Apple has hired a small team of biomedical engineers to work at a nondescript office in Palo Alto, miles from corporate headquarters. They are part of a super secret initiative, initially envisioned by the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, to develop sensors that can non-invasively and continuously monitor blood sugar levels to better treat diabetes, according to three people familiar with the matter.
Such a breakthrough would be a "holy grail" for life sciences. Many life sciences companies have tried and failed, as it's highly challenging to track glucose levels accurately without piercing the skin.
The initiative is far enough along that Apple has been conducting feasibility trials at clinical sites across the Bay Area and has hired consultants to help it figure out the regulatory pathways, the people said.
The efforts have been going on for at least five years, the people said. Jobs envisioned wearable devices, like smartwatches, being used to monitor important vitals, such as oxygen levels, heart rate and blood glucose. In 2010, Apple quietly acquired a company called Cor, after then-CEO Bob Messerschmidt reportedly sent Jobs a cold email on the topic of sensor technologies for health and wellness. Messerschmidt later joined the Apple Watch team.
The glucose team is said to report to Johny Srouji, Apple's senior vice president of hardware technologies. According to one of the sources, it was previously led by Michael D. Hillman, who left Apple in late 2015 and later joined Facebook's Oculus as head of hardware. Hillman's LinkedIn page lists him as having had a "confidential role" in hardware technologies at Apple.
One person said about 30 people were working in this group as of a year ago. But speculation has been flying around since the company snapped up about a dozen biomedical experts from companies like Vital Connect, Masimo Corp, Sano, Medtronic, and C8 Medisensors. Some of these people joined the secretive team dedicated to glucose, sources said, while others are on Apple Watch team.
One of the people said that Apple is developing optical sensors, which involves shining a light through the skin to measure indications of glucose. Accurately detecting glucose levels has been such a challenge that one of the top experts in the space, John L. Smith, described it as "the most difficult technical challenge I have encountered in my career." The space is littered with failures, as Smith points out, but that hasn't stopped companies from continuing to attempt to crack this elusive opportunity.
To succeed would cost a company "several hundred millions or even a billion dollars," DexCom executive chairman Terrance Gregg previously told Reuters.
The breakthrough would be a boon for millions of people with diabetes, spur new medical research and open up a potential market for consumers to track their blood sugar for health and wellness insights. It could turn the Apple Watch into a "must have" rather than a "nice to have" for people who would benefit from an easier way to track their blood sugar.
Apple isn't the only technology company eyeing opportunities in the space. Verily, Google's life sciences team, is currently working on a "smart" contact lens to measure blood sugar via the eye, and it partnered up with DexCom in 2015 to develop a glucose-sensing device no bigger than a bandage.