When someone hears the term "health wearables" they most often think of devices like the Jawbone Up or the Misfit Flash that help users track their steps taken and calories burned. But an increasing number of startups are turning away from the consumer fitness sector to focus on wearable technology that could literally save lives.
One such startup is BioSerenity, which last week won the first annual iiAwards, an extension of the prestigious Grands Prix de l’innovation awarded by the City of Paris. The focus of the iiAwards is to recognize an outstanding startup that is developing technology that could have a truly meaningful impact on people’s lives.
BioSerenity’s winning product is the WEMU, a biosensor-laden wearable that uses the power of big data to diagnose and treat one of the least understood diseases—epilepsy. I spoke with BioSerenity’s CEO, Pierre-Yves Frouin—an engineer with a background in the pharmaceutical and health diagnostics field—to find out about the device and see just how big of a change wearables could make to patients' lives in the future.
Epilepsy is neurological disorder that causes the sufferer to experience frequent seizures. While there is still much that is unknown about the disease it is known that the phenomena causing frequent seizures is due to "excessive electrical discharges" in varying groups of brain cells, according to the World Health Organization. Epilepsy is a widespread disease affecting 1 in every 26 people in the world, according to The Epilepsy Foundation. Thankfully, over 70% of people with the disease will respond to treatment.
But getting to the point where a patient gets treatment is a major barrier. That’s because though epilepsy affects so many it’s a notoriously difficult disease to diagnose.
"Epilepsy is a disease that affects 50 million people around the world," says Frouin. "In order to fully diagnose patients doctors need to record a seizure. With current systems this is very difficult since they are expensive, availability is limited, and you need to bring the patient to the hospital."
But even if you do bring a patient to the hospital, seizures never happen on schedule. They could occur hours or even days apart. This makes it incredibly hard for traditional diagnostic equipment to record the specific activity that is going on in a patient’s brain during a seizure. It’s random chance if a seizure occurs while the patient is hooked up to diagnostic equipment. And without the reading of the patient’s electrical activity in the brain during a seizure the doctors won’t have the information they need to diagnose the specific type of epileptic disorder the patient has.
That’s where BioSerenity’s Wearable Epilepsy Monitoring Unit (WEMU) comes in.
"With the WEMU patients can be recorded at home and the chance of recording increases significantly," says Frouin. "This should allow patients to be diagnosed much more quickly and then receive the right treatment, which is critical to help patients live a healthy life."
The WEMU is a system made up of three parts that work together to untether the patient from a hospital’s diagnostic equipment. The first part is a shirt and optional cap that is laden with biosensors that record the patient’s physiological characteristics. These characteristics are transferred from the wearable to the patient’s smartphone app via Bluetooth.
The app then does the heavy lifting, processing the patient’s physiological characteristics. Its algorithms are designed not only to identify a seizure, but to warn of a possible upcoming seizure and alert the patient and their caretakers. The data the app processes also negates the need to go into a hospital to be hooked up to traditional diagnostic machines. The information the WEMU collects can then be shown to a doctor, who can make a diagnosis.
But the WEMU doesn’t just stop at acting as a warning and diagnostic tool for individual patients. The third leg of its stool is big data. After the WEMU app records seizure activity, it anonymizes it and uploads it to the cloud, where that data can be used by researchers in the field who can study it to learn more about the disease. This allows the WEMU to not just help individual patients, but potentially all of them.
"Epilepsy is not one, but several disorders combined, and there is still a lot to learn," says Frouin, who worked for Johnson & Johnson's medical diagnostics division before launching BioSerenity. "The problem was that too few patients were recorded having seizures. By increasing the number of patients recorded before, during, and after seizures, a lot will be learned and the mechanisms of evolution of the disease should be better understood. Big-data tools are also giving researchers a complete new way of structuring the search for patterns."
While the WEMU is meant to be used at home and in conjunction with a person’s smartphone, it is not a consumer health device in the way that most fitness wearables are. It is a certified medical device that will be made available to doctors who then prescribe it to their patients. And yet, while the WEMU is very advanced by traditional health wearable standards, it probably wouldn’t be financially viable if those simpler heath tech devices didn’t come before it.
"We use smartphone applications, a medical cloud system, and electronic sensors," says Frouin. "A lot of that technology did not exist a few years ago or was too expensive."
But thanks to advances on the consumer front, startups like Frouin’s can take medical wearables further. As for what Frouin thinks the future holds for smart technology helping to improve our lives?
"I believe there is a lot of innovation to come by cross-matching different sectors and bringing together people from different industries or from different areas of expertise," he says.
"In the wearables area, there is still a lot to do. We have decided to focus on medical innovation, but some other people might want to focus on fashion or video games. As long as innovation is done for the good and happiness of people I try to keep a positive attitude toward all sectors."
Still, Frouin warns users to always verify the health claims of smart wearables and other health tech devices.
"In the wellness area, sometimes the science behind the claims is lacking, but in the medical domain claims have to be substantiated and regulatory guidelines are strict, so in order to be successful you have to be impactful. That said, I believe doctors, patients, and customers should try to do their own fact checking as often as possible."
As for what applications Frouin would like BioSerenity to focus on next, he won’t say. But he’s glad he started with epilepsy, because the experience has been very rewarding.
"Working on understanding the brain is fascinating and there was a lot of support from doctors pushing us to work on epilepsy," he says. "Once we started we realized that there was a lot to do in that field to improve patients' lives. We receive support messages from patients or parents almost every week so it keeps our motivation very high."