Merck aims to put Amazon's Alexa to work on voice-enabled diabetes tools

Merck & Co. struck a deal with Amazon Web Services to create voice-enabled solutions for patients living with chronic diseases, and a diabetes innovation challenge is first on the list.

Alexa? Help pharma find patient solutions.

That’s what Merck & Co. is aiming for in its new partnership with Amazon Web Services to develop digital voice-enabled solutions for people living with chronic diseases.

Using Amazon Lex, the brains behind the Amazon Echo device and its well-known voice-enabled assistant Alexa, Merck plans to initially work on diabetes. Its first initiative is the Alexa Diabetes Challenge, a call to entrepreneurs, techies and industry types to come up with innovative voice-enabled solutions for type 2 diabetes patients. Users can sign up for information and notification when the challenge begins (expected to be later this month) at alexadiabeteschallenge.com.

The yet-to-be-named challenge will be run by strategy and innovation consultancy Luminary Labs. While specifics haven’t been released, the call to action will “be open to solutions broadly enough that innovators of all stripes can come up with really novel ideas but being narrow enough to provide guidance and carefully evaluate submissions,” said Sara Holoubek, founder and CEO of Luminary Labs.

An independent jury will evaluate the submissions based on their use of voice-enabled technology that addresses Type 2 diabetes patient issues.

Merck's long-term plan is to create tools for other chronic diseases using the same Amazon Lex platform and the voice-enabled Alexa home system.

Analysts estimate Amazon will sell more than 110 million Amazon Echo devices over the next four years, and many are already pointing to healthcare as an important item on Alexa's eventual to-do list.

“Users will soon go far beyond turning on lights or calling an Uber, and will venture deeper into healthcare, helping people better manage treatments and communicate with caregivers," Luminary notes on its website. "From reminding people of their nutrition plans to scheduling their insulin dosages, the Merck-sponsored Alexa challenge will call on developers to push the boundaries of voice technology for people with diabetes."

Editor's Note: The story has been updated to reflect the announcement of the name and URL of the Alexa diabetes innovation challenge sponsored by Merck.