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Tiny Devices Propel the Rising Popularity of Self-Tracking

How well did you sleep last night? Did you get enough exercise today? Consumers are increasingly turning to tiny, noninvasive personal health gadgets that track the body’s biometric information and then provide an objective, quantitative answer.

Among the most well-known devices are the Zeo personal sleep coach, made by Zeo Inc. of Newton, Mass., and the activity tracking device Fitbit, from San Francisco-based Fitbit Inc., but there are at least a dozen more that are on the market or in development.

Self-tracking is a consumer-centric segment of the wireless health industry that’s poised to take off in 2012, local observers say. While the San Diego business implications of the self-tracking phenomenon are still to be determined — most of the consumer device makers are in the Bay Area or the East Coast — observers say that local companies such as wireless behemoth Qualcomm Inc. and genetic analysis company Illumina Inc. stand to gain from the trend.

“There’s a huge interest today in self-tracking,” said Ernesto Ramirez, a doctoral student at UC San Diego who co-founded Quantified Self San Diego, a grass-roots group of about 160 people who meet regularly to share their self-tracking discoveries. The next meeting will be in mid-January at the West Wireless Health Institute, a nonprofit medical research organization in La Jolla that’s seeking to make San Diego an international hub for mobile health.

“It allows people to become more aware of their own lives,” said Ramirez, who also helps with research projects at the Center for Wireless and Population Health Systems at UCSD, and collaborates with the Quantified Self national group in San Francisco.

Devices Enable Self-Tracking

Quantified Selfers aren’t required to use wireless equipment — even handwritten notes in a journal will suffice to track certain data — but the fact that devices are getting smaller and more widely available is enabling the trend, he said.

San Francisco-based Jawbone, the wireless earpiece maker, in November released a product called UP, a durable bracelet that tracks your daily activities, including sleep and exercise, and communicates wirelessly with your iPhone or iPad. But the company halted shipments and offered to refund consumers the full $100 in early December after it discovered glitches that it’s now working to correct.

San Diego-based digital health enthusiast Paul Sonnier was among the disappointed consumers whose UP never arrived. Sonnier, founder of the 8,000-plus member Wireless Health group on LinkedIn, is now eagerly awaiting his heart-monitoring Basis watch, which has yet to be released by Basis Science Inc. of San Francisco. He attended one Quantified Self meet-up earlier this year and says he was inspired by the members’ passion.

Sonnier said that San Diego has tremendous brainpower devoted to wireless health, with bright minds like Scripps Health Chief Academic Officer Eric Topol, a cardiologist who is at the forefront of using mobile technology to improve health. In December, Topol launched the electronic version of his book, “The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care.”

“We now have the extraordinary, innovative tools to digitize human beings and prevent diseases and conditions that otherwise would occur,” Topol said. “However, the only way this can move forward is through a consumer revolution — the reason I wrote the book.”

Clinical, Consumer Applications

Yet for all of the brainpower in San Diego, most of the product development and commercialization of wireless health devices have been focused on clinical applications for use in hospitals and at-home patient monitoring, not on the strictly consumer side of things.

Larry Smarr, founding director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), a La Jolla-based partnership between UCSD and UC Irvine, said that may change as the self-tracking subsector matures.

More consumers will be taking on a “preventative maintenance” approach to their bodies, proactively testing their own blood and even their own stool to monitor various health metrics, he said. And the companies that will be behind the scenes analyzing those samples could very well drive demand for San Diego mainstays such as Illumina, which specializes in making equipment for DNA, RNA, and protein analysis.

And Qualcomm, which in early December made big news in the mobile health sector when it formed a subsidiary Qualcomm Life Inc., which will sell wireless connectivity tools and services to the medical device and health care industries.

Qualcomm Life’s inaugural product is the 2net Platform, which connects medical devices to a cloud-based system to transmit and remotely display a patient’s health data, such as blood glucose levels or sleep breathing patterns. While the initial focus is on helping doctors track patients remotely, it’s easy to see how the business could transfer to the consumer side, Smarr said.

“San Diego is at the bull’s-eye of the counterrevolution going on in health today,” he said. “So much information is already in your body, but you just don’t normally know how to read it out. That’s all changing now.”

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