Devices & Diagnostics, Consumer / Employer

Abbott is out to win hearts and minds. Will it one day become a household name?

Abbott wants to leap into the world of consumer wearables to track various health signals for better health for consumers and better growth of its business. Will it win hearts and minds?

Rarely do medtech companies have the name recognition that businesses with a closer connection to consumers do. Johnson & Johnson’s name is ubiquitous less for its pure medtech devices than consumer staples like Q-tips, Band-Aids and Tylenol.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has catapulted big names in the world of Pharma — Pfizer — absolutely unknowns like Moderna — and moderately known — BioNtech — into the mainstream consciousness because consumers had to become aware of and, in most cases, feel the prick of their life-saving vaccines.

Lake Forest, Illinois-based Abbott is becoming much more recognizable — it makes Covid-19 PCR and rapid antigen tests, the latter of which was touted by the former occupant of the White House in a press conference in 2020 long before vaccines came along. It is in this highly-visible context that one must analyze Abbott Chairman & CEO Robert Ford’s appearance at the annual virtual J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference on Tuesday and perhaps, and even more importantly, his keynote address at CES [Consumer Electronics Show] last week.

In these interactions, Ford is attempting to effectively erase the lines that has traditionally kept medtech in the realms of hospitals, nurses and doctors, and consumer tech in the hearts, bodies and pockets of you and I. [Ford’s CES address itself was a first — no other healthcare company has ever been invited to deliver a keynote at this annual global gathering of consumer tech players and aficionados.]

It was at CES that Ford announced that Abbott was launching what was for it a completely new category of health technology — consumer biowearables called Lingo. Why Lingo? Simply because these biowearables are designed to translate every body’s unique language into actionable data to help people track, monitor and measure general health and wellness. The technology powered by sensors is being designed to track things like non-diabetes glucose, ketones and lactate, and may also, in the future, be used to monitor alcohol levels.

On the face of it, it is nothing extraordinary. There are tons of health tech companies using wearable sensors to detect many different things — sleep patterns, ECG, respiration rate, oxygenation and the list goes on and on. But what is significant here is that a traditional medtech company, deeply familiar with developing medical-grade, clinically-validated, regulatory-compliant technology, is betting that the future is one of convergence where such technology can be widely used to achieve better health by just about anyone.

This was a theme that Ford returned to when asked about his CES address by Robbie Marcus, J.P. Morgan’s medtech analyst, during his one-on-one conversation on Tuesday. A transcript — slightly edited — of the conversation provided by Seeking Alpha shows Ford responding like this:

I think that it was a recognition both of the organizers of CES on this convergence that I talked about during my keynote, this convergence of digital tech and health tech coming together with incredible opportunities to advance health care, change health care, change the way it’s delivered, address costs.

And you know in our device space that we’ve been working for at least 4 or 5 years on this convergence and kind of leveraging kind of our technology and be able to kind of look at consumer technology and how to bring those two together to provide a more personalized experience for the patient and even help out on the cost side with the health systems and the delivery of the health systems.

We shared our vision of a lot about you know, where and how that was going to happen. Not everything is clearly defined. There’s still a lot of experimentation that we’re seeing. But we’ve seen intentionality from Abbott to be able to lead in this convergence, right?

Ford was referring to the fact that instead of just developing a rapid test that can be done at home, Abbott also paired it with an app through which more tests can be ordered and people can also get a pass — assuming that is the ability to add vaccination status to the app itself so one app could both have test results and vaccine info.

Again, this is nothing new. iHealth Labs in Sunnyvale, California, does the same thing with its rapid antigen test kit and companion app. But the “i” in the name underscores a corporate cultural philosophy where the consumer is front and center — a philosophy which is not the starting point of legacy medtechs like Abbott. But an old dog can learn new tricks, right? In fact, Abbott’s name has undergone an evolution of its own to shed its more medical roots. What was Abbott Laboratories became Abbott Labs and now is just Abbott. Also take a look at the current homepages of Abbott, Medtronic, Dexcom, and Boston Scientific. No points for guessing which company that has “consumer” in its navigation whereas most others have “patients.”

Abbott’s diabetes business is what brought it much closer to consumers. Abbott’s Freestyle Libre product has been very successful for people managing this chronic condition. It’s the world’s first flash glucose monitoring system [though Abbott keeps calling it a CGM system — continuous glucose monitoring system — which it isn’t] that helps diabetes patients get blood glucose level readings on-demand when they bring a reader close to a wearable sensor. The product allows people to get their glucose reading — once the sensor is worn and even over cloths — in literally one second.

Ford said the company has been keen on “leveraging the Libre platform on the diabetes space and looking at it to be able to extend outside of diabetes.” So now with Lingo — which is only in early stages of development — Ford  expects Abbott to develop a non-diabetes glucose, lactate and ketone sensor in the future. But don’t expect an overnight make-over.

“It will take a little bit of time here. It’s a completely different business model than diabetes,” Ford said. “It’s more of a declaration of intention, I would say, from Abbott to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to be a leader in this convergence.’ I know there is a lot of companies that are thinking like this, but we definitely want to be a leader here….”

So Abbott is putting a stake in the ground to be more prominent in the minds of consumers. What better time to do so than during a raging public health crisis that has been an existential moment for many when it comes to their personal health. If hearts and bodies are won, maybe we’ll see another name sift — this time to iAbbott?