This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of WIRED magazine. Be the first to read WIRED's articles in print before they're posted online, and get your hands on loads of additional content by subscribing online.
Uber, Facebook, Alibaba and Airbnb all have something in common: none of these companies owns the asset that generates its unprecedented revenue (taxis, content, inventory and property rental). This new business model is overhauling key industries throughout the economy. What is the equivalent in healthcare?
Healthcare is an ecosystem mired with inefficiencies. The US healthcare industry costs a whopping $2.9 trillion (£2tr) annually, eating away at 18 per cent of GDP. That's far beyond peer nations in per capita healthcare costs. And if that seems like a colossal expense, take note – healthcare is predicted to soar to 21 per cent of US GDP by 2021. That's more than all of China's annual private consumption – food, cars, education – and it's more than annual oil consumption worldwide. Add to that the ageing populations throughout the world and it's clear – something's gotta give.
But who's going to cure the west's ailing healthcare system? There are a number of moonshots – large–scale government or enterprise–backed initiatives – promising to revolutionise the sector, such as gene therapies, with powerful gene-editing technologies like CRISPR promising to transform medicine. Costs associated with gene therapy have plummeted – where it once cost $100 million to decode one gene sequence, it now costs $1,000.
But it's not only grand initiatives that are transforming healthcare. There is a swarm of digital healthcare startups that is seeking to unbundle specific health challenges. Moonshots rely on hundreds of billions of dollars of government grants or research endowments, but startups are able to disrupt their niches on very little money. And that's because someone else is paying to develop much of their technology – you, your friends and Kim Kardashian.
Our exploding online social interaction – a world where we reach for our smartphones a typical 155 times a day, where 52 billion messages are sent daily via WhatsApp, where you, Kim Kardashian and everyone else upload two billion pictures daily – puts enormous pressure on the smartphone industry to create and upgrade the technologies that accommodate this behaviour. This includes super-high-resolution cameras, vast cellular bandwidth required to upload all our photos to the cloud, and the seemingly endless storage technology.
This very technology that allows us to keep up with the Kardashians also makes our smartphones unparalleled medical devices. So, for example, a startup called Tissue Analytics lets you take pictures of a wound over time on your smartphone, allowing doctors to determine whether it's healing or festering. AliveCor lets you capture an electrocardiogram at home and alerts doctors if something is wrong with your heart. Netra Labs lets you take eye tests at home using mobile technology.
China's internet giant Tencent recently acquired a major stake in Guahao, a startup that grew a massive user base as it enabled real-time geolocated physician appointments. This service was integrated into WeChat, as part of Tencent's vision of social digital healthcare. And there's a hardware and medical device arm – evident in the company's recent unveiling of its own glucometer.
From a macro perspective, the Chinese healthcare opportunity in the coming decade will be equivalent to the scale of the manufacturing growth in the past two decades. Today, after the 2010-2015 plan added 60 per cent of the population into the mandatory healthcare coverage (now more than 90 per cent), the country is still spending only half of the OECD average on healthcare. Assuming the government realises its healthcare vision for the coming decade and reaches OECD-level spending as share of GDP (11 per cent), Chinese healthcare will grow into an annual $1.4 trillion market. The local ecosystem is aligning to capture this opportunity.
Because of all we are demanding from our smartphones and social networks, entrepreneurs with limited resources can now do what only governments could do ten years ago. All of these companies and hundreds more are leveraging today's Kardashianomics to make healthcare easier and effective while significantly reducing costs and freeing up our lives.
Thanks to these digital wonders that define our engagement with today's technology and the startups that are harnessing it, our healthcare system is going to improve exponentially, and we as individuals are going to live longer… and better. And we've got you and Kim to thank for it.
Jonathan Adiri is the founder and CEO of Healthy.io and former chief technology officer to Simon Peres, then president of Israel