Software industry veteran Steve Papermaster wants to disrupt the healthcare industry like ride-hailing companies are disrupting the auto industry. And Tuesday, Papermaster believes, was a beginning step in doing so.
Papermaster’s Austin-based molecular data firm, named Nano Global, announced Tuesday that it is developing a computer chip that will be able to recognize and analyze harmful bacteria and other organisms and relay that information to personal devices such as smartwatches.
The project, which is being developed alongside semiconductor firm Arm and with the aid of healthcare institutions, is aimed at transforming how humans understand the seemingly invisible bacteria around them.
"The ability to have a secure, safe and healthy future for everybody - for friends and families and communities is always a perpetual No. 1 priority for everybody," said Papermaster, who from 2001 to this year served as chair of the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. "Over the last several decades, even with advances in healthcare and the sciences, we are still losing the war to super bugs. We are overall behind in the ability to... detect what's around us. We are taking this challenge on because we believe in this mission."
A 2016 report by the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, a United Kingdom-commissioned group tasked with analyzing global threats of drug resistance, reported that 700,000 people die every year from microbes that develop resistance to treatments. The issue, RAR said, are in existing drugs that become less effective against certain microbes.
Nano Global, a company of roughly 50 employees that Papermaster launched in early 2015, has developed products such as an FDA-registered hand sanitizer with a patented molecule, but mostly the company has conducted research into machine learning algorithms and the detection of harmful pathogens through artificial intelligence.
Its new system-on-a-chip product will build on that progress to offer a product that could collect various data on harmful bacteria that lives around humans, Papermaster said.
Nano Global is planning to develop the chips for products such as smartwatches, smartphones and other personal devices that could communicate the information to users.
The end goal, Papermaster said, is for people to better understand the potential harmful pathogens around them and be able to more quickly address healthcare threats. Papermaster said the technology could be crucial to catching potentially dangerous bacteria before medical issues such as infections - or even cancer - happen.
“We believe the technology Nano Global is delivering will be an important step forward in the collective pursuit of care that improves lives through the application of technology,” Rene Haas, executive vice president at Arm, said in a statement. “By collaborating with Nano Global, Arm is taking an active role in developing and deploying the technologies that will move us one step closer to solving complex health challenges.”
Nano Global is also working with research institutions that include the Baylor College of Medicine and National University of Singapore. Papermaster would not say if his firm is yet working with companies such as Apple. Together, Nano Global and its partners are attempting to have the chip be available in the marketplace by 2020.
But Nano Global is also proceeding with caution. While the firm believes this technology could be a breakthrough for the healthcare industry, Papermaster said he understands any skepticism the public might have about the project.
“There is no question that every time the sun is shining brightly, you have to wonder what is in the shadows,” he said. “We are investing in every level of security and safety of this platform and technology. We will have very strong outreach in the government level, nonprofits, etc. A big part of this is that we design not only the technology but also look at the (risks) of it before this technology begins to impact the world - much like self-driving car companies and ride-sharing services are investing in making sure there are no accidents.”