Connected health: Your smartwatch will be your connection to your doctor

Two years after it left Nokia, French company Withings is announcing a new focus on medical devices.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

Connected health company Withings is focusing its efforts on bridging the gap between consumers and doctors, leveraging its portfolio of smart products to deliver the health data that medical professionals really need to take care of their patients.

Users, of course, will still be able to track more simple metrics such as step counts or lost calories using Withings' connected scales, smart watches, sleep trackers, and other connected health products. But the company is now determined to go one step further than typical health devices. 

A new $60 million series B funding round will be dedicated to globally scale the business' Med Pro division, which launched last year to connect medical professionals to Withings' devices and data analytics. 

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"With people spending most of their time outside of the doctor's office, at-home health monitors not only give consumers more control over their health, they have extraordinary potential for doctors, hospitals and researchers. Having remote and regular access to precise medical-grade data allows professionals to offer more personalized, intelligent, and responsive care," the company said.

In parallel, the company is setting up a new medical advisory board composed of medical researchers, leaders and scientists, whose feedback will inform Withings' engineers on the exact needs of professionals in the field, and shape the business' future products.

Mathieu Letombe, CEO at Withings, told ZDNet: "The healthcare industry professionals are the ones that can help us identify the bio-marker they need, or the disease they want to keep track of in the future. It's great insight for the product roadmap."

Letombe said that the company has spent the past two years adapting its offer to the needs of the healthcare industry. For example, his engineering team is working on a cellular initiative that would let products communicate without the need for an internet connection, which would let doctors gather insights, even from their less tech-savvy patients. 

The timeline isn't accidental. Two years ago, Withings' co-founder Eric Carreel bought the company back and made it private again, after it had been integrated with a division of Nokia for a couple of years. The Finnish giant bought Withings in 2016 for $164 million, and quickly re-branded the business' portfolio as Nokia's Digital Health unit.

During the two years that it spent with Nokia, the Withings team focused much of its work on consumer products – a departure, to an extent, from the company's original identity, according to CCS Insights chief analyst Ben Wood.

"The deal was good in some respects, but you could argue that it stalled the development cycle for those two years and now Withings is catching up ground," Wood told ZDNet. "They got sucked in to be more of a consumer fitness brand, despite the fact that the founders wanted to do more than just recreational health."

Comparing Withings before the acquisition by Nokia, to a popular activity tracker like Fitbit for example, Wood argued that the French company was always a step ahead. "They were always pushing the envelope of what was possible on a wearable device in terms of diagnostic features," said Wood.

And since Nokia sold the business back to its co-founder in 2018, officially in a push to become a "business-to-business" company, it would seem that Withings has been working hard to go back to where it positioned itself before the partnership was struck.


Since Nokia sold the business back to its co-founder in 2018, it would seem that Withings has been working hard to go back to where it positioned itself before the partnership with Nokia was struck.  

Image: Withings

The company's CEO Letombe explained that as soon as Withings was bought back from Nokia, a team of doctors was set up, which comes into the office twice a week to give feedback on the products and software. For the past year and half, the company has been doing the paperwork to be granted the necessary medical certifications, and keep ready for the twice-a-year audits by regulatory entities. 

"We developed ourselves with the healthcare industry, and this is what will give us medical credibility," said Letombe. "And transforming ourselves into a medical company was actually much easier to do as a small business, rather than in a 100,000-people company like Nokia."

On top of the Med Pro division created last year, Withings' CEO Letombe mentioned several product launches in the past two years, all tailored to medical needs. This year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), for example, saw the company announce the ScanWatch, a device that can take an ECG reading and monitor for potential sleep apnea, while supporting an impressive 30-day battery life.

The next steps, according to the CEO, will be to keep working with the healthcare industry to find out which patient data is most useful, and how to best record it with a piece of hardware. That is no easy challenge, in a market already busy with deep-pocketed, successful competitors.

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Apple's recent results showed that its wearables line is now the size of a Fortune 150 company, while Google is buying Fitbit in a deal that is likely to radically change the market dynamics. All the while, dozens of Chinese vendors are packing activity tracking and health sensors in devices that are getting ever-cheaper. 

Letombe is banking on creating a level of medical credibility for the company's products – and as a result, on the different type of user that Withings products are likely to attract. Withings won't be catering for those who want to keep a loose eye on their activity levels or sleep patterns; rather, the company will be targeting patients who are particularly health-conscious, for example because they are at risk of disease, and need a sophisticated evaluation of their daily health metrics. 

Context also seems to be on the company's side: the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly contributed to highlighting the need to keep a close watch of the health and well-being of those who are more vulnerable. And to differentiate itself from well-established names on the saturated connected health market, the company can also count on appealing designs and highly functional products.

Whether that will be enough to compete remains to be seen. CCS Insights' Wood recognized that focusing on specialist health monitoring was a sensible move from Withings, and an opportunity that most generic wearable makers won't be able to exploit.

"But this is far from being a slam dunk," said Wood. "When you have big companies like Apple, which have virtually limitless resources for R&D and marketing, you need to be very agile and focused in the areas you cover. Withings have a tough challenge ahead, and they'll need to offer something very different."

After re-building their portfolio, Wood anticipated that Withings might become an acquisition target once again. One thing is for certain: the company's offer is not likely to lose its appeal. 

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