Verily's plan to acquire a clinical trial management company moves the company further into the business of providing technology that underpins clinical trials—a hot area of the digital health market.
But while much of the increased attention and investment going to digital health startups has focused on decentralized clinical trials, as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed organizations to keep patients at home, Verily's planned acquisition signals a focus on site-based clinical trials, alongside the digital and virtual tools it has traditionally developed, analysts say.
Alphabet life sciences arm Verily this week unveiled plans to purchase SignalPath, a privately held company that sells software to assist research sites with managing clinical trials.
The acquisition, which would expand South San Francisco, Calif.-based Verily's clinical research capabilities, marks Verily's first major acquisition, according to the company said.
A Verily executive in a news release announcing the SignalPath acquisition said Verily's vision is to create technology that supports "site-based, hybrid and decentralized clinical studies."
That's likely what attracted Verily's interest in SignalPath, said Sari Kaganoff, general manager of consulting at Rock Health, an early-stage digital health venture fund that also compiles research on the sector.
"I think the main thing they were missing was that site-based component," Kaganoff said.
Since SignalPath sells software to research sites, it also has a network of customer sites to potentially sell Verily's tools to.
Verily—which has tackled a broad range of digital health projects, including work on medical devices and artificial intelligence—has been bolstering its focus on clinical trials and research. Notably, the company Dr. Amy Abernethy, former principal deputy commissioner of food and drugs at the Food and Drug Administration, as president of clinical studies platforms in June.
Abernethy in a news release said Verily and SignalPath will work together to "advance digital solutions to improve ease, quality, efficiency and speed in the current clinical trial paradigm."
SignalPath's software assists researchers with coordinating clinical trials, while Verily develops digital tools for research. Many of the trials offered through Verily programs tie in real-world data collected through sensors and other biomarkers, using technology like the company's Verily Study Watch, a wearable sensor it uses for continuous monitoring as part of clinical studies.
A cornerstone of Verily's clinical trials work has been Baseline, a data initiative that the company launched in 2017 to support decentralized and hybrid clinical trials and with a goal of one day collecting enough data to "map" human health.
Patients register with Baseline online, where they're matched with research studies based on interest and eligibility. That's meant to make it easier and faster to run clinical studies, since pharmaceutical, biotechnology and research companies can tap into a network of 500,000 who have already registered through Baseline.
Trials enrolling through Baseline today include a weight study with the American Heart Association and a depression study with pharmaceutical company Otsuka.
Verily plans to combine Baseline with SignalPath once the acquisition closes, the companies said. Financial details of the transaction weren't disclosed, but company officials said SignalPath employees will join Verily's clinical research business. SignalPath employees will remain at SignalPath's headquarters in Raleigh, N.C.
There's a lot that goes into coordinating a portfolio of clinical trials at a research site, particularly since many organizations are coordinating and managing numerous trials at the same time, said Michael Buchanio, a senior principal in consulting firm West Monroe's healthcare and life sciences practice.
That Verily is acquiring a company that helps with coordinating that process could suggest Verily is homing in on being a technology provider, rather than running their own research, Buchanio suggested. He said companies that conduct research for pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device companies have recently moved away from also selling technologies.
"It's hard for those two to coexist," Buchanio said, since the company would essentially be selling technology to their competitors. If a company—such as Verily—becomes a leader in managing clinical trials, it could dissuade others in the space from wanting to purchase their products and support a competitor's business.
Digital tools that assist with each part of the clinical-trials process—setting up study protocols, screening and enrolling participants, capturing data and evaluating outcomes—have been scooping up significant funding, with investment in digital health tools for clinical trials totaling $945.3 million in 2020, according to Rock Health's Kaganoff.
That's already more than double the nearly $400 million raised in full-year 2019, according to a report from Rock Health.
SignalPath, which was founded in 2014, has raised $34.5 million.
Verily's sister company Google has also launched programs focused on clinical research.
Google late last year launched Google Health Studies, an Android app meant to make it easier for researchers to recruit volunteers to participate in medical research remotely. Google Health Studies is similar to Apple's ResearchKit, a software tool that Apple launched in 2015 and that lets researchers develop iOS apps for clinical research.