous measurements of the human body. That is the most remarkable innovation in front of us. It never existed before.

The Samsung Gear Fit, for example, can be worn on your wrist and measures your heart rate continuously. And that is just the beginning. Imagine measuring not only heart rate, but also other important vital signs continuously and noninvasively. That changes the paradigm of collecting data about the body. And what is in the market today is just baby steps toward what is likely to happen over the next three to five years.

Here’s an example: Years ago, when jet engines were adopted, they were an incredibly complex system. They would take a jet engine down for preventive maintenance every 30,000 miles or so. Today we have hundreds of sensors in every engine that constantly measure so-called “vital signs.” The moment something varies from what is normal they take it down. They don’t want to wait until the thing fails, obviously. Consider that the human body is way more complex than a jet engine; we just haven’t been able to measure a lot of things very well until now.

TEDMED: What’s the most important factor for entrepreneurial success in health tech—and is that different from your own key to success?

Chandran: One of the key things for an entrepreneur in any of the new emerging health tech categories, such as digital health and mobile health, to think about as they develop their technology, product, and vision, is that it’s going to have to work for a lot of different people. We’re all different with respect to genetics, ethnicity, age, sex, habits, lifestyles, and so many other parameters that affect us. All of these things matter when it comes to doing something about heath tech. To be successful, entrepreneurs have to have a very broad vision that works for a very large segment of the population.

Does that apply at Samsung? Samsung’s success is probably the opposite: We’re a consumer electronics company. We have the ability to micro-market what we can do. We’re able to slice and dice the market and build so many variations of the same product that may work, for instance in Korea but not Japan, in the U.S. but not China. For instance, we make 100 different Galaxy phones to make it work anywhere in the world.

But it’s hard to micro-market a health tech algorithm or sensor that’s going to make people’s lives better. It’s going to have to work for everyone. So for entrepreneurial success in health tech, the vision needs to be broad. That’s a challenge that very few companies have been able to manage very well.

TEDMED: For entrepreneurs with needle-moving ideas in global health, what are the keys to finding collaborators and supporters across specialties, industries, and geographies?  

Chandran: First and foremost, the entrepreneur’s idea needs to be highly disruptive, and not just an incremental turn on something that exists already. It must fundamentally solve, through ingenuity, a problem that is very hard to solve. Collaborators, regardless of geographies, will naturally gravitate toward the most disruptive ideas.

Also, the solution to the problem needs to have a large enough impact. It needs to work for a large market. Big companies, global corporations, and established companies naturally gravitate toward large opportunities. If they see the potential for a little company that is solving a problem with a large addressable market, then that matters.

Third—and perhaps the most important key—is that the entrepreneur needs to have the ability to tell the story extremely well. New companies need to rise above the noise. Their ability to tell the story must answer the biggest questions about how disruptive they are and how they are solving a big problem effectively. If they can do that, that’s what will let them rise above the noise and attract people. In fact, the phones won’t stop ringing.

The greatest technology communicator I have ever had the opportunity to listen to in my career has been Steve Jobs. People might not know the number of times he would practice before he got on stage to present anything new. I have personally heard that he would practice at least 50–60 times before he gave a keynote at Apple’s worldwide developer conference or at the launch of the new iPod or iPhone. That tells you a lot. It says that communicating the quality of the idea and the size of the opportunity and the impact it’s going to have on people’s lives is as an important an entrepreneurial trait as it is to actually invent the thing.

TEDMED: In 2020, you’re asked to give a TEDMED talk about the biggest transformation you helped bring about in your field. What is it?

Chandran: Technologies will help us fundamentally change our habits to live a better life. These will be individualized technologies that measure the human body and generate data that can be compared to the population in general. It will be continuous—every second or several times a second, depending on the vital signs being measured. We will measure multiple vital signs to get insights about a person. We will use those to change habits around eating, sleeping, managing stress, and more.

As we all know, there’s $8 trillion spent around the world on health care; $3 trillion of that is spent in the U.S., primarily on diagnosing and fixing chronic diseases. If what I am predicting happens, then we prevent that spending on the chronic diseases by delaying or eliminating some of them. That becomes a big deal. That is the biggest transformation I think is possible over the next 5 or 10 years.

Chandran is a Curator for The Hive at TEDMED 2014.