Tech it out: Pfizer, AARP and UnitedHealthcare push innovation

By Beth Snyder Bulik

It's no secret that technology is transforming healthcare. But Big Pharma? Not quite yet. Some risk-averse drugmakers have been slow to adopt the digital lifestyle.

But Pfizer ($PFE), AARP and UnitedHealthcare ($UNH) figure that teaming up in a joint research venture could accelerate their tech efforts. The idea is not only that these traditional players work together, but also to invite tech entrepreneurs to share data and help develop solutions.

The venture, called Project Catalyst, is focusing on technology for people over age 50--not surprisingly, given AARP's involvement. Direct connections with patients--and continual feedback from them--are also key to the project. The goal is to learn which technologies work best for consumers, and to help industry traditionalists learn how to work better with start-up tech companies.

Pfizer worldwide innovation VP Wendy Mayer

Wendy Mayer, Pfizer's VP for worldwide innovation, said the idea began in conversations with AARP about the challenges of finding and incorporating new technologies in healthcare.

"We thought why not collaborate with all parts of the ecosystem and get a much more efficient system, learn more together and not be really competitive … ultimately for the patients' benefit," she said.

Project Catalyst's first study--which is just finishing--focused on wearable health-and-fitness trackers. Initial results are set to be reported later this month at the Health Evolution Summit. AARP and Georgia Tech led the effort, which followed 80 people ages 50 and older who used a variety of sleep and activity wearables over six weeks.

Pfizer will play a major role in the next study, which takes on medication adherence, a problem the entire industry would like to tackle. While the tech companies are still being chosen, Mayer said three to five different solutions will eventually be tested with AARP participants.

The partners are considering a range of technologies, such as automated reminders, including apps and smart pill bottles; patient engagement models that include wearables; and gamification ideas that offer alternative motivations for taking medications. Ideas that work could then be used to keep patients on their drugs, in clinical trials and in the real world, Mayer said. Other Project Catalyst studies will follow.

"The target market in this case is 50-plus, which is an important market for us, but it will give us a lot of insight into what direction we can take across all our categories," Mayer said.

Other pharma players have been partnering with smaller companies to pair pills with technology. Sanofi ($SNY), for instance, has experimented with diabetes-focused apps and games, and one of its blood glucose meters is designed to be paired with a smartphone, to track readings over time. Meanwhile, Novartis ($NVS) has teamed up with a company that's far from small; the Swiss drugmaker and Google ($GOOG) are working on a contact lens that can track blood sugar in the wearer's tears.