'Alexa, help manage my diabetes.' That's what Merck and its contest finalists envision for the Amazon platform

Amazon Alexa (Amazon)
Merck's Alexa Diabetes Challenge has named five finalists in its search for voice-enabled solutions for people with diabetes.

What can Amazon Alexa can do for people with diabetes? When Merck & Co.’s Alexa Diabetes Challenge posed that question earlier this year, contest entries turned the voice-enabled system into a mood-sensing coach, a nutrition assistant and a sleuth that detects risky behaviors.

Those ideas are three of the five finalists selected from a field of 96 submissions in the idea contest, the brainchild of Merck—which makes Januvia, one of the world's top-selling diabetes drugs—Luminary Labs and Amazon Web Services.

Merck's long-term plan is to create tools for other chronic diseases using the same Amazon Lex smart platform and the voice-enabled Alexa home system. While mobile apps are common in the pharma world, this is the first contest to build on a voice-enabled home system.

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The first finalist is a mood-sensing virtual voice assistant called DiaBetty, submitted by a group at the University of Illinois. It can give advice attuned to patients' moods and deliver educational information to help them better manage their condition.

A nutrition assistant called T2D2 comes from a Ph.D. student and his team at Columbia University. It uses machine learning to offer recommendations, meal planning and education in real time, and also offers food and glucose logging and allows caregivers easy remote interactivity.

The intelligent personal assistant platform creator Ejenta advanced into the finals with PIA, or personal intelligent agents. Its entry aims to leverage NASA artificial intelligence technology and Internet of Things connectivity to detect risky behaviors and encourage healthy habits. The system could also notify care teams if abnormalities are detected.

The other two finalists are Sugarpod from digital treatment plan company Wellpepper and My GluCoach from tech consultant HCL America and its partner Ayogo, a patient engagement software company. Sugarpod includes a “comprehensive diabetes care plan for someone newly diagnosed, and a novel Alexa-enabled device to check for foot problems, a common complication of diabetes mellitus,” while My GluCoach offers a voice-based diabetes teacher, lifestyle coach and personal assistant rolled into one.

Each finalist receives $25,000 and the chance to compete for the top prize of $125,000, as well as expert coaching and mentoring as they flesh out their proposals. The challenge began in April with almost 100 eventual submissioms, which were whittled down to the final five by a panel of independent judges. The winner will be chosen at a final pitch presentation to the judges at Amazon Web Services’ Demo Day on Sept. 25 in New York and announced in October, a spokeswoman said.

"We are extremely impressed with the novel thinking brought forth in the finalist submissions," said Kimberly Park, vice president of customer strategy and innovation at Merck’s Global Human Health, in a press release. "These five concepts help us envision how voice technology can help improve health and quality of life for patients with chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes."

In general, digital health technology for people with both Type 1 and 2 diabetes is running ahead of the curve in the overall pharma world, in part because they are a large audience, but also because people with diabetes must manage their conditions daily, or even hourly, a process that's made easier by technology that tracks, organizes and offers help. There are literally hundreds of diabetes management and tracking apps, from pharma partnerships like Roche and mySugr or Novo Nordisk and Glooko to even more from independents like One Drop and Glucose Buddy.