A look at the most interesting innovations at SXSW 2022: From holograms to the future of psychedelics

For three days, I walked and Uber-ed (but did not scooter) my way through the streets of Austin, Texas, as SXSW returned in person for the first time since 2019.

My colleague Paige Minemyer and I flew to Austin to check out SXSW’s medtech and health tech conference, along with moderating a few sessions. But in between panel discussions about investing in health equity, the rise in home health tech and how women founders and investors are changing the industry (more to come on that), I saw and heard a lot about NFTs, metaverse and blockchain. NFTs dominated the festival, with more than two dozen events on the SXSW schedule. One popular installation from the company Doodles drew a line of festival-goers that stretched down the block.

The 10-day SXSW conference and festival brings together the worlds of tech, music and film, so I had an opportunity to check some cutting-edge art installations and an immersive sound experience. (But I did not spot any celebrities.)

We also saw and learned about a few cool innovations at the Creative Industries Expo, the Wellness Expo and at live discussions during the conference.

Here are innovations that got our attention at SXSW:

The doctor will beam you up now

With its tagline—“If you can’t be there, beam there”—startup Proto demonstrated its interactive holographic communications platform at the Creative Industries Expo during SXSW. The company developed a device, called Epic, that’s a human-sized “portal” that produces a lifelike person in hologram, letting people “beam” themselves to a location thousands of miles away and interact with people there. 

Proto’s hologram device already is being used for medical applications. The University of Central Florida's School of Health Professions and Sciences has used the technology to “beam” a doctor in from Australia to teach students in Florida. The medical school is using the technology to help train future healthcare professionals. It provides students with a state-of-the-art patient simulation tool for classroom instruction and helps refine their clinical skills, according to a press release.

Medical schools also are interested in the holoportation technology to help with diagnosing Parkinson’s disease patients and for speech-language pathology and physical therapy, Noah Rothstein, head of operations at Proto, formerly Portl, told Fierce Healthcare at SXSW.

Proto hologram device at SXSW 2022
Proto's tagline: "If you can't BE there, BEAM there." (Heather Landi/Fierce Healthcare)

The company unveiled its tabletop version of the device, called Proto M, that can be used at home or in the office. Rothstein said Proto’s hologram technology has the potential to be combined with remote diagnostic tech and telemedicine to enhance virtual care.

“We’re talking with companies that do biometric vitals that can be displayed on the screen. So someone can take their biometric vital information at home using the Proto M in the house and have the doctor beam in or you can beam in to your doctor,” he said.

Proto also collaborates with solutions integrator Wachter and demonstrated its technology at HIMSS22 in Orlando, Florida, this week.

The company has been named one of Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies; it received three awards at CES and also won a SXSW Innovation Award in the "Connecting People" category.

An inflection point for psychedelics and VC investment

Once considered a recreational activity, psychedelics are now viewed as an evidence-based treatment for psychiatric disease. The SXSW health tech conference featured several panel discussions about psilocybin, ketamine, MDMA, LSD and mescaline creating a new paradigm in well-being. Beyond the science behind psychedelics, there’s a lot of talk about the business and investment opportunities, particularly given the rapid rate at which the regulatory landscape, cultural attitudes and research are evolving. 

A January analysis by Business Insider identified 11 venture capital firms, most of them founded in the past three years), that have collectively invested roughly $140 million in the psychedelics category.

“Psychedelics represent the most compelling opportunity to create positive change and create outsized returns if you are a patient and disciplined investor,” said Daniel Goldberg, a founder of Palo Santo Venture Capital Fund, during a panel at SXSW focused on the psychedelic investment opportunity. Palo Santo is a diversified psychedelics therapeutics VC fund.

But all that cash is flowing into an industry that’s facing its fair share of risks. The illicit nature of the compounds raises questions about just how receptive regulators, physicians and patients will be to this new class of medicines, Fierce Biotech reported.

“The public market is skittish about psychedelics, but researchers, academics and mental health professionals are as optimistic as ever about psychedelic medicines,” Goldberg said.

Many companies in the psychedelic therapeutics space are biotech companies working on drug development and seeking FDA approval for their products, which requires a lot of capital. Goldberg believes fundraising poses the greatest challenge to startups in the space.

“A pitch deck gets you to $5 million or $10 million and then to go to clinical trials, which need $100 million more. This is a biotech business and risk of future financing right now is the greatest risk. I don’t think it’s quite regulatory at this point. If you don’t have enough capital then you’re not able to fund those trials and you’re not going to convince sophisticated biotech investors, you know the series B, about your story,” he said.

Gregg Peterson, CEO at Bexson Biomedical—which is developing a unique ketamine delivery system for pain disorders and mental health conditions—believes psychedelics will get FDA approved.

“But are they going to be niche products used by a few patients or a part of mainstream medicine? I want these therapies to be readily accessible,” he said during the same panel discussion.

Bexson Biomedical is developing a subcutaneous delivery system for ketamine and other psychedelics using a prefilled, pre-sterilized, wearable patch delivery pump. Peterson said the technology can create a shorter psychedelic experience: about two to three hours versus six to eight hours.

“A two- or three-hour experience can fit better into a Western healthcare model and may be more likely to be reimbursed by Medicare or insurance companies,” he noted.

The science behind sound for healing

Researchers and health systems are exploring the use of sound and immersive experiences to improve the patient experience and alleviate burnout among frontline care providers.

Howard Rose, head of health and wellness at immersive sound startup Spatial, believes that audio will have a big impact on the future of digital health and wellness.

“We believe that sound is a really untapped superpower that is under-appreciated and it has a lot of potential for helping individual patients and really to drive change in the whole healthcare delivery system,” Rose said during a panel at SXSW.

panelists discuss the science of sound as healing at SXSW 2022
Panelists discuss music therapy at SXSW 2022. (Heather Landi/Fierce Healthcare)

The startup and wellness music brand HealthTunes has partnered with digital health innovation lab Catalyst at Atlanta-based Wellstar Health System to design immersive sound environments that provide a respite for front-line healthcare workers in the hospital setting.

HealthTunes is a nonprofit digital streaming platform offering scientific-based MusicMedicine.

Hank Capps, M.D., WellstarHealth's chief information and digital officer and also the founder of Catalyst by Wellstar, said the initiative was designed to help reduce the stress and anxiety brought on by the overwhelming COVID-19 health crisis.

The past two years have been a marathon of service for doctors, nurses and front-line healthcare workers, Capps said. “You can't really put into words the waves of stress, the waves of challenges, the experience of death, the experience of moments of hope along the way. One of the things that we have faced is to be very thoughtful about is, how do we respond to the people who've given so much over the last couple of years? Part of that has been how do you design experiences for team members for clinicians that can create an environment of wellbeing, an environment of relaxation in the midst of that remarkable stress?”

Catalyst by Wellstar is piloting Spatial technology in wellness rooms under construction at four of its medical centers. These rooms will function as therapeutic spaces for healthcare workers to relax and recharge in tranquil, completely immersive audio environments

“Evidence shows that experiential sound works effectively as a therapeutic tool, but it is vastly underutilized in practical settings,” Capps said. “The immersive wellness rooms present an exciting opportunity for Wellstar to leverage the healing power of sound for our clinical team members.”

Wellstar went live with the wellness rooms earlier this year to “unexpected success and utilization,” he said.

“If you think about how you create those immersive experiences for a team member or a clinician, you then can start seeing a path forward to creating the same kind of experiences for people who are experiencing their worst day.

A health and wellness platform called Happy Mama, which bills itself as the first and only fully comprehensive biopsychosocial wellness platform for maternity care, also partners with HealthTunes to create immersive sound experiences during delivery.

“It allows the mother to feel a sense of security when she's about to go in an unknown space and convert that space into something that feels very safe,” said Fran Ayalasomayajula, CEO at RTL Innovation, a benefit corporation, a partner of Reach.

Psychedelics, CBD for wellness and mental health take center stage

Across the agenda for the health and medtech track, sessions focusing on the potential of psychedelic drugs for medical therapy was a running thread. One session, for example, focused on the way that these drugs could impact people at the end of life, with experts arguing that when provided in a controlled environment, psychedelics can “reduce existential fear and suffering during serious illness” as a patient nears the end of life.

The theme extended to the on-site Wellness Expo, which featured a number of cannabidiol (CBD) and hemp enthusiasts marketing their wares. Proponents argue, for instance, that CBD oils can have a number of beneficial effects for people with mental health needs. The jury is still out on this, however, as evidence remains scant.

Speech biomarkers to detect disease and monitor health

During one panel at SXSW, experts walked the audience through the potential for innovations in speech biomarkers to improve health.

Twenty years from now, ambient technology in our cars, phones and devices will be able to detect early signs of visual or spatial changes, monitor vitals like lung and heart health and provide personalized exercise routines. The audience was introduced to “Carol,” a 47-year-old woman whose mother died of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 63, which increases Carol’s genetic risk for the disease.

In the year 2040, Carol will be able to buy a speech and dialogue monitoring service that will monitor 24/7 changes in speech patterns, syntax, the use of complex phrases and low-frequency words and as well as her speed of thought in conversation, said Stephen Ruhmel, innovation lead at pharma giant Johnson & Johnson. “The technology will not simply monitor what she says but how she says it and this will provide information on her cognitive and emotional state. Despite her genetic risk, she can live a stress-free life,” he said.

There are companies and researchers working today to use speech biomarkers and artificial intelligence to develop speech-based assessments for neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s. There is the potential for this technology to lead to quicker diagnosis and less invasive and better treatments, experts said.

“Changes start in the brain start about 20 years before diagnosis. When you get a diagnosis, it’s often too late for effective treatment,” Alexandra König, Ph.D., a clinical research scientist at the National Institute for Research in Digital Science and Technology. “The instruments we are using today in daily practice are not sensitive to detect early signs of changes. We need new methods, solutions and ways to detect cognitive changes and speech offers a lot of opportunities,”

Chronic medical conditions could be detected by speech acoustics early enough that a cure is a realistic prospect. There’s also the potential for disease progression and therapeutic efficacy to be measured remotely, where voice recordings take the place of blood draws and brain scans, experts say.

Ruhmel said Johnson & Johnson is continuing its research into therapies for early Alzheimer’s disease and plans to use speech biomarkers to prescreen clinical trial participants. “We can use this technology to pre-screen simply at home before they make it to a clinic and then further look at longitudinal disease monitoring across months or years,” he said.