AT&T’s Houston Foundry Chief Morris Talks Connecting Healthcare to Technology

Houston—Nadia Morris, the head of innovation for AT&T’s Connected Health Foundry at the Texas Medical Center, calls herself a “constant tinkerer.”

That penchant came in handy recently when her father-in-law had a few falls and was subsequently diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

“I cobbled together some very basic devices that they can use, built up some Raspberry pi things so we could help monitor him,” she says. “And then I realized I could not just build a couple of things that would help my in-laws; [I need to] take those ideas and work with a team of experts and bring these ideas to life.”

That’s the goal of AT&T’s Foundry program in Houston: marrying technologies like sensors, connectivity, and data analysis to healthcare. The Houston outpost is the latest in AT&T’s six-year-old network of such programs across the country.

In Houston, the Foundry consists of recreations of different healthcare scenarios within which AT&T’s expertise in mobile communications come into play: at the bedside, a nurses station, a home’s kitchen.

For example, AT&T has developed a remote patient monitoring system that works via a tablet. That’s the sort of device that someone with a chronic disease might use at home, tracking their medicine, logging in their weight, and perhaps, scheduling a video call with their doctors—all while sitting in their kitchen with their morning cup of coffee.

“I’ve noticed something that is unique to Houston; people are very collaborative,” Morris says. “You might go talk to one company and they’ll say you really need to meet this other company. They’ll do that introduction and make that connection.”

So, Morris says she tries to follow that example, even if the project is not something AT&T is working on: “We’re a networking company so it makes sense, right?”

Morris came to Houston in June from the San Francisco Bay Area, where she was the lead product development engineer at AT&T’s Foundry in Palo Alto. She’s no stranger to Houston, though, having lived here as a child when her grandfather worked for Shell Oil.

Here is an edited transcript of our recent conversation:

Xconomy: What made you want to lead the Foundry in Houston?

Nadia Morris: I’m hearing this more and more from everybody I’m getting to know in the healthcare industry. Everybody seems to have a personal reason to get involved. It’s two-fold for me. My father-in-law, about nine months ago, was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. There were a couple of events we thought were anomalies, and then he had a bad fall. He was brought to the hospital and the doctor diagnosed him; my family’s been struggling with this ever since. They’re recently retired and now this is something that is very overwhelming for them. My mother-in-law had to pivot from being a socialite to being a home health care worker, so to speak. I’m seeing there’s such a gap between the care for seniors and what could be with the technology that we currently have.

There is also a selfish role in this because being a senior citizen is a minority group we all want to be a member of. Everything I do here at the Foundry makes my life better as I begin to age in place. We want to stay in our homes longer, live great lives once we retire. Technology can help kind of bridge that gap.

X: Technology has played such an outsized part of our lives in other areas. Why hasn’t more happened in the healthcare sector sooner?

N.M.: There are regulations involved, which are all there to protect us, stringent testing to make sure things are safe. It’s a process but the processes are changing and developing. If you looked at the landscape five and 10 years ago, things moved much more slowly. It’s speeding up and it’s starting to make the process not nearly as cumbersome as it once was. Technology has really changed so much in the past five years. We have devices where you can now do live streaming video over our wireless network. That was really difficult to do from a mobile device five years ago.

We can now have a two-way conversation between caregivers and patients. That’s powerful. Devices are getting smaller; radios are getting better; battery life is longer. The other thing is, as you look at the age groups, the devices that they’re comfortable with. More people are comfortable with using technology in these situations. Folks may have only been comfortable with a basic flip phone that had nothing but big numbers, now are using smartphones.

X: Are there lessons about ecosystem-building that you are bringing here from San Francisco?

N.M: Find out what are the groups to get involved in here, and get involved. When I moved from Atlanta to Silicon Valley, that’s what I did out there: meet, for lack of a better term, the mover and shakers in the local industry, and find out how we can work with them. I probably spend a fourth of my time doing outreach. Having those local community ties really helps people know what we’re working on here at the Connected Health Foundry. It starts pollinating. It’s us helping ourselves by meeting these great companies and working on great collaborations with them.

X: What sort of collaborations will you be having, mostly focused on TMC institutions or could a startup reach out to you to work with the Foundry?

N.M: We’ll work with large institutions and small startups. One of the things we offer is a maker space where we let any of the startups in the medical center come in use our soldering tools, radio equipment, 3-D printers. One guy used our lab to build out his entire first prototype. I was blown away. He went from a sketch on a computer to having a real product that he could test and seek FDA approval with just based on stuff that we were offering in our lab. His device has nothing to do with connectivity, but we want to enable people regardless of that.

If we let them stick to the medical devices side of it and we provide the technology, it’s a win-win. We get more folks on our network. Startups look at us as a free resource; they don’t have to hire a radio technician. AT&T will build that for me. We provide what we’re good at, communications and security, and let them stick to the medical devices.

At the end of the day, we want the quality of healthcare to go up and the cost to go down. And we want to work with everybody to make that happen.

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