A helmet that uses an infrared camera and an AR headset to measure the body temperature of 200 people within a radius of five metres: the invention of the Chinese start-up KC Wearable is designed to detect fever and thus an infection with COVID-19. The latter is also the aim of a patch created at Northwestern University in the USA. Sensors on the neck check breathing activity, coughing, increased temperature and heartbeat. An algorithm evaluates the data to provide early warning of symptoms of the coronavirus. These are just two of many examples of how scientists, start-ups and technology companies hope to gain the upper hand in the fight against COVID-19. The pioneers are relying on smart weapons: data and artificial intelligence.
RKI data donation app: vital data promote understanding of corona
The Berlin-based start-up ”Thryve” (mHealth Pioneers) also uses both. The 15-strong team supplied the technology for the Corona data donation app of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI): Since the beginning of April, citizens have been able to voluntarily provide data via smartphone, fitness bracelet or smartwatch in order to "drastically reduce the number of unrecorded cases of (note: COVID-19) infections," explained the RKI expert and Professor Dirk Brockmann from Berlin’s Humboldt University. Vital data such as pulse, heart rate variability, stress and temperature, but also activities such as walking or sleeping phases are collected. In addition, sociodemographic data are also collected where the users have entered them. The postcode is intended to reflect the regional distribution of the virus. All this information is pseudonymised and does not serve to track contact persons, emphasises the RKI. Rather, "the data are incredibly valuable for epidemiologists and help to derive better measures", says Brockmann.
Digital health pioneers, thanks to grandpa!
If the RKI experts come ever closer to solving the mystery of COVID-19, it is in part thanks to the sick grandfathers of Friedrich Lämmel and his fellow student Paul Burggraf. "As technology consultants, they were used to having all the necessary information available at all times in fully digitised environments," Thryve says, "unfortunately this was not the case with the illness of their loved ones.” Although the first digital health applications came onto the market, there was a lack of aggregated data and analysis. In short: "Constant monitoring of the state of health was not possible.” This is exactly where they saw the potential of digital possibilities. With John Trimpop, whom they met at the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research (IGD), they founded the spin-off Thryve ("to thrive"). The name says it all: "In keeping with the idea that digital health services can only really flourish and show their strengths with our technology," Lämmel sums up the USP of data connection and analysis.
Friedrich Lämmel, CEO Thryve © Thryve
"Digital clinical thermometer" for the whole country
There is no lack of data itself: "Already today, many users are collecting this valuable health data," says the CEO and founder of Thryve. The challenge is that different wearables have different sensors and therefore send different data. This is where the Berliners come into play. "Thryve combines the data from wearables, blood glucose meters and many other sources in one integration and delivers a harmonised data stream from more than 300 sources and devices," says the former consultant. The data donation app, for example, integrates Google Fit, Apple Health, Fitbit, Garmin, Withings and Polar; Samsung Health, Oura and Amazfit will be added in the next update. "In addition, we are further enriching the data with numerous analyses and algorithms to enable healthcare providers to gain a better understanding of individual health status," adds Lämmel. "We call this AI an 'interpretation layer'. This shows a daily overall picture of vital states and activities. It also "identifies changes characteristic of certain diseases, for example, and shows risk scores," he adds. For example, if pulse, heart rate variability, temperature or sleep phases change, an algorithm developed by Thryve can detect fever in wearable data. "Since fever is one of the symptoms of COVID-19, we realised that we could help with this technology," says Lämmel. "We wanted to reduce the number of unrecorded cases and build a digital clinical thermometer for the whole country." Since then, about 500,000 Germans have been using it and making their valuable data available to fight the pandemic. The rigid data security standards guarantee that they can do this without any worries: the development of the Corona data donation app was carried out strictly in accordance with data protection guidelines and in close cooperation with the data protection officer of the Robert Koch Institute. External data protection and data security experts are also involved in testing servers and interfaces. "Without this special care, a project with the Robert Koch Institute would not have been possible at all," emphasises the former industry consultant and adds: "We are well aware of the great responsibility that health data entails.”
From Berlin to Australia, Finland and India
Prof. Dr. Dietrich Grönemeyer has certainly convinced the team. Together with entrepreneur and TV juror Carsten Maschmeyer and digital health investor Min-Sung Sean Kim, the renowned doctor is one of the largest investors in the Fraunhofer spin-off. "Only with objective health data can we doctors obtain a holistic picture of the patient's health," he says. "And this is exactly where Thryve enables a huge leap forward." Customers such as Berlin's Charité hospital can confirm this: for years, the university hospital has relied on AI from Thryve to examine pulse and breathing detection via smartwatch in sleep medicine. CCN, a chain of clinics from the Netherlands specialising in cardiology, also uses the Berlin system for research into atrial fibrillation. "More than 50 customers from Finland to Australia are now using our technology," says Friedrich Lämmel happily. "Digital health applications are experiencing a huge boom all over the world, and our customer base is correspondingly broad. In May, Thryve announced a partnership with digital health pioneer GOQii. Its fitness trackers are intended to detect COVID-19 symptoms at an early stage using the Berlin technology.
Digital health epicentre Berlin
The fact that the eyes of the world are focused on the German capital is nothing new in itself: Berlin is considered an epicentre in the field of digital health. Private and public institutions can be found here, as well as the global players Bayer Pharma AG, Sanofi and Pfizer. Research institutions such as the Fraunhofer institutes FOKUS or HHI, Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin and the TU Berlin are constantly making breakthroughs in medicine by using digital therapies, artificial intelligence and image recognition. In addition, there are more than ten accelerators and incubators such as Berlin Healthcare Hub by Pfizer, the Bundesverband Gesundheits-IT - bvitg e. V., Digital Health Factory and Vision Health Pioneers. They all engage in a lively exchange of ideas at meetings, bar camps, hackathons and industry events such as DMEA - Connecting Digital Health, Charité Entrepreneurship Summit; Frontiers Health or XPOMET©. Start-ups like Thryve also benefit from this lively environment. "Berlin simply offers the necessary infrastructure that a fast-growing, internationally active company needs," says Friedrich Lämmel, raving about the advantages of the location.
These will continue to pay off in the future. "The entire digital health industry has received an enormous growth spurt as a result of the Corona crisis," Thryve looks ahead optimistically: "We are certain that even after the crisis it will be perfectly normal to take care of your own health digitally. And if you want to establish a truly digital and proactive care system, you need access to data. And that is what we provide". It will be interesting to see which diseases Thryve will be fighting in the future with the powerful combination of data and AI.