Propeller Health, a Madison, WI-based startup that makes Internet-connected inhalers and sensors designed to help asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients, says it is teaming up with Novartis to build an add-on sensor for the Swiss pharma giant’s Breezhaler device.
The agreement, announced on Wednesday, is focused on patients with COPD who live in European countries, says Propeller co-founder and CEO David Van Sickle. Financial terms of the partnership weren’t disclosed.
Novartis (NYSE: NVS) has designed the Breezhaler, a dry powder inhaler, to work with a number of different treatments for COPD.
“It’s sort of similar to the deal that we announced [in 2015] with GlaxoSmithKline, where they have a franchise device that delivers a line of medications,” Van Sickle says.
While they are both dry powder inhalers, one difference between GSK’s Ellipta inhaler and the Breezhaler is that the latter device is capsule-based. Users drop a capsule into an inhaler, close the lid, and then puncture the capsule and inhale the powder in a single motion, Van Sickle says.
Propeller says it has partnered with three of the five “leading respiratory pharma companies”: GSK (NYSE: GSK), Germany-based Boehringer Ingelheim, and now Novartis. According to Van Sickle, the other two industry leaders are AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN) and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries (NYSE: TEVA). In recent years, both have shown an interest in smaller companies that develop smart inhalers, as Propeller does. In August 2015, AstraZeneca invested $3 million in New Zealand-based Adherium. Later that year, Teva announced it had acquired Gecko Health Innovations, a startup based in Cambridge, MA, that was previously known as GeckoCap.
Van Sickle says that most of the dozens of inhaled medications currently on the market are now able to connect to Propeller’s digital platform, which combines sensors, mobile apps, and software analytics.
“What we’re trying to do is connect the variety of marketed respiratory medicines through a universal user experience,” he says. “We think about Propeller as a hardware-enabled software business.”
Propeller, launched in 2010, will likely benefit from its past experience co-developing add-on sensors with pharma companies. But at the same time, Van Sickle says that each partnership his startup enters into has its own distinct qualities. The latest collaboration with Novartis is no exception, he says.
“They all have unique challenges, in [areas like] attachment and detection,” Van Sickle says, referring to how Propeller’s sensors connect to inhalers and collect data. “The Breezhaler inhaler is a unique form factor, unlike anything we’ve ever built a sensor for before.”
Propeller says the fact that its tools are designed to be used both by patients and care providers can be helpful in getting the two sides to formulate treatment programs together. Van Sickle says that this practice, sometimes referred to as shared decision-making, is an area of interest for one of his company’s newer hires, David Stempel. A trained physician and allergist who worked at GSK before joining Propeller as a senior vice president in November, Stempel plans to continue delving into potential applications for “digital information about day-to-day burden management,” Van Sickle says.
“It’s high on our list of things to explore, both in existing programs and in future clinical trials,” he says.