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Howard Asher

Health is borderless, says life sciences veteran

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An Orange County native who grew up doing all the "normal" Southern California activities, Howard Asher began his career in life sciences when Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE) recruited him in 1969, straight out of college, to sell its hip and knee implants.

From teaching orthopedic surgeons how to use the devices, he moved on to Baxter Healthcare (NYSE: BAX) and then Bayer AG in Germany, where he secured 35 patents for proposing that fiberglass be used in place of plaster of paris for casts.

As medical devices became heavily regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, Asher said he became a student of the Congressional transcripts, developed expertise on compliance and began his own consulting company, Advanced Bioresearch Associates, advising device makers.

He ran the company for 21 years and then in 1999 decided to try his hand at something else, a biotech startup that developed artificial intelligence software for the life sciences industry. When the venture didn’t pan out, he went back to being a professional, leading Sun Microsystems’ global health sciences business.

The job took him all over the world and as he visited different countries, he became interested in public health.

“One thing I learned is that health has no borders. If there is an epidemic, it spreads rapidly — HIV, for example. I learned that health is borderless,” Asher said.

The second thing that impressed him during his travels was the convergence of health and information technology. He said he was part of the process as big data evolved and when he left Sun in 2005, he became active in several companies focused on different aspects of healthcare IT.

Two years ago, he founded Automated Telemedicine (ATM Health), a startup focused on creating a virtual personal health record for everyone, a massive undertaking for which he is working with the World Bank on funding.

And last year, he was also made chairman of Abnology, a profitable company that offers trusted healthcare cloud solutions.

Abnology has developed an advanced version of the private cloud, built specifically to host life sciences companies, with a second protective layer that taps sophisticated engineering which can foil even the most determined hackers. Roll out has been gradual Asher said, since the 28-employee company is self-funded.

In a career that has spanned four decades, Asher singled out his work at ATM Health as his biggest achievement.

He said the World Bank has realized that improved health leads to better prosperity, but in countries like India — where the gross domestic product, or GDP, is growing rapidly — the investment in public health is very low, at around 4 percent.

“With its population, there is no equality in health care distribution," Asher said. "So, ATM helps level that out with health care records, since almost everyone has an ATM card. What if that ATM card was also your health record?”

But this is no easy undertaking, as it involves so much fact gathering and coordination.

Asher compares it to the global financial network, which took about 28 years to evolve before small and big banks became a part of it.

“So that’s what we’re looking at — that’s why ATM services are so ubiquitous worldwide. This will also take a long time,” said Asher, who considers this his swan song project.


-Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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