Gary West on San Diego’s West Wireless Health Institute and ‘Always On’ Medicine

As the international wireless industry group CTIA convenes its 2009 conference on information technology and entertainment in downtown San Diego this week, one of the emerging sectors claiming much of the agenda and industry attention is wireless healthcare.

San Diego, with its concentration of both life sciences and wireless technology startups, also has emerged as a de facto capital of wireless healthcare—particularly since March 30, when the Gary and Mary West Foundation founded the West Wireless Health Institute atop La Jolla’s Torrey Pines Mesa and provided $45 million in startup funding.

The non-profit institute, which is focused primarily on research and education, ranks as one of the first organizations in the world to seek improvements in healthcare specifically through advances in wireless technologies. In June, the institute revealed its first clinical research program, which involves testing remote heart monitoring technology for San Jose, CA-based Corventis. But the institute hasn’t announced much else since then. So I arranged to get an update on its progress from Gary West, the founder and board chairman.

West moved to San Diego from Omaha, NE, after making his fortune in telemarketing and in providing customer services for the telecommunications industry. He says he founded the institute to help address the costly inefficiencies that plague our healthcare system, and at a panel discussion last night at Qualcomm, he used his personal encounter with high blood pressure as an example. West says when his high blood pressure was initially diagnosed, his doctor prescribed medication and told him to return in six weeks to see if it was working. He returned; it wasn’t. So his doctor prescribed another medication and told him to come back in six weeks. West says the hit-or-miss process, which took about six months to get right, could be done far easier and less expensively by using sensors and wireless technologies to monitor patient response.

What is most immediately striking, though, is the sheer scale of West’s thinking. At a time when the Obama Administration’s plans for healthcare reform are sputtering, West views the institute as nothing less than a catalyst for overhauling a costly and overburdened U.S health system. West pointedly tells me he doesn’t care whether or not healthcare reform includes a public option—which has become one of the polarizing issues in the political debate in Washington D.C.

“That’s all noise to me,” West says. “What we’re talking about is going to benefit the world of healthcare from a quality and cost standpoint, regardless of what methodology they choose to deliver healthcare.”

He contends that unless escalating medical costs are reigned in, the American healthcare system will bankrupt our economy. To West, the institute’s prime directive is driving innovations in wireless technology to take costs out of the healthcare system—while at the same time maintaining healthcare services that are as good or better than what exists now. West says he does not see solving the problem with a single advance or approach, but rather with a series of initiatives that will undoubtedly threaten vested healthcare interests, entrenched bureaucracies, and political factions.

“This is probably the most difficult thing to work out of anything you could pick out in the whole world today,” West says. “But the stakes are so big and things are going so bad that I just felt compelled to spend my time and my money to help this country, as well as the rest of the world, see some things they have not seen before.”

His plans for the institute include hiring 20 to 25 post-doctoral researchers, whose job will be to help bring innovative wireless health technologies to market. “Most of the people who are going to need help are going to be young entrepreneurs,” West says. He sees them conducting laboratory research and helping with clinical trials for client companies like Corventis.

West also has ambitious plans for generating substantial revenue streams to sustain the non-profit institute, and it will be interesting to see how these ideas play out.

One idea that West outlined for me calls for establishing an engineering skunk works to advance the institute’s own ideas for technology innovation, and to generate funding by commercializing the products created there.

Another idea is to provide business and technology innovation mentoring services to entrepreneurs—in exchange for some sort of royalty or an equity stake in the startup company developing the technology. West says the institute also will have access to startup capital, either from the institute itself or from venture capital firms, which West says already have shown strong interest in funding startups through the institute.

“We are going to go out and develop our own revenue streams,” West says.

Wireless Health development at the Institute

Wireless Health development at the Institute

By hiring industry and regulatory experts, West also expects the institute to generate a smaller revenue stream by providing specialized classes to fulfill continuing education requirements for physicians, nurse practitioners, and others. He also expects to use conventional methods to help the organization sustain itself, such as seeking additional donations from other philanthropists and applying for federal grants to do certain kinds of work.

“I don’t want to count on it,” West says. “It’s not guaranteed money. But that’s money that is out there.”

West has had some experience in the field. He began his career in hospital administration, and founded a number of telemarketing companies, including West TeleServices, which became customer relationship management specialist West Corp., with more than 35,000 employees and $3.5 billion in annual sales. West and his wife formed the Gary and Mary West Foundation in 2006, after the Quadrangle Group and Thomas H. Lee Partners took West Corp. private.

To accomplish the ambitious goals that West has set for the institute, he also has been personally driving the CEO recruitment search with fellow board members Don Jones, a Qualcomm vice president of health and life sciences, and Dr. Eric Topol, a prominent cardiologist at Scripps Health in San Diego and director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute. (Scripps Health is the West Institute’s healthcare affiliate and Qualcomm is the Institute’s corporate technology sponsor.)

“We want somebody who is passionate about changing the way we think about healthcare, and the way healthcare is delivered,” West says. “This is a big, big job that is about a whole range of things—from changing the way government reimburses things to the way physicians conduct their practice.”

West says the board is looking for a “superstar-quality” person. “We want to find somebody with a medical background, who understands [health insurance] reimbursement, re-insurance, and how physicians buy things, and who also has a strong analytical background coupled with wireless technologies and its limitations and opportunities…Right now, it’s really hard to find a perfect candidate that really scores high in all those areas.”

Filling the institute’s CEO position “is the one thing that really keeps me up at night,” West says.

In the meantime, West says remodeling of the institute’s 30,000-square-foot building—including research labs, engineering areas, and more than 75 offices—is near completion. Institute staffers are expected to move in next month, and the facility should be open for business by Jan. 1, 2010.

Says its founder, “When people see the institute, their jaws are going to drop, their eyes are going to open, and they are going to say, ‘Wow, this is the real deal.’”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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