Your smartwatch is set to get some pretty major new health monitoring features in 2023, and we have Rockley Photonics to thank.
According to its CEO, Andrew Rickman, Rockley is working closely with six of the top ten consumer device companies to put its infrared (IR) spectrophotometer-based technology into wearables.
Rickman unsurprisingly doesn't tell us who those six companies are, but Apple has previously been mentioned as one of its customers.
A glance at who the analysts point to as being in that top ten players list and we could be talking about the likes of Apple, Fitbit, Huawei and Samsung.
"It's about how we take our reference design and fit it in into their product," Rickman explains. "They each have their own branding, their own style and other features that they've got to accommodate. That's why you won't see this in consumer devices until next year, because we're in their cycle."
How Rockley Photonics' tech ticks
So what has got those companies so interested in what Rockley has built? At its core is a very powerful laser-based instrument called a spectrophotometer, which isn't a new measurement device, but hasn't been miniaturised to fit inside a wearable form factor.
Rockley is testing and finessing through regulated human trials with men and women, young and old, and with different skin tones, so it can generate a range of different biomarkers from the wrist. It aims to be more accurate and effective than the green and red LED approach adopted by most smartwatch and fitness tracker makers.
New health stats could include core body temperature, blood pressure, body hydration, alcohol, lactate, and glucose trends. We wrote about these back in May 2021.
When it comes to blood pressure, we're very accurately measuring blood flow and we get perfect blood flow signal
"We are able to spectroscopically measure changes in temperature into the surface of your skin and so that gradient of temperature into your skin that your wrist correlates to your core body temperature," Rickman explains.
"When it comes to hydration levels then the spectrum goes up and down with water levels as we compare water in your body to collagen and liquids in the surface of your skin. When it comes to blood pressure, we're very accurately measuring blood flow and we get perfect blood flow signal".
"We know it works, so the only challenge has been to miniaturise it. Now we've got the results of the miniaturised devices that actually exceed the performance of bench top instruments that can deliver those biomarkers".
Why wearables is on the agenda
Rickman says it's built this very unique technology with the view it could be use in lots of different applications, but it was the advent of smartwatches and fitness bands that helped to see there was an opportunity to build wearables for the consumer market.
"We saw the emergence of wearables and the beginning of a collision between consumer devices getting into the health care area," says Rickman. "We could see the opportunity to build wearables for the consumer market that used our technology to make the the monitoring function a million times more powerful."
It's also building for the healthcare tech market, and recently announced a collaboration with medtech outfit Medtronic, which us building wearable healthcare monitoring devices based on Rockley's Bioptx biomarker sensing platform.
There's hope this will help accelerate the FDA qualification. On that front, Rickman says its technology is not going to be clinically qualified until towards the end of next year.
It already has its own reference design wristband built, and it has been testing its pre alpha version of that device.
"We have our own wristband. It's not a smartwatch, says Rickman. "The battery doesn't run down in a day. It's designed to sit in the background, whether it be in a medical application or in a non-regulated application, measuring these key biomarkers and sending that data into the cloud to alert people to to any problems."
It's not all about blood glucose...
Rockley's technology promises to deliver potentially groundbreaking monitoring from a wearable devices, and Rickman has a good sense of the new health metrics the consumer wearable companies it's working with is mostly interested in.
"If you look at the talk out there, non-invasive glucose monitoring is the top of the list, Rickman says. "Then you've got blood pressure, non-invasive, continuous blood pressure, and then you go down through the list of biomarkers. So, core body temperature, hydration and lactate levels.
While Rickman feels those companies are seeking out to deliver better monitoring for individual biomarkers, they might be better taking a more holistic view approach to embracing its technology.
"I think the consumer world is very much looking at individual functions because that is the nature of that kind of business," he says. "If you look at just one biomarker, then sure, you can see whether that's out of kilter or not out of kilter, and that can lead you to an individual or or a physician to you know that you need to investigate further."
What our technology is doing is actually measuring all of that at the same time, bringing those measurement capabilities together
"If you look at the group of biomarkers then sharing the search work and how these correlate to particular disorders is mucere is the exciting opportunity to be able to early diagnose diseases, to understand the progression of diseases where the treatment is working."
Rickman highlights this individual approach as a reason why the inclusion of glucose monitoring features to consumer devices hasn't happened yet.
"It's about detecting glucose and then understanding how the signal for that glucose is demodulated by you, because you're different to me, you have different skin and your physiological processes and where those physiological processes are at a particular moment will be different," he explains.
"What our technology is doing is actually measuring all of that at the same time, bringing those measurement capabilities together."
Rockley is at the point where it has a class of device it's produced that it's going to ramp up production at the end of 2022. That wearable is very much focused on the medtech domain. Though it does feel the form factor might be something adopted by consumers.
Next year, the attention will turn to consumer devices like smartwatches you can throw into your online shopping basket or pick up off the shelves.
We really might not be that far away from an Apple Watch or Samsung Galaxy Watch that can explore glucose, hydration levels, alcohol intake and much more from the wrist.