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LA's richest man buys Cambridge start-up that sells intelligent pill packaging

Posted by Scott Kirsner  February 2, 2011 09:20 AM

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The richest man in Los Angeles, Patrick Soon-Shiong, just bought a tiny Cambridge start-up that sells smart pill packaging, Vitality Inc. Terms of the purchase weren't disclosed, but Soon-Shiong had already been the biggest investor in Vitality, which also attracted funding from MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte and other Boston-area angels.

vitality1.jpgVitality's first product, the GlowCap, fits on the top of a standard plastic prescription pill bottle. Its job is to remind you to take an important medication daily, getting your attention when you open the medicine cabinet with a blinking light — or an assortment of increasingly loud chimes. The GlowCap can text a family member if you forget to take the medication, and it can also send its data over the Internet to create a monthly report of how closely you adhered to your medication regimen. It's up to you whether you want to share the information with your doctor. The GlowCap talks directly to a small wireless base station plugged into an electrical outlet — no computer or WiFi network required. (The base station, pictured at right on the desk of Vitality CEO David Rose, gets its Internet access from AT&T's wireless network.) GlowCaps can also send text messages or make phone calls to remind you that it's almost time for a refill. Vitality makes the case that most American's don't take medications as prescribed — skipping them, for instance, if they happen to feel good one morning — which can cause a disease to worsen, resulting in higher healthcare costs.

Soon-Shiong earned his fortune in the pharmaceutical industry (he helped develop a breast cancer drug called Abraxane), and he's apparently interested in technologies that can radically reengineer the country's healthcare system (on Twitter, his username is "Solvehealthcare.") In 2010, the Los Angeles Business Journal estimated his net worth at $7 billion.

Soon-Shiong is also a minority owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, and the deal to acquire Vitality was hashed out in his courtside seats in late December, says Vitality CEO David Rose. Rose adds that sitting next to them at the game were Zynga CEO Mark Pincus and DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. The transaction closed in January.

vitality3.jpgRose and Vitality president Josh Wachman say they'll stay on, and that they're focused on developing new products, like a colorful and cute wireless pedometer for kids. "Our roadmap," says Wachman, "is to create more things that help people make better decisions every day. We think about things like tracking vitamins and pills, the food you eat, your stress level, or your sleep quality. We're really in the behavior-change business." (Wachman is pictured at left, holding a GlowCap.) The company has a knack for publicity; the GlowCap has already been featured on the "Today Show," mocked by Stephen Colbert, and demonstrated by Dr. Mehmet Oz on "Good Morning America."

Rose says that once a consumer has installed the wireless base station (he refers to it as "the night light," since it emits a gentle glow), it creates an opportunity for Vitality to introduce other wellness-related devices that can take advantage of the same Internet link.

The company first raised money in 2007, and Rose says early investors will see about a 10x return on their money. (A 2009 Information Week article said the company had raised $4 million.)

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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