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CES15: What Happened in Vegas


Pharmaceutical Executive

Bill Drummy presents the highlights (what he will admit to, anyway) from this month's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

“So you’re going to Las Vegas for a health conference?  Riiiight.”  That was my wife Barrie’s reaction when she saw my January schedule.  “Really, it’s NOT a boondoggle,” I defended myself. “It’s one of the biggest technology events in the world. And healthcare is one of the biggest things at CES.”

“And, it’s in Vegas, in January. It didn’t escape your attention that it’s in Vegas, right?”  Her words dipped in a froth of contempt.

“Yes, that also happens to be true.”

“Well I don’t want to hear any complaints about how hard you’re working.”

So I will spare her (and you) the less glamorous details of CES15 (like walking 12 miles in a single day, according to my Jawbone UP24 Bluetooth activity tracker, or my horrendous economy minus seat next to a sociopath on USAIR) and just share what I learned.

Nothing exceeds like excess

CES (or, more technically, the International Consumer Electronics Show) is the largest of all the trade shows in a town that holds the world’s largest trade shows. This year, there were some 170,000 attendees, visiting exhibits that covered 2.2 million square feet containing the most fervent display of attention-grabbing techniques 3,600 exhibitors could conjure. (Drones flying inside steel death cages; 3D printers extruding designer chocolates and designer apparel; an escape artist exiting a straightjacket while riding a unicycle, while - and this was the hard part - giving a 10 minute sales pitch.) 

The subset of CES called Digital Health Summit was itself said to have attracted about 17,000 attendees and had its own spatial exhibit floor in the Venetian Hotel & Casino (where I saw none of my clients at blackjack tables at all.) 

I soon learned that, unlike say TEDMED or SXSW, at CES basically everyone goes for the Exhibits, and the Conference Sessions are more of an after-thought. 

Which was a shame (and a real drag for the speakers slotted at the end of the conference, when attendance was truly sparse), because there was some incredibly compelling content that hardly anyone seemed to see.


The Digital Health Summit at this year’s CES was comprised of two days of back-to-back sessions, some twelve sessions in all, with topics ranging from “Consumer Accessible Innovation” to “Reinventing the Doctor-Patient Relationship.”  

While I did not attend every session (there was the adjoining oceanic trade floor to circumnavigate, after all) here are my top take-aways from a pharma perspective:

Novartis and the innovation imperative

The formidable Corinne Savill, Novartis’ Head of Business Development and Licensing, spoke about a new way to use social media in pharma -- social for a larger purpose. Interviewed by Rick Valencia (@bootstrapped) from Qualcomm Life (@qualcommlife), Savill declared how “vitally important it is for Novartis to be able to demonstrate the value of their medicines.”  To that end, Savill spoke of the role social media initiatives like “Set Your Sights” (a content-rich, non-branded initiative focused on vision health) can play as “a platform for patient engagement.” 

“We want to maximize the ability for patients to give input through social media” by means of de-personalized, anonymous, pooled data.  So it’s not just about providing unbranded patient education in a relevant therapeutic category (although “Set Your Sights” does that very well); it’s also about gathering human insights and leanings in a way that respects patient privacy. “We must understand the core motivation of our patient,” she said.

Coincidentally (or maybe not?), at the same time CES was going on, Novartis and Qualcomm Life announced a $100 million fund to invest in “technologies, products or services that ‘go beyond the pill’ to benefit physicians and patients.”

Sensing an opportunity:  UCB’s Neupro and Biosensors

Dr. James Zackheim is Vice President – Patient Solutions for Neupro®, UCB’s treatment for Parkinson’s Disease and Restless Leg Syndrome, (disclosure: my agency, Heartbeat Ideas, works on a competing brand, XenoPort’s Horizant, which also has an indication for RLS) presented along with Rav Sheth from MC10, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company with a goal to “to redefine the interface between electronics and the human body.” 

UCB and MC10 are working on sensor technology to “connect data coming from a wearable patch to outcomes,” according to Dr. Zackheim.  So this is another example of the burgeoning partnerships developing between pharma and tech companies (there are now quite a few, including those announced by Novartis, Otsuka, and Abbvie, to mention just the most publicized examples).  On this theme, Dr. Zackheim made one of my favorite comments of the conference, “Regarding these partnerships with pharma, the mind is willing but the flesh is weak.” 

Sheth underscored the degree of disruptive novelty inherent in pharma working with such fast-changing technologies: “What we are showing today is not what UCB saw six to nine months ago; that version was two generations less developed.”

John Nosta (@johnnosta), my fellow Google Health Advisory Board member, moderated the UCB panel and made an indelible point about their new patch, while apparently holding it up to the audience. “Can’t see the patch? Good. That’s the point. The point is that the patch disappears.”

Nearly invisible, yet hardly impassive, as data from the patch can potentially help UCB improve efficacy, learn about optimal dosing, monitor compliance, and ultimately help establish whether the therapy is improving outcomes.

Neurotrack and early Alzheimer’s detection

Do you see a theme emerging here? Yes, it’s using technology to improve outcomes. (Although I absolutely refuse to ever again say “Beyond the Pill.” Never ever.) But there was another, less obvious and perhaps even more significant trend brought to life in two other presentations.

Isabel Hoffman (@isabelhoffmann) is a Serial Entrepreneur and the Founder and CEO of TellSpec, (@tellspec) a company creating a pioneering technology to allow people to really know what they are eating (and what may be making them obese, diabetic, toxic, or ill in a myriad of other ways).  

TellSpec (which is an attractive company in need of a tastier name) uses spectroscopy to analyze any kind of foodstuff and tell the ‘consumer’ what it really contains on a molecular level, and whether it is in fact good for you to eat. The handheld TellSpec device shines a laser on the food and then examines the photons bouncing back to analyze the ingredients; algorithms then compare the food to knowledge in a quickly growing food database. In seconds, you can know what’s really in your food, including allergens, toxins and carcinogens.

“Wow” I tweeted. Assuming this technology proves reliable, TellSpec will be taking food tracking up a quantum level (almost literally). And empowering people to make wiser decisions to prevent disease from occurring in the first place.

The second highly memorable predictive technology I encountered was presented by another impressive woman entrepreneur: Elli Kaplan, co-founder and CEO of Neurotrack (@neurotrack).  Taking advantage of three decades of research at Emory University, the company has developed a novel approach for the early identification of Alzheimer’s Disease. The ugly truth about this horrifying condition is that the overwhelming majority of drugs that have been developed to fight it have failed. A big reason for the almost complete lack of success is that scientists have typically tested compounds on patients whose disease was already very far advanced. But Alzheimer’s starts developing 20-30 years before symptoms become obvious. So how do we find earlier stage patients so that we can start to better understand the disease and develop better treatments? (And also identify patients early enough for interventional treatment to do some good.)

Neurotrack has developed technology that they claim enables earlier-onset patients to be more easily identified (assuming they can find enough brave people to get tested before they have symptoms in order to find out if they might have a - thus far - incurable disease.) This is how the early detection works: Neurotrack uses eye scanning technology to track the brain’s response to images; when presented with two images - one novel, the other familiar - a normal human brain will respond with greater attention to the novel image; but in early-onset Alzheimer’s, the person shows no preference for the novel image (it’s as if she sees both images as ‘new’). Kaplan said their technology had a very high accuracy rate in predicting who would develop Alzheimer’s.

A crucial requirement for the success of Neurotrack’s approach, of course, is getting enough patients to participate, and ‘crowdsourcing’ the data so that scientists have a large enough pool of patients to gain insights about how the disease develops and what drugs might slow, halt, or reverse its progression.

So with both Neurotrack and TellSpec we are seeing how technology can be used to predict and even prevent disease.

Too bad most people missed the news.

Enhanced and evolved: Not just the future of advertising - the future of ad agencies

One of my goals in going to CES was to look far beyond the healthcare cave and see what’s going on in the bright, fresh air of the larger marketing world. 

The way CES is set up, that meant taking a 25-minute hike from the Venetian Casino Hotel to the Las Vegas Convention Center. Which by the way, nobody does in Las Vegas - walk between venues.  There are barely sidewalks. But I needed my steps and I hate waiting in shuttle bus lines.  A lot more walking goes on at SXSW, btw. It’s an Austin thing.

But I did manage to see Neil Young (@neilyoung) explain why the world needs his new high-fidelity lossless compression standard, Pono, (that session being a complete indulgence I will not even attempt to justify to my wife) and, more legitimately, I took in a very inspiring session called “The Future of Enhanced Advertising: Brands and Entertainment.” This panel included Jeremy Levine from Live Nation (@livenation), the music event company, Dan Riess from Turner Broadcasting, Mark Ruxin (@Ruxputin) COO of online music app Rdio, Steven Capone (@scapone) from Xbox Advertising, and Vin Farrell, (@vinfarrell) Global Chief Content Officer, Havas Worldwide, an ad agency network.

The meme about advertising morphing into something more akin to content and entertainment has been flitting around for a bunch of years now; every agency that matters is talking about “Content Creation” and creating positions with titles like Mr. Farrell’s. 

What interested me in this discussion was not its buzzwordiness but the clarity about real value exchange that came out in the discussion. Farrell: “Really shitty product placement is not enhanced advertising.”  Capone: “Enhanced is really about how you are enhancing the consumer’s life.” (That last bit should be tattooed on the neck of every pharma brand person who claims to care about patient engagement.  And In Vegas, you can do that in about an hour.)

And Levine from Live Nation, a group with some incredible credibility on the subject: “We look at live performance as the seed; it comes back to the value proposition - how do we super-serve the customer every step through their experience.”

Speaking of super-serving our customers, what about agencies? How are we super-serving our customers in this new, “Enhanced” marketing environment? We keep telling our clients they have to evolve to succeed in the new, connected world we are all living in.  But how do agencies need to evolve?

In some sense, it’s about returning to Mad Men-era fundamentals. Farrell: “Agencies should be incented for performance; getting back to the original role of ad agencies: you’re paid to grow the business.”

As an agency CEO who offers risk/reward-sharing models to our clients, I say “Amen” to that.

But, at the same time, it’s also about re-thinking the fundamentals.  Farrell: “Agencies won’t be relevant if they can’t move faster for the connected world.  You can’t be afraid of change, trying to hold onto control; we have to lead the change, or the agency will become irrelevant.”

Fitting words to wrap up my three days in Vegas. 

Yet I did not say this when I returned home to NYC: “Honey, I went to Vegas because I needed a change.”  

Bill Drummy (@drumbeat) is Founder & CEO of Heartbeat Ideas & Heartbeat West



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