The inside story of how Apple's new medical research platform was born
J Thoendell stashed this in Apps
After Friend’s talk, O’Reilly approached the doctor, and, in typical tight-lipped Apple fashion, said: “I can’t tell you where I work, and I can’t tell you what I do, but I need to talk to you,” Friend recalls. Friend was intrigued, and agreed to meet for coffee.
Given Apple’s historical approach to data-hoarding—and the way it has traditionally refused to open-source its code—its willingness to partner with an open-source advocate like Friend is a surprise. But Apple may not have had much of a choice. Given the upcoming release of the Watch, “there is probably some interest in Apple in leveraging that new [wearables] market…to attract more people to the iPhone platform,” said Bernard Munos, the founder of the Innothink Center for Research in Biomedical Innovation. “They could also invite entrepreneurs to make clever plug-in devices.” If people are hungry to track and share their symptoms, they’ll likely flock to the platform that gives them the best tools to do that. Other tech companies like Google and Microsoft are likely working on a similar projects, but now that Apple has beat them to the punch, they’ll have to play catch-up: Whatever they come up with will be measured against ResearchKit, especially when it comes to privacy.
“No one wants to entrust their health data to a company that’s going to sell them to the highest bidder, and the highest bidders usually include the worst privacy abusers. Apple has taken a very principled stance,” Munos added. “It’s the kind of reassurance people need.”
Steve Jobs' legacy: Apple sees clinical research as part of its moral obligation.
In terms of policy, though, Apple’s role was less passive. Just three months before the press event where ResearchKit and its new wearable, the Apple Watch were announced, Apple executives, including O’Reilly, met with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the government agency that oversees both medical devices and clinical trials. Apple told the FDA that it “sees mobile technology platforms as an opportunity for people to learn more about themselves. With the potential for more sensors on mobile devices, Apple believes there is the opportunity to do more with devices, and that there may be a moral obligation to do more,” according to a meeting memo obtained by Apple Toolbox through a Freedom of Information Act request. The memo didn’t mention ResearchKit explicitly, but we can reasonably infer that Apple sees clinical research, which falls under the purview of the FDA, as part of its “moral obligation.”
Beyond its genesis at Stanford, the other details of how ResearchKit came to be are still murky. It’s unclear, for instance, if Friend’s long-held vision for citizen-driven clinical research was the main driving force behind ResearchKit, or if Apple’s growing army of medical experts had already been cooking something up at One Infinite Loop before O’Reilly and Friend met.