The Breeze breathalyzer ($100) is, for the lack of a better term, cute. Rounded like a whistle that’s been run over by a clown car, casually clipping to a set of keys or a pocket, and glowing with cartoon LED bubbles, its industrial design seems to say, “checking your BAC is fun, my–hic–drinking buddy!”
But looks can be deceiving. Because the Breeze–designed for Silicon Valley startup Breathometer by NewDealDesign–is about more than making breathalyzers more accessible. For now, the Breeze is still only focused on monitoring blood alcohol content. But when it comes to future products, its core sensor technology can be easily tweaked and adjusted to detect anything from bad breath to diabetes.
“This will be the last product we’re building for alcohol,” explains CEO Charles Michael Yim, while paradoxically revealing to me that the Breeze, and its predecessor, simply named Breathometer, have already sold “tens of thousands” of units, and are charting to bring his young startup with millions of dollars in venture capital into the black by 2015. “Basically, alcohol is a well understood market, we knew we could generate revenue right away, and there wasn’t as much R&D to figure it out, ” Yim continues. “People think a breathalyzer detects alcohol, but breath can do so much more.”
To Breathometer, breath isn’t just a means to avoid a DUI; it’s the least-invasive channel to dig through your body for biomakers–the trace chemicals that can signal disease or illness. Alternatives like blood and urine are messy. Skin often requires you to excavate a sample. But breath simply requires a well-measured blow to tap into its ~300 biomakers we release with each exhalation.
At the heart of Breeze lives a sensor that’s configured with a few chemical compounds. When you blow in, air is channeled over the chip. Its chassis is designed to get the cleanest breath sample possible to run over that sensor. (Yim wouldn’t divulge the exact internal shapes that made this happen, but admitted people could probably chop one open to see.)
The compounds in your breath either react or don’t react to the compounds on the chip, and based upon those results, the Breeze sends your current state of inebriation via Bluetooth to your phone. (It runs for two years of daily use via an off-the-shelf battery.)
Because the Breathometer team is able to change what Breeze detects by building the sensor with different chemicals, it can invest just a few months of R&D to reconfigure Breeze’s functionality, and measure something entirely different. In 2015, Breathometer will release two more models that have nothing to do with the ethanol in your boozy breath.
The first will measure stinky sulfide to spot halitosis (or bad breath). The second will measure acetone, the byproduct of fat-burning, to let you know how that low-carb diet is treating you. Both products could allow Breathometer to break into new markets, and neither required more than six months of development. Following those releases, Yim is setting his sights right on the medical community. He imagines measuring nitrous oxide to detect asthma or ketones to detect diabetes, and his company is collaborating with Stanford researchers to make that happen.
But the “Holy Grail” that Breathometer is chasing isn’t any one of these discrete breathalyzers; it’s combining all of them into one. New sensor technology that the company is working on can squeeze more than one measurement onto a chip, and eventually, they predict that as many as 256 biomarkers could be tracked by one Breathometer. That means one device would know if you were drunk, had a cold, or needed to cut back on pasta. It would be a tricorder for your mouth.
“Basically, breath is untapped,” Yim says. “Everyone talks about Social Graph, but there isn’t a breath graph out there yet. We’re going all-in with breath.”