Start-up Seoul is a series featuring players in Korea’s emerging tech start-up scene. This is the second installment. ― Ed.
Disease diagnosis markets around the world are broken, claims one new local start-up that aims to equalize health care globally, starting with a drop of blood.
On top of high costs and several days’ lag to get results from a hospital for a blood test, the markets to diagnose different diseases like diabetes and high cholesterol are monopolized and segmented, causing a massive loss of data that could be tracked to enhance preventive health care, explained Choi Jae-kyu, CEO of BBB, a medical device start-up founded in October.
BBB spotted an opportunity to level this “broken” market with GAO, an Android-powered device that empowers users to track their own blood data.
“We have good technologies or platforms, but there’s no player who really cares about their patient. They all care about their own interests,” he told The Korea Herald in an interview last week.
The technologies have been in place for 10-15 years, but the market is segmented because of health care providers’ self-interest, he added. Collecting and analyzing the data themselves puts the control in the users’ hands, he said.
“So we are planning to (have) all the people use BBB’s home testing devices to (monitor) their own condition. Our goal is to let the people know about the disease, if it happens, in the very early stage.”
Choi Jae-kyu, CEO of blood testing device-maker BBB, poses at his office at D.Camp in Seoul last week. Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald
Choi and his start-up plan to disrupt diagnostic-lab markets, reportedly worth some $73 billion in the U.S. alone, with their smart device able to test up to 50 biomarkers, which can monitor and detect conditions for diabetes, cancer, obesity and even THC (the active chemical in marijuana), in two to 60 seconds with an at-home test, he explained. The user connects the device to their smartphone, inserts a disposable test strip with a drop of their blood and tracks their results over time on the app.
Choi hopes GAO ― the Chinese word for “high” ― will not only help reduce per-test costs for chronic users, but also aid in early detection of serious diseases like cancer and save users’ lives in the long run. By crushing the diagnosis time and cost, with the base price around $100, the device and app can help patients in regions with poor health care infrastructure perform their own blood tests, which are expensive where they are, but come cheap in advanced countries like Korea, he said.
Not only can GAO detect chronic conditions, it would also have “no problem” diagnosing diseases in the event of outbreaks such as Middle East respiratory syndrome, which has hit Korea in recent months ― if only bureaucracy and politics could keep up with the technology, Choi said.
With legal documentation and FDA approval taking about six to 12 months, it would be legally impossible to push out an update in time to help in a crisis unless the government eased regulations. The issues of telemedicine and mobile health care are still highly sensitive and politicized in Korea, but Choi believes this will change as global trends ease the local mindset.
“We don’t expect that the Korean market will stay so conservative forever. Maybe next year or in three years, it’s going to change. The telemedicine market will open,” he said, noting that the industry is waiting to see who will disrupt the market.
The issue is compounded by political changes and economic downturns, which is why building a strong local reputation is important for making a difference, he added.
BBB is Choi’s second start-up, having cofounded Ceragem Medisys, a blood glucose measurement device-maker that was acquired after 10 years in January by leading local Kosdaq-listed diagnostic firm Green Cross MS for about $4.4 million.
Adding to BBB’s ties with Chinese-U.S. hardware accelerator program HAXLR8R and $100,000 in backing from U.S.-based SOSventures, Choi hopes its recognition at recent Seoul tech events by TechCrunch and beGLOBAL, where it won start-up awards this spring, will aid its momentum into its two target markets, China and the U.S., which are more open to mobile health care than Korea.
It has already begun to make inroads into the U.S. by joining the Apple ResearchKit, a recently launched alliance of mobile health devices that aggregate and study medical data from smartphone users who want to participate in FDA-approved clinical trials.
Unlike with his last venture, Choi says he has no plans to exit, or sell, BBB and is committed to making the company a household name in mobile health care so it can have a greater influence on health care policy. His ultimate goal is to make the devices free to everyone, everywhere.
“I think every year we have chances to change the world, or change the Korean market or Korean policy. Before that, you have to be a big name,” Choi said.
“We want to be a top-tier player in the next three years. That’s really important for disrupting the market and making new policies on the government side, and making our voices louder.”
With mass production wrapping up, GAO's first version, which will test glucose levels, will roll out next month in Korea, pending FDA approval. For more info, visit bbbinc.me.
By Elaine Ramirez (firstname.lastname@example.org