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Andrew Patterson talks to Ben O'Brien who found the lure of commercialisation drove his PhD project to achieve an outstanding result

Andrew Patterson talks to Ben O'Brien who found the lure of commercialisation drove his PhD project to achieve an outstanding result

By Andrew Patterson

At first glance it seems like one of those products that’s almost too futuristic to be true.

The standout winner in the Emerging Innovator category at this year’s NZ Innovation Awards, StretchSense has created soft stretchy sensors for measuring human body deformation and movement.

What’s more, the sensors do not interfere with natural motion, are soft, unobtrusive, comfortable, wireless, and easy to use.

So why would you need such a device?

Well the full answer to that question is still a work in progress with a range of potential applications yet to be discovered, but there are already several in the offering; particularly in the field of rehabilitation therapy.

StretchSense is a spin out from the Biomimetics Laboratory at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute; a cross-faculty research facility that is part of the University of Auckland which focuses on the imitation of natural systems to solve problems and develop new technologies.

After years of experience working with stretch sensing dielectric elastomers, StretchSense set out in 2012 with a mission to make stretch sensing simple; a goal that was to prove easier said than done.

CEO Ben O’Brien, who secured the Vice-Chancellor’s Award in 2010 for that year’s Best Doctoral thesis as well as gaining a Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, is a passionate advocate for wearable stretch sensing.

Measuring body movement

His irrepressible enthusiasm for the product almost has you believing that everyone should have one; even if it’s not immediately apparent why.

“The basic idea for the product is that we want to make it really easy to measure human body motion. The body is a soft structure and it moves around in very complicated ways. So if we want to measure it and track its motions maybe for sports training, for recovery after injury or surgery or maybe for augmented reality, it’s very difficult to do that in a portable, unobtrusive and comfortable manner with conventional technology.”

“So the idea behind our stretch sensors is that they are soft pieces of rubbery, elastic material, that are very stretchy but also very conformable that allows you for instance to wrap it around your finger and that way you can track body motion, track deformations and tell you how you’re moving for all those applications I mentioned before.”

What makes StretchSense unique is the precision that the product produces when it comes to measurement.

“It's really important for it to be precise, because if it's not precise and reliable, then any application that you build on is doomed to failure. So the basic technology we have is a stretchy sensor that incorporates a Bluetooth transmitter and that in turn connects to an app.”

“So there is a soft, stretchy sensor and when we stretch it, the bar graph moves. This is really exciting for someone who wants to measure the body. So for example, we could stick it on the knee and very quickly you get good precise measurement of body motion.”

“If you think about healthcare as an example. Say you have an injury or you go through some surgery and you've got to do a series of exercises - take the knee for instance. So your physio says: okay Ben, you've destroyed your knee, we've fixed it, now I want you to do this motion here ten times a day."

“So you say: Yes, yes, yes, I'm a good patient, I'll go home and do the exercises but then, how do I know, how do I remember what movement I was supposed to do - was it that much, or was it this much? What’s more, how does the physio know the extent of the exercising that I've actually done?”

This is where another useful feature of StretchSense kicks in. Its memory chip can record each movement and as you recover from your injury, that recovery can actually be tracked.

Research and development

R&D to this point has been a significant investment for the fledgling start-up.

“We've been doing work on this technology since 2006. We did that as part of the bio-medics lab at the University of Auckland Bio-Engineering Institute, and we're working with this underlying technology which we call artificial muscles for that whole time. These things can generate power, they can move things, they can exhibit basic electronic properties so you can do lots of cool things especially in robotics and soft prosthetics and that kind of area.”

The sensor technology itself is another aspect of the product StretchSensor’s founders realised had significant market applications.

“We had a lot of feedback from potential customers who said to us: hey, could you measure this, that and the other thing? Could you make a sensor?"

“We kept on ignoring them until one day we said: wait a second, all these people want sensors. We took that knowhow, that technical capability that we had and then we really focused it and refined it down, worked all last Christmas building the sensors, developing the circuits, making the app and then we started selling it.”

O’Brien also admits that it was research he conducted as a doctoral student that allowed him to identify the opportunity for the sensors.

“That's twice I owe my PhD. In the first instance we learned how to work with this technology, we learned how to fabricate things, we developed clever algorithms for doing sensing and their structures."

"The other thing that happened with the PhD research was that we actually started doing contract commercial work. We started making high-voltage electronics for people. We started making demonstration devices and we got a taste for shipping product."

"In the end, it always boils down to putting something in a box and selling it.”

“I’ll admit we had some epic failures but we also had some great successes, and during the PhD, it wasn't just the technology, which of course is critical, because without technology we wouldn't have this, but it was also the taste for commercialisation, the taste for doing that as well.”

“You do get this thrill when someone actually hands over money and pays you for something entirely new in the world, something that you've created and they really want it badly. It's helping to solve their problems; that's the biggest rush.

Market Validation

So how was the product validated before moving into production?

“We sought actual orders first. We talked to plenty of potential customers at this point, and they were interested in sensors. It took a real leap of faith. Maybe there are some people who are lucky, but I think probably all start-ups, all companies begin at some point with a leap of faith and then they are followed by a whole series of leaps of faith as you go along. That leap for us was that people had told us they were interested in sensors but we had to bank on the fact that they would actually part with money.”

O’Brien says market reaction to the product has varied by industry sector.

“For some people you show them the device and they literally open their wallet on the spot. They’re the easy sells. Its technology they've been wanting for years, they've never had it before and you've got it so they’re the customers you enjoy meeting. Other people are enthusiastic about the long term prospects but they want to see mass production first. They're thinking of the consumer mass market and then it’s a more softly, softly approach because they don't just jump in boots and all at an early stage until the technology has a wider rate of adoption.”

“One of the things we've found about selling a stretch sensor like this is that it's a key, it gets you in the door opener talking to potential customers. This represents the distillation of a lot of intellectual property and if you are at a university or even a big organization, and you're trying to sell your idea, one of the problems you have is that the minimum deal size has to be quite large. You've spent in the region of many hundreds and thousands of dollars on an IP portfolio so you're not going to do an IP deal for say a $1,000. It just wouldn't cover a fraction of the legal costs to get it done.

“But in our case, if you make a simple evaluation product that has the distillation of that IP built into it and you sell someone, you can now do that on a minimum transaction basis. So the $850 we charge is well within the discretionary spending of any engineer working in these fields. They buy it, then we have a conversation about customization, that leads potentially to a conversation about production, then we can have a conversation about IP.”

“So you effectively execute first. It’s the reverse of the traditional route taken by most tech businesses because if you start with intellectual property and you start trying to sell this big portfolio to someone straight away, that’s okay if they’re very large and have a very established need but for all the small players out there you just can't do a deal like that.”

Open innovation and the commercialisation process

Anyone can go to the StretchSense website and buy a couple of the sensors.

You’ll get a transmitter as well as access to the app on the Google Play Store all for a cost of $US850.00. The company says it charges in US dollars as a lot of its customers are offshore so it keeps it simple for them.

StretchSense have followed an increasingly popular pathway being adopted by many technology start-ups called open innovation where a range of parties are effectively able to collaborate in the development process in much the same way that open source software is developed.

“One of the coolest things I’ve found about innovation is how it builds on itself. We've gone part way down the innovation track and then we've consolidated what we’ve produced and that now enables other people to do science, to do their own innovation do their own technology development on top of that. So whether it's new types of wearable technologies, whether it's looking at the science of how bringing care into the home that will improve patient outcomes, whether it's new ways to interact with portable electronic devices, there are a myriad of different applications that are possible.”

O’Brien says that when it comes to understanding the commercialisation process there has been no shortage of learnings; particularly when it involves capital.

“The number one thing for me is cash flow. I would say to anyone who is going to start a company, cash flow will consume you. You will stay up at night, you will dream about cash flow, you'll make these nice little charts where you show how you're going to go bankrupt in three weeks' time unless you get a sale. You will plot your finances and make a whole bunch of assumptions.”

“What I also have noticed from a learning point of view is that every month the issues you face are different and they change in scale. At the very beginning we would be gambling with say $500 and we would face a series of choices. Should we buy this piece of equipment, should we spend it on marketing or should we buy some more stock?

Then it was a $1,000, then it was $5,000, then it's like $10,000. The kind of money you worry about just goes up and up and up and so that's been really a fascinating learning process, just getting to grips with the financials. But the reality of any business is that it’s always about finding costumers, that’s what really consumes you.”

As for the future, O’Brien is ambitious about the outlook for StretchSense.

“We all want it to be really successful, that’s definitely the bottom line. We’re not in this to lose or for small opportunities. We want this to become a real super star – a mega hit if you will. As far as the technology side of it goes, I'd eventually like to see applications for this in the home. Whether it's for entertainment such as gaming, for medicine, sports performance, whatever, I want to see this in the hands of ordinary people because that's when it’s going to create that most value and help the most people and actually drive high level social benefits.”

“Success, success, success and more success that's what we want in the future.”

Who knows what we might be applying stretching principles to in another 20 years.



Sector: Technology / Biomimetics
Founded: 2012
Development stage: Start-up
Staff: 6
Profitable: No
Ownership: Private
Recent highlights: Winner of the Emerging Innovator category at this year’s NZ Innovation Awards


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