Digital health has become increasingly popular recently — especially over the past year as pandemic-concerned doctors, hospitals and patients have utilized digital technology to reduce pressure on overwhelmed hospitals and clinics.
It’s an area that has also become very popular among government agencies that promote healthcare research and solutions, such as the National Institutes of Health and its specific agencies — including the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Aging and the National Cancer Institute. Each of these organizations sponsors and funds digital health projects using NIH-provided funds. In many cases, private companies, including startups and larger companies, are invited to apply.
Many people have the impression that government funding is meant for universities and nonprofit research centers, and while much of the NIH’s money goes to those entities, the absolute majority is also available to private businesses.
NIH-sourced funding for startups and companies is non-dilutive. Companies don’t have to give up any equity, share intellectual property, provide a seat on their boards, enter into a partnership with any entity or alter their business plans to qualify.. They are free to pursue their projects, and they don’t have to repay the government, either. And with hundreds of millions of dollars available under various NIH programs for private businesses, it makes sense for companies to apply for funding.
What NIH Agencies Are Looking For
Each agency has specific requirements that applicants will need to meet in order to get funding — and those requirements vary widely based on whether the technology being developed involves humans, machines, cloud technology, devices, etc. Here’s a general guide companies can use to get information on what NIH agencies are evaluating when they consider funding requests.
The National Institute of Mental Health
People are unfortunately getting more depressed, with a host of other mental-health disorders also on the rise. And COVID-19 has made things far worse, according to many experts. According to an international study by the Lancet Commission, the number of mental-health patients is rising in every country around the world and will cost the world economy some $16 trillion by 2030.
Clearly, there is a desperate need for solutions, and officials at the NIMH believe that digital technology can help. According to the NIMH, “excitement about the huge range of opportunities has led to a burst of app development.”
The National Institute on Aging
The worldwide percentage of people 60 years and older is set to nearly double over the next three decades, and with that increase will come a significant rise in maladies afflicting the elderly, from ailments like bursitis and arthritis to more serious illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
That is motivation enough for the NIA to seek out new digital technologies to help diagnose and treat these elder-associated diseases and conditions. The NIA has a long list of funding opportunities in all of these areas, a good percentage of which is specifically geared toward digital technology.
The National Cancer Institute
Cancer rates have declined in recent years, but, according to the NCI, the dreaded disease is likely to be with us for many years to come, and it is therefore looking at new technologies to help with the diagnosis, treatment and early arrest of cancer. It funds numerous digital projects every year, based on strict criteria and regulations.
What Kinds of Projects Qualify for Funding?
According to the NIH, “digital health refers to the use of information and communications technologies in medicine and other health professions to manage illnesses and health risks and to promote wellness.” Using digital technology can “improve access to healthcare, reduce any inefficiencies in the healthcare system, improve the quality of care, lower the cost of healthcare and provide more personalized healthcare for patients.” The technology to achieve these goals includes remote sensing and wearables, telemedicine and health information, data analytics and intelligence, predictive modeling, behavior modification tools and more.
That provides entrepreneurs and researchers with a very wide range of possibilities, and the projects that have received NIH funding run a wide gamut as well. For example, the NIA recently funded a wearable sensor that monitors activity and location and can detect falls, a digital platform using virtual pet avatars to engage older adults, a mobile app that will improve the ability to age in place (allowing home care services to be a long-term care solution for dementia), an interactive platform for older adults with hearing impairments and many others.
The NCI has funded projects for a biopharmaceutical company working to transition its vaccine platform technology to treat non-small-cell lung cancer, a medical device company seeking to improve breast cancer imaging technology, a non-invasive medical device designed to instantly detect cervical disease and more. And at the NIMH, funded projects include development of sensor and monitoring systems, mobile-based software, and data-driven information systems, which have the goal of preventing and treating mental illnesses.
Funding Does Carry Some Strings Attached
All NIH projects, of course, are required to comply with requirements regarding results, usability, security, privacy, ethics, protection of animal or human subjects in studies, environmental impact and other standards and regulations. Because digital health is a relatively new area for the NIH, those standards are still in formation. The NIH is examining a wide variety of “standards, frameworks, best practices and guidelines for the development of digital health apps. This review is a critical ’stepping stone’ for further work on producing appropriate standards that can help mitigate risks,” whether clinical, privacy-related or economic.
The NIH recently discussed these in depth at a workshop, which reviewed proposed digital health standards and regulations used by other agencies. Among those is the Food and Drug Administration’s 2019 Technology Modernization Action Plan, which “describes important near-term actions that FDA is taking to modernize use of technology — computer hardware, software, data, and analytics — to advance the FDA’s public-health mission.” The FDA’s plan is so far the most comprehensive one of any U.S. government agency, and until it develops its own standards and regulations, it’s likely the NIH will use the FDA’s plan to decide on digital health project funding.
The bottom line for developers is that projects are likely to be judged on an individual basis, so startups and companies seeking NIH funding would do well to study the plethora of documents the agency provides or, if it is at all feasible, to engage with professionals who have experience working with the NIH and its subsidiary groups on funding.
The NIH is clearly interested in digital health projects, and sees them as essential to the future of healthcare. Innovative projects that advance technology, research and care are more than welcome. Organizations that can present their products, services, research or technologies effectively have a good chance of getting a share of the NIH’s non-dilutive funding — and with the information here, they have a good chance of putting together an effective presentation.