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Take two wearables and call me in the morning: how mobile is making us healthier

By Brian S Hall / August 23, 2013


While Google Glass and the rumored Apple iWatch are getting significant media attention, they aren’t the only companies throwing their weight behind wearable technology. Wearable devices designed to track and improve user’s health form a multi-billion-dollar market. Everything from bracelets and bands to clothes with built-in sensors are currently available. One company has even released a smart bra to catch breast cancer early.

With all this activity, it’s not too shocking that the wearable technology market will reach $4.6 billion this year, according to British research firm Visiongain. Explosive growth is predicted over the next five years and investors have certainly taken notice. For example, Qualcomm Ventures, SAP Ventures and SoftBank Capital recently invested $43 million in Fitbit, which makes digital fitness trackers and health devices.

As the wearables market takes off, these five companies are at the forefront thanks to their technical innovation, early market leadership and the vision of their founders.

LUMO BodyTech

Founded in 2011, LUMO BodyTech creates devices that help alleviate chronic back pain. The company has received backing from both Google’s Eric Schmidt and Yahoo’s Jerry Yang. That’s serious “A list” support, and probably not surprising. According to the American Chiropractic Association, the direct cost of back pain treatment is a staggering $50 billion a year.

LUMO’s wearable back band, LUMOback, helps sufferers minimize pain through biofeedback and data analysis. When the user slouches, LUMOback delivers a gentle vibration to remind the wearer to sit or stand up straight. LUMOback also tracks a user’s movement wirelessly and provides feedback via a mobile app. LUMOback also reveals how the wearer sleeps — 25% of the time the wearer sleeps on his right shoulder — and how much time he/she spends seated while working, a big concern the medical community is only now addressing.

As LUMO’s co-founder, Monisha Perkash, notes, “We can combine technology, data and intelligent algorithms to empower people to do little things that dramatically improve our lives.” This statement succinctly captures the power and promise of wearable technology.

Thimble Bioelectronics

The American Academy of Pain Medicine estimates the total incremental cost of health care in the U.S. due to chronic pain is nearly $300 billion. That doesn’t factor in the billions more due to lost productivity, and those figures will only increase as the nation ages.

In 2012, Shaun Rahimi founded Thimble Bioelectronics, in part to alleviate his own chronic pain. Rahimi’s company took first place at last year’s Innovation Quest with its ThimblE-A device, designed to inhibit pain transmission. It also received $25,000 in grant funding.

The ThimblE-A is a small patch that users place on a part of the body where they experience pain. Using mild electrical stimulation, the device alleviates and potentially eradicates pain. The ThimblE-A is especially effective at easing the pain of lancet pricks, a common complaint of diabetics who must regularly monitor their blood glucose. It can also be applied to arthritis-ridden joints, bruises and other small wounds.

To help with pain management and tracking, there’s even an accompanying smartphone app. With thinking like this — and a clever product design — Thimble was a finalist at this year’s Wearable Technologies Innovation World Cup.

Mobisante

One of the great promises of wearable technology is that its affordability and portability makes it ideal in remote areas of the world. Enter Mobisante, a company co-founded in 2009 by former Microsoft emerging technologies manager, Dr. Sailesh Chutani. With the Mobisante MobiUS SP1 system and HIPAA-compliant smartphone, ultrasound imaging is now possible virtually anywhere, and its far less costly than before.

Using Mobisante’s portable medical imaging system, health care workers in remote locations can check pregnant women, monitor a baby’s health, examine patients for heart and lung problems, and triage other problems. Their phone can then transmits the images to a hospital for consultation.

The MobiUS SP1 has the distinction of being the first cell-phone-based diagnostic device ever cleared by the FDA. After two successful years with the smartphone, the company has announced the MobiUS TC1, an ultrasound system for tablets. According to the website, “[The MobiUS TC1] offers a larger image with higher resolution but with the same ease of use and affordability.”

AiQ Smart Clothing

Wearable technology isn’t limited to devices that you strap to your arm. The actual clothes you put on your body can be infused with some pretty cool technology, too. By merging electronics, textiles and computing, AiQ Smart Clothing has helped create an entirely new clothing market.

Launched in 2012, AiQ uses threads designed by MIT that are comprised of small steel fibers containing embedded sensors. These sensors can measure the wearer’s perspiration, heart rate, blood pressure and other vital functions. The data can be used to optimize physical fitness and aid in diagnoses. Other AiQ products incorporate wearable electrodes and sensors with Bluetooth connectivity, which are used for weight control and sports training.

First Warning Systems

Smart clothing even has the potential to save lives. It may soon be possible to detect the earliest signs of breast cancer just by wearing the smart bra made by First Warning Systems. To validate its technology, and receive FDA approval, First Warning Systems invested $12 million to complete three clinical trials. The preliminary results have been rather remarkable, with the bra demonstrating an accuracy of 92.1%. By comparison, the standard mammogram averages only 70%.

First Warning’s smart bra contains sensors that collect and send data to physicians for analysis via the web. The bra is noninvasive and nonradiogenic, making it easy to wear like any other bra. The smart bra is not intended to diagnose cancer, but instead serves as an accurate and affordable warning system. It may prove particularly helpful for women with dense breast tissue, who are more prone to breast cancer and have a difficult time getting a clear mammogram.

Launched in 2008, First Warning is not a typical start-up. It develops and markets licensed technologies from its parent company, Lifeline Biotechnologies. First Warning’s CEO, Rob Royea, has a rich history in the medical technology industry, previously serving as general manager for Siemens Medical’s ultrasound, PACS and catheter division in the U.S.

Wearables spans multiple industries

Smaller, cheaper wearables are now possible, and their benefits verifiable. Data from each device can be instantly analyzed by a user’s smartphone and accessed from the cloud.

Because of this, companies in the fitness, healthcare and insurance industries are actively exploring game-changing opportunities in this market. Established companies as well as start-ups are trying to create their niche in the wearables environment. For example, German pharmaceutical company, Bayer, has developed haptic technology for body feedback. They’re also experimenting with specialized headphones to enhance how we hear music.

According to Venture Beat, a leading reporter of tech investments in Silicon Valley, wearables serve a critical role as each person’s very own “personal sensor network.” Although the science is still relatively young, innovation in wearable technology is as stunning as it is inspiring.