All Tech Considered
3:41 am
Fri May 2, 2014

Amid The Device Hype, This Startup Is Taking Wearables To Heart

Originally published on Tue May 6, 2014 11:38 am

There's been a lot of talk about wearable devices being the next big thing in the technology world. It's easy for the hype to get ahead of the products, but there's actually some serious innovation going on.

"What we're going to see over the next couple years is going to be extremely exciting," says Dan Ledger of Endeavor Partners, which consults with the companies that are inventing wearables. "As the technology improves ... we're going to get devices that solve a lot of useful and unique problems for a lot of people out there."

Quanttus, located near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is trying to find those solutions. The startup is called Quanttus because its products will quantify human health, says Vice President of Product Development Jordan Rice. Rice used to work on wearable technology at Nike, before Quanttus recruited him.

Unlike simpler step-counting bracelets, Quanttus' products will have a cluster of tiny, sophisticated sensors. An object smaller than a fingernail can measure the body's biological signals.

Rice won't say exactly what all the sensors will track — that's still secret. But some will probably record metrics like heart rate, temperature and blood pressure.

He won't say what form those sensors will take, either: They could be bracelets, necklaces or something else entirely.

David He, who co-founded Quanttus after graduating from MIT, says his products will likely first be used to track patients with heart problems.

"Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer, and it all boils down to this pump inside your body ... that drives everything," he says.

He uses a car analogy to explain: "It's like you're an automobile and there's the car engine."

Automobiles have 15 to 20 computers monitoring all the time, and a mechanic can get the data that your car has stored.

In the future, your doctor might do the same thing, but would get it from a wristwatch that has been quietly gathering the information about you.

That's bound to create privacy concerns, but venture capitalists are pouring money into all kinds of wearable startups. In the past couple of months, Quanttus has grown from 25 to 40 employees.

Wearables still need a lot of improvement, yet the innovation continues. A report in February counted 79 different companies with wearable technology products — and that doesn't even include the newest or more secretive startups, like Quanttus.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Next, we have a story of technology you use, but also wear. In our latest report on small business, NPR's Chris Arnold reports on startups, hoping to create the next big small thing.

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CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: You might have heard of something called a fit-bit. That's a little bracelet that counts steps as you move around, and how many calories you burn. Then there strap-on cameras, gloves for cyclists that blink with a turn-signal light. There's even a shirt that will give you a hug when it senses that you're nervous or upset. That's called the InflataCorset.

DAN LEDGER: Well, there's certainly - I think there's two categories. There's the ludicrous category.

ARNOLD: That's Dan Ledger with Endeavor Partners. He consults with companies that are inventing these wearable devices. He says in the technology world, there's been a lot of talk about this being the next big thing. And whenever that happens, the talk can get ahead of itself.

LEDGER: There certainly is a lot of hype right now, and we are very much in the early days of wearables.

ARNOLD: But if you look past the hype and some of the kookier products...

LEDGER: What we're going to see over the next couple years is going to be extremely exciting. As the technology improves and we get better bio-sensing capabilities, we're going to begin to see devices that are going to solve very useful and unique problems for a lot of people out there.

ARNOLD: To get a sense of that, we went to a startup company called Quanttus, near MIT.

JORDAN RICE: This is one of the earlier prototypes that our chief science officer, David, and the team built early on, which...

ARNOLD: Jordan Rice is a VP of product development. He got recruited to this startup from Nike, where he also used to work on wearable technology. He says the company is called Quanttus because its products will quantify human health. Unlike those more simple step-counting bracelets, Quanttus' products - they could be bracelets, necklaces. They're not saying yet. But they'll have a cluster of tiny, sophisticated sensors that he's showing me.

RICE: Basically, just what you're seeing right there which a size, you know, smaller than my index fingernail. We're measuring the vast majority of your clinically-relevant cardiovascular metrics. And so, there's probably eight to 10 different biometric signals or values that we're picking up from that right there.

ARNOLD: And what is biometric mean, for people who don't know what that means?

RICE: It's a measurement of your personal biology. We like to say that your body is putting out all kinds of biological signals, and we're able to pick those up. And that's basically biometrics.

ARNOLD: Rice won't say exactly what all the sensors will measure. That's still secret. But some will probably track heart rate, temperature, blood pressure and other metrics.

David He co-founded the company after graduating from MIT. He says his products will likely first be used to track patients with heart problems.

DAVID HE: Cardiovascular disease is the number-one killer, right? And it all boils down to this pump inside your body, right, that drives everything. It's like you're an automobile, and then there's the car engine.

ARNOLD: And automobiles, by the way, have, like, 15-20 computers that are monitoring all that, all the time.

HE: Exactly. So I guess that's an analogy.

ARNOLD: So a mechanic can get all this data that your car has stored. In the future, your doctor might do the same thing, but get it from the wristwatch that's been quietly gathering the information about you. That's bound to create some privacy concerns. But venture capitalists are pouring money into all kinds of wearable startups. In the past couple of months, Quanttus has grown from 25 to 40 employees.

That's got the recruiter, Emily Gransky, very busy.

EMILY GRANSKY: Three people, possibly four, are starting Monday. And then we have another two definitely starting the following Monday.

ARNOLD: For now, wearables still need a lot of improvement. Some of those step counters aren't very accurate, and people stop using them. But there's also a lot of innovation going on. Another report counted up 79 different companies with wearable technology products. And that doesn't even include the newest or more secretive startups, like Quanttus.

Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.