Alexa-enabled diabetes manager, complete with foot-scanning scale, nabs Merck prize

Check your feet. Track your blood sugar. Have you taken your meds? That's the sort of thing diabetes patients might eventually hear from Alexa using Sugarpod, a voice-enabled diabetes care plan from Wellpepper that took the top prize in a Merck-sponsored contest.

For the Alexa Diabetes Challenge—and the $125,000 grand prize—Wellpepper created a prototype scale, integrated into a diabetes care plan, that scans and records images of patients’ feet. Because diabetes can cause nerve damage and affect blood circulation to patients' feet, it's important that they check for problems to catch any wounds or ulcers early on.

The current scale prototype uses AI to scan for foot ulcers, but will eventually do thermographic sensing and neuropathy testing for even earlier detection, Wellpepper co-founder and CEO Anne Weiler told FiercePharma. Early detection of hot spots that might indicate infection is particularly important in people who already have neuropathy and may not realize they have a sore or the beginning of one, she said. Foot ulcers are the leading cause of amputations, as well as increase risk for hospitalizations, in people with diabetes.

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Wellpepper is now investigating how to bring the device to market, Weiler said, and has already had initial discussions with several partners.

With Sugarpod, users can also use their voices to complete daily tasks, from recording blood sugar levels and mealtimes to tracking their medication adherence.

“Voice is very exciting. We noticed that people just really wanted to interact with it, both clinicians and patients. People wanted to continue the conversation and were quite colloquial in the way they talked," Weiler said. "I think there’s an emotional attachment to voice that’s even greater than our attachment to mobile, so there’s a great opportunity there."

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She added that voice will be just one component, albeit a powerful one, of digital health plans through Sugarpod, which also includes mobile, SMS and web elements.

Tony Alvarez, president of the primary care business line and customer strategy at Merck, said new technologies are creating opportunities to use digital health to help support people managing a chronic illness. "One purpose of the Alexa Diabetes Challenge was to identify new ways to use the technology already present in a patient’s daily routine," Alvarez said in a release. "The winner of the Challenge did just that.”

The Alexa Diabetes Challenge attracted 96 submissions from researchers, software companies, startups and healthcare providers, which were narrowed down to five finalists who presented their ideas live to an audience and panel of judges in late September. The Challenge began in April and, along with Merck's sponsorship, was supported by Amazon Web Services and Luminary Labs.