Tandem Diabetes Care wants to change how we think about upgrading to the latest and greatest diabetes technology, using a model more like that of smartphones and mobile apps, where customers just download new software when ready, and only trade in the actual physical devices every few years when contracts run out.
The California company that makes the touchscreen t:slim insulin pump is developing what it calls "Project Odyssey," and while it's not ready for prime-time yet, this long-term vision has recently become a hot topic among the Diabetes Community as questions arise about future upgrades. In a Feb. 25 earnings call where Odyssey was first mentioned, Tandem CEO Kim Blickenstaff said this:
"Odyssey is our proprietary PC and Mac compatible web based system that is being developed to allow users to update their pump software at home similar to the smartphones. Initially, Odyssey may provide users with an opportunity to update the version of their pump software which would allow us to continue to enhance our customer’s experience with our products.
"Longer term, I have a broader vision for this technology in which [Tandem] can offer a next-generation universal pump platform. And through Odyssey, our customer and their healthcare provider will help the flexibility to select the most fitting software based on the person’s evolving needs throughout their four-year pump cycle."
Then last week during its April 30 earnings call, the Tandem CEO responded to a question about upgrade programs by pretty much saying: "No plans to offer upgrades to the t:slim G4, once it's approved."
This is big, given that the integrated t:slim G4 pump with built-in Dexcom G4 is under review by FDA and expected to be approved within the coming months. This product is essentially Tandem's version of the new Animas Vibe -- a slightly upgraded version of the pump chassis, with built-in technology allowing it to display data from the Dexcom G4, without any need for a CGM receiver.
We reached out to Tandem immediately to ask for more clarification and detail, and were told that wasn't a mistake -- the company is not planning any upgrade offers to existing customers, like the other insulin pump and CGM companies do!
The reason: this still-in-development "Odyssey" platform, which Tandem plans to submit for FDA review by year's end. The idea is that you wouldn't need to trade in your pump each time new features like "reverse correction" or upgraded screen views are available -- rather, you could just download the software to add that functionality to the unit you already own, kind of like Dexcom did recently with its algorithm upgrade.
This no-upgrade issue is actually already in play for Tandem, as the new t:slim features the company announced in mid-April -- including a bunch of cool software additions like reverse correction and a fix that cuts down the time it takes to fill the pump tubing -- are built into the t:slim pumps going out to new customers. But the rub is that existing customers don't have access to those latest features yet. Instead they have to wait until the FDA gives the OK for this new remote update option.
This goes beyond just software updates, though, and it's really a long-range vision (an odyssey, if you will)... that ties in with Tandem's plan to develop a universal device platform in which, using Odyssey, customers could pick and choose what features they want or don't want -- everything from the latest software, to possible CGM integration and even future closed loop functions for automated insulin if the actual device hardware allows for that.
And that's where it gets messy...
Where existing customers fit into this "odyssey" remains unclear. It seems even within Tandem's ranks there isn't a clear sense as to what the gameplan will be. Will current t:slim customers be able to get the newest integrated G4 pump once it's approved and launched later this year? Or will they be out of luck, forced to wait despite earlier sales assurances that upgrades would be possible?
Right now, it's anyone's guess.
Unfortunately, current t:slim users and those who've recently considered buying a new touchscreen pump say they've been told by sales reps and customer service that upgrade offers would be possible once the G4 combo is approved. We were unable to get a response on that from Tandem, as to when the "no upgrade" stance was instituted or why that wasn't communicated directly to customers.
And just in the past several days, Tandem has modified its response to say it will evaluate customer needs once each new product is approved rather than adopting a "one-size-fits-all" approach up front. To be clear: that's totally OK in our opinion if no final decisions have been made, but we have to wonder why that wasn't just said at the start instead of this hard-line "no upgrade offers" for existing customers.
Tandem spokesman Steve Sabicer offered a response outlining their vision, while not exactly providing specific answers to the questions above:
"As a young company without other business units, Tandem had to make a decision on how to best manage the business for the long-term benefits of current and future customers. Rather than invest in replacing pumps that are still providing their needed therapy, the company would dedicate time and resources to creating longer-term solutions that could change the industry for the better," he said.
"Regarding additional upgrade questions as they relate to unapproved products, we know we have some frustrated customers right now, and it is difficult for us to provide a single response that will address everyone’s frustrations at once," Sabicer added. "But, we are listening and we do understand."
Wait... so won't some potential customers just decide to hold off ordering a t:slim until the G4 combo is approved and launched? As noted, FDA approval is expected in the second half of this year, and Tandem says it would be able to launch that integrated device within 30 days of getting the FDA nod.
The company doesn't seem worried about hold-overs, or even losing business from those unhappy about this seemingly-new policy.
Case-in-point: I actually phoned in earlier this week to the general customer service line at Tandem, asking what my options were if I was interested in a t:slim but wanted the G4 version. The rep told me: No plans for any upgrades at this time, so it would be best to circle back once the t:slim G4 is actually available.
Well, this is certainly unique, since the other pump and CGM companies do offer upgrade options for existing customers that includes both hardware and software.
Just how disappointing this will be for some in Diabetes Community remains to be seen. We can't ignore the fact that some current t:slim users are up in arms, and there's even talk about starting a petition online to get Tandem to change its mind on this. We hope they really are listening, and are able to clearly communicate the benefits of Project Odyssey to customers while also staying true to those who've already invested in Tandem's technology.
What do you all think?