Tuesday, February 26, 2008

It's Your Turn to Tackle Obesity

Today's "Innovating for Health" panel on Pediatric Obesity was quite the eye-opener. Dr. Thomas Krummel, a surgeon at Stanford Hospital, moderated a discussion among a diverse panel of experts and then solicited ideas from a crowd of Stanford entrepreneurs. The panel tackled childhood obesity from medical, venture capital, entrepreneurial and behavioral angles and by all accounts, the disease is a growing problem (no pun intended) and the situation looks bleak.

According to one panel expert, Dr. Thomas Robinson, a Professor of Pediatrics at the Med School, 20% of today's children are obese and 1 out of every 3 children born today will have obesity-related diabetes at some point in their lifetime. That risk is even higher for African-American girls and Hispanic boys. Of those segments, 1 of every 2 children born today will get diabetes.

And the price tag for pediatric obesity related illnesses? A staggering $98 to $129 billion in annual health care costs. To many in the audience, that was a big Debbie Downer, but to other panelists, that's called opportunity.

Dana Mead, a panelist and life sciences venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins, said there are currently about 50 companies addressing obesity, but the realities of the illness simply make it an unattractive investment for venture capitalists.

For one, investors acknowledge there is no panacea for obesity. Nobody believes one medical solution will work for all patients. Secondly, Mead said that the reality of the market is that only 10% of health care dollars currently go to preventative medicine. The combination of these two factors is one big red flag for Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

The entrepreneurial landscape didn't look much more obesity-friendly. Tom Fogarty, the renowned cardiovascular surgeon, inventor, entrepreneur and vintner, says today's entrepreneurs are not prepared to devote the kind of persistent innovation necessary to tackle childhood obesity.

Direct quote: "Today's entrepreneurs are like flies on horse s---. They jump around from one challenge to another. That does not lead to innovation."

Current medical approaches to childhood obesity are few. Dr. Craig Albanese, a pediatric surgeon and panelist, says that "Gastric bypass is the current gold standard. But it's a tool, not a cure." Albanese told the audience of entrepreneurs he believed the ideal surgical procedure for childhood obesity would be one that is reversible, done early enough to affect behavior, one that doesn't affect growth or development, is minimally invasive and can be coupled with a (what is now a non-existent) pharmaceutical remedy. In short, a medical miracle.

Finally Kristin Richmond, Founder and CEO of Revolution Foods, and Pat Christen, President and CEO of HopeLabs, spoke to some of the efforts to tackle childhood obesity from a behavioral standpoint. Richmond's company has partnered with Whole Foods and Clover (among others) to bring healthy meals to over 40 schools and 75 after-school programs in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. By Richmond's estimate, Revolution Foods, is reaching 10,000 students, 75% of which belong to low-income households and making a daily positive impact.

Christen spoke to HopeLab's first initiative to address obesity, called Ruckus Nation- a worldwide competition to generate product ideas to get kids more physically active. A staggering 400 teams from 37 countries have participated in the competition and winners will be announced March 17th, at an event in San Francisco.

For e-week, the panel is asking Stanford students and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to submit an idea that will help reduce pediatric obesity. If you have an idea, submit it by 1 pm on Friday, February 29th, to biodesign@stanford.edu.

Winners will be announced at the eWeek Innovation Tournament, from 5:00- 6:30 pm at Arrillaga Alumni Center (McCaw Hall).

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