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The Sugarpod, winner of the Alexa Diabetes Challenge. The device is a scale and foot scanner that connects to an app and Alexa skill. (Wellpepper Photo)

Type 2 Diabetes has become a health crisis in the U.S. The rate of type 2 diabetes has nearly doubled in the last twenty years and the disease is now among the top ten causes of death.

Sadly, the problem is only going to get worse: The CDC has projected that the rate of type 2 diabetes could triple by 2050.

The Alexa Diabetes Challenge is hoping to ease that crisis. The program launched in April, and challenged health technology companies to put Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant to work in helping those with newly-diagnosed type 2 diabetes.

Monday, the challenge’s organizers announced the winner of the $125,000 grand prize: Seattle-based health software startup Wellpepper, which entered its first-ever device in the competition.

The competition was a collaboration between pharmaceutical giant Merck, strategy consultant Luminary Labs and Amazon Web Services (AWS), the tech giant’s cloud service. The 98 competitors received mentoring, cash prizes and AWS credits as they moved through the challenge’s stages. Wellpepper was one of five finalists.

Known as Sugarpod, the winning device is a connected weight scale and foot scanner that integrates with the Sugarpod app and Alexa skill.

Wellpepper CEO Anne Weiler. (Wellpepper CEO)

“We knew that voice would be a great interface for interactive care plans but wanted to take it further with an IoT device that would integrate into a habit someone already had,” Anne Weiler, Wellpepper CEO and co-founder, told GeekWire in an email. “We prototyped 4 versions of the device as part of the challenge, and tested it with clinicians and people with Type 2 diabetes at a KP Washington clinic.”

Sugarpod monitors patients’ weight and keeps an eye out for foot ulcers, a common diabetes complication. But it can also help patients stay on track with their treatment, including tracking diet, glucose level and medication.

“Sugarpod uses voice to interact with the scale, and also for other tasks in the care plan. When someone weighs themselves, they can also check off other tasks in their care plans,” Weiler said. “During the day, if someone is at work, a mobile device may be a better interface, but in the evening at home voice can be used to complete any tasks.”

Wellpepper is largely a SaaS company. Its patient engagement platform lets doctors prescribe custom treatment plans — for example, an in-home physical therapy routine for patients recovering from joint replacement surgery. It also facilitates communication between patients and care teams.

Sugarpod physically integrates with an Echo Dot, as well as integrating with the Alexa software. (Wellpepper Photo)

Sugarpod is the company’s first device, and Weiler said it made sense to integrate the device with Alexa because the voice assistant makes Sugarpod natural and easy to use.

“Voice is a natural interface in healthcare, both in the clinic and in the home. We found that clinicians and people alike wanted to converse with Alexa, and had the impression that she was calm and empathetic,” she said.

But there are challenges to using the consumer service for healthcare, one of which is security. Alexa isn’t currently HIPAA-secure, a standard that health services and devices must meet to handle patient data. That means the tasks she can help with are limited.

And there’s competition: Seattle-based startup SayKara is among those working on competing voice assistants that are specifically designed to be used in hospitals and other healthcare settings.

Regardless, there is clearly potential for Alexa and other Amazon services to make headway into the healthcare space.

“The Alexa Diabetes Challenge has been a great experiment to re-think what a consumer, patient, and caregiver experience could be like and how voice can become a frictionless interface for these interactions,” Oxana Pickeral, head of healthcare and life dciences at AWS, said in a press release. “We can imagine a future where technological innovations, like those provided by Amazon and AWS, are supporting those who need them most.”

Amazon has been building out its healthcare offerings in the past few months, including beefing up its HIPAA-secure cloud offerings on AWS and hiring several healthcare leaders. It is also rumored to be investigating an online pharmacy offering.

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