How a biomedical expert inspired Apple to create ResearchKit


ResearchKit is already living up to its promise. Photo: Apple
Photo: Apple

Apple’s new open source platform, ResearchKit, could change our lives more than Apple Watch, and according to a report from Fusion detailing the inside story of ResearchKit, Apple may have got some outside inspiration for the project.

A lecture given by renowned medical researcher Dr. Stephen Friend was possibly the driving force behind Apple’s push into the industry. During a presentation at Stanford’s MedX conference, Friend asked attendees to imagine a future where researchers could run ten trials, with several thousand patients.

“Here you have genetic information, and you have what drugs they took, how they did. Put that up in the cloud, and you have a place where people can go and query it, [where] they can make discoveries,” Friend told the crowd, completely unaware that Apple’s newly appointed VP for medical technologies, Mike O’Reilly, was among those catching Friend’s vision for a medical research utopia.

“I can’t tell you where I work, and I can’t tell you what I do, but I need to talk to you,” O’Reilly told Friend after his presentation.

Stephen Friend at a lecture in 2013. Photo: Wikipedia
Stephen Friend at a lecture in 2013. Photo: Wikipedia

The two agreed to meet for coffee and 18 months later, Jeff Williams unveiled ResearchKit to the world, complete with five starter apps that tackle the most expensive diseases in the world. Initial response for the apps stunned researchers with nearly 11,000 people signing up for the cardiovascular study the first day alone.

By leveraging the ubiquity of the iPhone, Apple’s ResearchKit could allow the typical number of subjects in a clinical study to jump from hundreds or thousands, to include hundreds of thousands, or even millions of subjects. That potential wasn’t lost on researchers at Stanford who reportedly jumped at the chance to be apart of the first wave of apps.

All five of the ResearchKit apps were built by researchers without any input from Apple. Stanford’s team spent an entire year building the myHeart app.

“Apple was just there as a facilitator, building the framework in the background,” says Euan Ashley, the Stanford researcher who worked on the myHeart app. “We each designed our own app with no input from Apple.”

Whether Friend’s lecture was the true inspiration for ResearchKit, or whether Apple already had something similar in mind before O’Reilly met him isn’t clear. Friend has joined Apple has a medical technology advisor and was instructed not to reveal more about ResearchKit’s history.