Plano, TX — Innovation in health IT can be as simple as a connected first-aid kit.
The kit would sense when an item, say, Band-Aids, are low and wirelessly connect to the Internet to place an order and have it delivered. The idea of a medicine cabinet staple, souped up for the information age, is the sort of request received by executives at the AT&T Foundry in Plano, TX, says Mobeen Khan, assistant vice president of industrial IoT Solutions at AT&T.
“Many customers, when it comes to mobile apps or IoT [Internet of Things], don’t have the expertise,” he says. “We can help them.”
Founded six years ago, the Foundry program seeks to leverage AT&T’s expertise in network, virtualization, and security beyond Internet service or phone calls to tackle problems across industries. So, the telecom giant works with existing customers in a variety of sectors—anything from waste management to agriculture to healthcare—to develop new products. “In four to six weeks, we’re able to either prove something out or it fails,” Khan says.
The mission is to not only help customers be more innovative, but to encourage that behavior within AT&T as well, Khan says. This spring, AT&T plans to open a Foundry in Houston, one that will focus on health IT. To find out more about the program, I recently traveled to the original Foundry located in Plano, just north of Dallas. That campus is home to two programs, one focused on Internet of Things innovation and another facility that embraces innovation from a pan-technology point of view.
At the IoT lab, director Craig Lee gave me a tour. The space has the typical techie open-plan design, with a few conference rooms—named for ’80s video games—along the exterior and a network of tables and chairs off to the side for group gatherings. The first stop for teams is the “ideation room,” where a stand-up desk topped with Play-Doh and multi-colored Legos is the scene for brainstorms and crude prototypes.
The rest of the floor is a playhouse for grown-ups. These are expensive toys: souped up 3-D printers, circuit board makers, a full machine workshop outfitted with drills, presses, and saws. There’s a “copper shield room” enclosed by copper mesh to help isolate radio waves for radio frequency, or RF, testing.
While the workshop is supposed to encourage creativity, Lee says the whimsy needs to be grounded in innovation that’s useful and will result in a viable product. “We’re not talking about doing $2,000 connected dog collars,” he says.
A partner company typically lends their employees for a time to work at the Foundry and its eight AT&T employees dedicated to working on the projects.
Unlike some other innovation-centered programs, the Foundry isn’t an accelerator that brings in a class of startups, invests in them, and connects them to mentors as the entrepreneurs revise their products and business plans. What AT&T gets in exchange for taking on its partners’ projects is the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the deployment of these new technologies. And, as a new product is commercialized, AT&T is in place to provide the communications networks for those devices.
The Plano workshop has about half a dozen projects in progress, including some that digitize everyday household objects. Consider the digitized trash can. (Uh, digitized what? you say.)
This “Smart Bin” project came to AT&T from one of its clients, a waste disposal company. The issue was that the company’s trucks, driving their routes, would frequently find bins that weren’t full and not ready for pickup. (Think of a law firm, which is disposing of lots and lots of paperwork daily.) The disposal company wanted to know if there was a way to configure the cans so they could tell the trucks when they were ready to be emptied, and, therefore, save time and gas lost in making unnecessary rounds.
“They have thousands and thousands of these [bins] throughout the city, and they have drivers going out on fixed routes, and [if] they have an empty bin, they could’ve skipped out on those stops,” Lee says.
Using a 3-D printer, Foundry collaborators recreated the plastic top flap of a bin to serve as more of a dashboard of the bin’s contents. Sensors are placed inside of the can, and ultrasonic waves are beamed down into the can. The sensors detect when the contents reach a certain level, and a lock is installed and connected to the sensors. Each of these is connected wirelessly to a display monitored by the waste disposal company.
Over time, Lee says, the company can track which cans are full and when, which ones require more frequent pickup, and, perhaps, which are more vulnerable to tampering.
“They are connected in real-time with the trucks that are out and about,” Lee says. If a bin is filled earlier than usual, say, a truck can add the stop to its rounds.
For businesses like our hypothetical law firm, the lock on the bin could help prevent unauthorized access to documents that contain confidential information. “If someone tries to pry it open or even shake it around, an alarm will sound,” Lee explains.
In Houston, AT&T plans to bring similar capabilities in connectivity, sensors, and communication to health IT projects. The technology projects will still be built in Plano; Houston is where the prototypes will be tested.
“We’re going to be at the heart of where all the action is” at TMCx, the Texas Medical Center’s accelerator, Lee says. “We’re going to work in the clinical, hospital setting and focus on the ‘smart hospital’ and mobile caregiving,” Lee says.
When the new Foundry opens—planned for sometime in the next couple of months, AT&T says—it will join TMCx and JLabs’ Houston outpost at a former industrial site in southwest Houston. Once a Nabisco cookie factory, the complex is now a main feature of the medical center’s strategy to boost biotech commercialization in Houston. While the city has long been home to important research in the life sciences in the dozens of hospitals and medical schools that make up the medical center, Houston has largely failed to develop a cluster of biotech companies comparable to that in San Diego or Boston.
So, what might the Houston facility look like? In Plano, the health-focused projects at the Foundry include a connected wheelchair developed in conjunction with Permobil, a wheelchair manufacturer. This “IoT-enabled” wheelchair has sensors that track performance, maintenance, and patient comfort. The digitized chair can alert users to potential breakdowns and also warn users if they are sitting in the same position for too long; wheelchair-bound people can get pressure ulcers if body weight is not shifted occasionally. Cellular radio enables family members to keep track of a family member in the chair, and even set up invisible “fences” around it: should the chair cross that fence, an alarm is sent back to the family member.
Another project that the Foundry worked on is a remote patient monitoring system, which is now being sold by Plano health IT company Vivify Medical. Tyler Bagwell, a senior product manager at the Foundry’s IoT mHealth business development division, says the software aims to cut down rates of hospital readmission, especially for people with chronic conditions such as congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, and diabetes.
“We need to get these patients to have better compliance with their treatment plan, taking medications, once a patient is discharged from the hospital and is back at home in their daily lives,” he says.
The software helps to ensure compliance with doctor’s orders, essentially, Bagwell says. The software is loaded onto a widely commercially available tablet, and patients answer a daily health survey, keeping track of their moods, whether they took their medications, how they slept, and other information. If a patient needs to speak directly with a caregiver, there’s a button for that.
On the other end, caregivers can see the entries and track progress over time, and can intervene if they see behavior that might be detrimental to the patient’s recovery. They also will get alerts of unread messages from patients and can schedule a video call through the tablet.
Project by project, AT&T and its customers are trying to encourage innovative thinking in their organizations, says Khan, the industrial IoT executive. Doing this in large companies—or healthcare centers, for that matter—isn’t easy, he adds. “We’re hoping [the Foundry] is a spur,” he says. “We’re teaching an elephant to dance.”