Wearables and health are colliding in a big way and it's really only the start. Apple, Fitbit, Samsung, Garmin and the other wearable tech heavyweights are building devices that are as much about monitoring and offering insights into serious health conditions as they are tracking your gym workouts.
Away from the big names, there are startups breaking new ground in showing how wearable tech can be used to change and in many ways save people's lives. Whether that's physical or mental wellbeing for the old and young, these startups are trying to make a big difference.
Essential reading: How big wearable companies are dealing with stress
To salute the great work that is happening in this space, we've highlighted some of those health tech startups we think you should be keeping an eye on in 2019 and beyond.
Between 2011 and 2015, Jawbone made stylish fitness trackers to rival the likes of Fitbit, Moov and Misfit. Then in 2017, it suddenly quit hardware.
You would expect that to be the end of the story: a tech business squeezed out of the hyper competitive wearable market. But Jawbone lives on, just not in hardware.
Instead, we have Jawbone Health, a subscription-based health platform with the ambitious goal of preventing lifestyle diseases. It will do this by leveraging existing wearables including the Apple Watch, taking all the data collected by the various sensors about our person. Then using a combination of AI and health professionals to analyse everything, it'll give you insights into what your wearable is trying to tell you, in easily actionable terms.
Details on when Jawbone Health will launch have not yet been revealed. But with the company now more forthcoming about how it'll work, we're hopefully a little closer to seeing what the team has been working on.
Cardiogram is focused on tapping into the heart rate sensors already available in a host of fitness trackers and smartwatches, and detecting serious health conditions like atrial fibrillation, sleep apnea and hypertension.
Essential reading: A guide to heart rate on the Apple Watch
At the cord of its software is DeepHeart, a neural network that can be used to quickly and accurately sift through data to find patterns and surface potential problems.
Cardiogram has conducted numerous studies to validate its tech, and co-founder Brandon Ballinger says it can currently get 97% accuracy for AFib and 85% for diabetes with its platform. While it doesn't have FDA approval, it's more concerned in playing a more advisory role, recommending users seek confirmatory tests should its software detects suspect symptoms.
Cardiogram is currently compatible with the Apple Watch, Garmin wearables and it also recently added support for Fitbit devices too.
Scottish health tech startup Current Health, formerly known as Snap40, has built a wearable that was designed to shorten hospital stays and save doctors time.
Worn on the upper arm, the wireless device packs six sensors, which track heart rate, respiratory rate, temperature, oxygen saturations, blood pressure, posture, movement and even emotion. It can then use that array of sensors to track data that is put through machine learning algorithms before doctors and nurses view it on smartphone apps to analyse any changes in the patient's health.
The idea of the early warning system is that hospital staff can prevent conditions from worsening, reducing hospital stays and saving doctors and nurses having to manually monitor vital signs.
The device has been undergoing trials in the UK over the last few years and has now been given FDA clearance so it can be used for monitoring of an adult patient in environments where care is provide by trained healthcare professionals.
We hear a lot about the burgeoning mental health crisis, as health services are stretched to breaking point and waiting lists for therapists continue to grow.
Read this: Neuroscience wearables explained
Flow Neuroscience is hoping to tackle one aspect of the growing crisis: depression. Its Flow package combines a headset that stimulates activity in the left frontal cortex of the brain with an app that offers guidance on natural ways to rebalance brain chemistry such as nutrition, exercise, medication and improving sleep patterns.
It doesn’t claim to be a magic bullet, but in a recent trial of 245 patients, Flow claims that 41% of users felt 50% better within six weeks, and 24% were able to rid themselves of the black dog completely.
The wearable headset is now on sale having been given regulatory approval securing classification for the Flow as a Class II medical device that's intended for use as a treatment for depression.
One of the many wearable holy grails is the pursuit of providing an accurate and non-invasive way of measuring glucose levels for diabetics. It's long been rumoured that Apple is exploring this, but it may be a while before we see a solution baked into an Apple Watch.
Sano is one startup that has created a wearable it hopes will deliver what Apple and others are striving to achieve. Its coin-sized patch tracks glucose levels, giving diabetics key information that should make the condition a lot easier to live with.
Sano's patch is lined with tiny little needles that piece through the outer layer of the skin but the startup says the patch is minimally invasive but "completely painless." The accompanying app provides tailored information on diet and exercise because, as the company points out, “no two people are exactly alike.”
It's not ready for consumer use just yet, but Fitbit are clearly impressed with the progress Sano is making having invested $6 million in the startup in 2018. Sano is definitely one to watch.
Apple, Garmin and Fitbit have started to embrace women's health, but it's startups like Ava that have helped pave the way for the main players to pay more attention to offering female-friendly features with their wearables.
Ava's focus is fertility, using its wearable-powered platform to add a little science to the guesswork of increasing the odds of conception for couples. It uses a wearable bracelet and app that tracks five physiological signs of fertility in women: skin temperature, resting pulse rate, breathing rate, heart-rate variability ratio and perfusion to produce those insights.
The company has published a peer-reviewed paper demonstrating that tracking these signals helped it to identify the signs of fertility in real time with 89% accuracy. But the app doesn’t just stop there, providing guidance for each week of pregnancy, while continuing to track heart-rate, sleep and stress levels for as pain free a nine months as possible.
Ava has more studies on the way to help validate the already impressive work it's achieved with its wearable bracelet and the software that accompanies it.
Livongo has been making its name working with the likes of Microsoft and Amazon to help its employees to monitor chronic medical conditions like diabetes. Now it's making its platform accessible on wearables including the Apple Watch as well as Fitbit and Samsung wearables.
It's doing that by offering users personalised "Health Nudges" via notifications to prompt better health decisions. It's also offering the opportunity to participate in five-day challenges designed to instigate long-term changes in your health.
Livongo is also tapping into onboard sensors on your wearable to offer more personalised nudges and challenges that are better suited to your lifestyle. Having already introduced an Alexa Skill for Amazon's Echo smart home devices, the startup is moving quickly to have a greater presence on the wrist as well as in your home.
Back in 2018, Elvie's CEO Tania Boler told us that the company vision is to “transform the way women think and feel about themselves.” As the official website says: “women shouldn’t have to make do with shoddy design or pink spin-offs when there are self-driving cars in the world.”
Since then the UK startup grabbed headlines when its smart breast pump was used on the catwalk at London Fashion Week, and it continues to use wearables to solve real problems women are facing daily.
Elvie has plans to have four products available to buy by 2020, but for now there are two: the Elvie breast pump and kegel trainer. “Ultimately, the vision is for Elvie to be the ultimate hub for women’s connected health and lifestyle products,” Boler told us – and that’s a potentially huge market.
We've spoken about how hearables have been breathing new life into hearing aids and one of the startups making that happen is Nuheara.
Read this: Best hearables and smart earbuds to buy
While its first-generation truly wireless earbuds focused on augmented audio and honing in on the sounds you want to hear, these are evolving into a device that could offer assistance to people with mild to moderate hearing loss.
With its newest buds its Ear ID feature evaluates a user's own hearing profile to create a more personalised hearing experience. It uses a prescription formula called NAL-NL2, which is used by audiologists to calibrate high-end hearing aids.
In June, Nuheara's IQ Buds Boost earbuds were placed on the NHS Scotland hearing contract under the Hearables category, Lot 5 – Hearable and Wearable. That category is defined as devices that are primarily intended to allow streaming of media to the device, but which also offer a hearing enhancing function not dissimilar to a hearing aid. It could prompt other hearable makers to follow suit and offer affordable alternatives to those usually pricey hearing aid setups.
US startup LifePlus claims to have made the first non-invasive glucose monitoring wearable – which is, as they say, huge if true.
Read this: Glucose monitoring wearables – the lowdown
Its Lifeleaf wearable promises to monitor blood glucose levels using its patent-pending multi-sensor technology. Additionally, it can non-invasively monitor your heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate and oxygen saturation. These data points can be used by LifePlus' software to track diabetes, cardiac arrhythmia, congestive heart failure, sleep apnea and hypertension.
Right now, the wearable is undergoing clinical trials in five cities around the world. It's also accepting beta testers for its platform. When the trials are completed, it will seek FDA approval with the results. It sees Lifeleaf as a reference device that can showcase what is possible with the software. So it could allow other wearable makers to take advantage of the platform it's building.
Netherlands-based startup Stil is embracing wearable tech to target Parkinson’s disease, specifically the involuntary shakes that sufferers have as the illness develops.
The inspiration for the Stil brace, a wearable worn around the arm of Parkinson’s sufferers, comes from noise cancellation where anti-noise is introduced to create a sense of silence. Stil uses the same principle but for tremors, and applies a kind of anti-vibration to the arm, stabilising the hand.
A clinical study is planned for the second half of this year, but preliminary tests have shown up to 94% suppression of tremors, potentially transforming quality of life for 45 million people worldwide.
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