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Nest tried to hide its identity as the buyer of a promising health startup

Nest tried to hide its identity as the buyer of a promising health startup


Another company showing a greater interest in health gadgets

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Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

More and more tech companies are blurring the line between gadgets and health devices. The new Apple Watch Series 4 will eventually do electrocardiograms. Fitbit just announced a fitness coaching program tailored to the health care industry that aims to “help improve wellness, disease management and prevention.” Google recently gave its Google Fit software an overhaul that awards users “heart points.” Based on an acquisition made last year, it seems Nest also has ambitious plans for the health sector.

As reported by GeekWire, communications between employees of Senosis — a health-monitoring startup that Nest quietly snatched up — and the University of Washington (where Senosis was founded) make clear that the company has something in the works. It was initially believed that Google had made the acquisition, but in fact it was Nest.

Nest made every attempt to keep its identity as the buyer secret

“It turns out Nest is much more secretive than the rest of Google or Alphabet. They seem to be particularly sensitive in this situation since they don’t want people to know they are getting into a whole new line of business, digital health, until they are ready to publicly announce,” Senosis co-founder Shwetak Patel wrote in an email to an executive at the university’s innovation hub. Employees were told to write “Google” and not Nest on forms pertaining to the buyout.

Senosis developed three health apps that utilize a smartphone’s built-in sensors to monitor different health attributes. HemaApp could measure a user’s hemoglobin level using a phone camera. Another could check for jaundice in newborn babies. And the last allowed a phone’s mic to act as a spirometer for diagnosing asthma when people blew into it. None of this tech had been cleared by the FDA when Nest bought Senosis, but the company told GeekWire that it had begun the process.

When Nest came calling, the university was proud of reaching the deal and wanted to tell the world as much. But Google instructed the Senosis team not to mention Nest or publicize the deal until after a health-focused product eventually shipped to consumers. It wanted to make the agreement as hush-hush as possible, which seems to have worked since it’s been a year and it has gotten little attention. GeekWire obtained the exchanges between Senosis and UW through a public records request.

A Nest smart camera that could detect falls could be hugely beneficial to a lot of people

“We do not want UW to issue a press release or other official communication with respect to the acquisition as this will likely result in the (Senosis) team being subject to a lot of distraction from inbound inquiries and opens the door to internet sleuthing on the WA Secretary of State website to uncover the acquirer’s identity,” one of Google’s lawyers wrote. “If a Nest health product doesn’t use the licensed technology, an unrelated press release regarding Nest’s acquisition of (Senosis) could again negatively affect our product rollout.”

So far, such a product has not yet been released. In July, CNBC reported that Nest has held discussions with senior living centers about incorporating its range of products into their facilities. A smartwatch being able to detect when you’ve fallen is useful, yes, but what if a smart video camera could recognize the same thing when pointed at elderly users who choose to live independently? You know, at least until Alphabet’s Verily unit discovers how to help people live forever. According to CNBC, Nest has also pitched the idea of using its motion sensors to automatically turn on lights when people wake in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.

The big question is how Nest’s rejoining with Google might have impacted the former’s health plans. Perhaps we’ll hear more about new Nest hardware sometime this fall. For now at least, the company is sticking to traditional smart home products.