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West Wireless Health Institute Distances Itself from Qualcomm, Seeks to Recast its Role

Opinion

Xconomy San Diego — 

When the West Wireless Health Institute named Don Casey as its first CEO last year, the San Diego nonprofit said the former Johnson & Johnson executive was hired to drive development of the institute as “a world-class research organization focused on accelerating wireless health innovations, technology incubation, advocacy and education.”

Today the institute is describing its mission differently. Instead of working to “accelerate wireless health innovations” (as an end in itself), the institute has a more pronounced mission to lower the cost of healthcare. Casey says the difference does not reflect a change in the institute’s core strategy as a catalyst for innovation—but rather a shift in emphasis.

The distinction is crucial, though, because it reflects how the institute has struggled through key personnel moves and other internal changes—including a move to distance itself from Qualcomm—in an effort to redefine its prime directive.

By shedding some commercial initiatives and overt industry ties, the institute has sought to recast itself as what Casey calls an independent and “honest broker” for events like the all-day conference on “Health Care Innovation” that the institute is hosting in Washington D.C. on April 28. In organizing the conference as a free and open event, the institute has refined its identity and adopted a new role for itself among government policy makers, regulators, strategic leaders, business development executives, and technology specialists who have an interest in health care and wireless innovation.

Don Casey

As part of its struggle—or “evolution,” as Casey prefers to put it—the institute has moved to distance itself from San Diego-based Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM). So the institute no longer refers to the world’s biggest wireless chipmaker as “a founding sponsor.” Likewise, Qualcomm Vice President Don Jones, who heads Qualcomm’s initiatives in wireless health and life sciences, resigned last year from the institute as “a founding board member,” and Qualcomm no longer has a seat in the institute’s boardroom.

“When we were talking to policy makers in Washington, there was a concern that [the institute] looks like a creature of Qualcomm,” Casey said. “And as such, with [Qualcomm CEO] Paul Jacobs’ absolute blessing, we said we’re going to shift Qualcomm off our board and we’re going to be much more definitive in our communications that we are solely funded by Gary and Mary West.”

The Wests’ contributions have created an endowment that now totals more than $100 million for what is officially known as the Gary and Mary West Wireless Health Institute. Casey says the institute not only emphasizes that their philanthropy is the sole source of institute funding, but also that it accepts “no funding from private industry, government agencies, or trade associations, nor does it join or support any outside business or trade organizations.”

Casey, who says he was “employee No. 6” when he joined the institute on March 1, 2010, says the nonprofit institute has grown rapidly during his tenure as CEO. It is now at employee No. 58—and plans to fill a dozen additional job openings over the next two months.

Casey also confirmed some notable departures, however, including Amir Jafri, who was recruited from Cardinal Health last year to serve as the institute’s chief operating officer, and Mehran Mehregany, who was named as the institute’s executive vice president of engineering and the chief of engineering research.

“Mehran’s passion is pursuing academic and educational training [in wireless technologies],” Casey said. “And as we focused more and more on cost savings, he felt he could better achieve his objectives outside the institute.”

“Amir wanted to pursue a specific entrepreneurial activity,” Casey added. “He’s very interested in creating some wireless applications that he thought he could do faster outside the institute than inside.”

By winnowing certain commercial initiatives and refining its mission, Casey says the institute intends to open a more productive dialog with both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Communications Commission, which are both asserting regulatory authority over many areas in the converging fields of healthcare and wireless technology.

“The FDA is one of the core places that needs to come to grips with how regulation is going to help or hurt industry,” says Casey, who adds that as a facilitator of the discussion, the institute doesn’t represent a viewpoint. “We would serve as an honest broker between the venture folks, the policy makers, the government folks, and industry,” Casey says.

In the meantime, Casey says he still sees a role for the institute in terms of “innovating, validating, advocating for, investing in, and commercializing the use of wireless technologies to transform medicine.” And he says he still wants to push the internal development of wireless health products that will clearly lower the cost of health care.

In September, the institute named Mohit Kaushal, who previously led the connected health team at the Federal Communications Commission, as its new executive vice president of business development and chief strategy officer. In February, the institute appointed Ed Cantwell, who had previously served as director of 3M’s wireless business unit, as a senior vice president responsible for leading development of a new low-cost platform for delivering wireless health care services within hospitals and other medical facilities.

“A year ago, we were very focused on just wireless sensors,” Casey says. “Now we’re focused more broadly on technology-enabled care and coordination. We look at it as more of a solution to a challenge.”

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