Sensor technology, more than anything, determines what your $100 activity tracker can do. Today, it's counting steps. But the smart wearables of tomorrow? They depend disproportionately on companies like Raleigh-based Valencell, which develops and patents the miniature sensors that big-name brands are now using to play in the wearable biometrics space. It has 14 patents on its biometric sensor and 40 more pending.
Valencell, which received $7 million in series C financing this past June, specializes in blood-flow measurement and licenses its miniature optical sensors to several global brands, among which are Intel and LG. This year marks the first time that the company’s sensors have shown up in consumer products, mainly for heart-rate measurement. LG put out the Heart Rate Monitor Earphone this year, making it one of the first commercial products on the market to use Valencell’s patented sensors. Intel announced its partnership with Valencell at the International Consumer Electronics Show, solidifying its plans to come out with its own version of the heart-rate monitoring earbuds.
In total, eight third-party products will be using its sensors by Christmas, Valencell CEO Michael Dering says.
Smaller companies, like Iriver and the European audio brand Blaupunkt are also launching headsets this year with Valencell’s biometric sensors. The company Schosche will use Valencell’s tech in new armbands. Steven LeBoeuf, president and cofounder of Valencell, says there are more than 50 companies who are either in discussions with Valencell, or evaluating its technology, or experimenting with it, or integrating it into their devices.
"One of the reasons we’ve gotten so many new customers in the pipeline now is because a lot of these large companies—we can’t name names about which ones these would be—had products that simply did not work," says LeBoeuf. "They had to look around and find technology that would make them work, and they came to Valencell."
In terms of technology, the first wave of activity trackers only required a simple accelerometer to record and generate a user’s activity, so getting to market was not a terribly grueling endeavor.
"Who knows how many fitness and activity wearables are out there? If you look at all of these companies worldwide, there’s probably 20 of these things," says Jason Krikorian, general partner at the investment firm DCM. These trackers all do pretty much the same thing—measuring steps with an accelerometer.
Now that device makers are asking for heart rate monitoring and other metrics, sensor R&D has kicked into high gear. Since Valencell isn’t bogged down by manufacturing its own consumer products, it can go a step further. Its clients deal with integrating Valencell’s optical sensors into their devices, which turns out creative formats, like earbuds.
Specifically, Valencell’s sensors use optomechanical technology to measure a patient’s blood flow. From the blood flow data, you can extrapolate the heart rate, respiration rate, and the blood-oxygen level of the user, in addition to a few more metrics. In this way, Valencell’s tech can span both the heart rate and activity monitoring domains.
Through its research and development efforts, Valencell was able to correct issues that pulse oximetry couldn’t get around before. Its technology can obtain good readings from people with different skin tones and correct those signals when sunlight shines on the sensors. Part of Valencell’s secret sauce involves shining multiple wavelengths from the sensors’ emitters and then using a simple averaging and subtraction algorithm on the measured signals.
The most important hurdle for these sensors is the "heavy user" test—in this case gym rats. Before Valencell's technical improvements, traditional pulse oximetry sensors only worked well on patients who lay still in a hospital bed. Many of those heart rate monitors on the market had trouble picking up measurements for people moving more than three miles per hour, or lifting weights, like Intel’s Basis Watch or the Mio line of products.