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Gadgets Boost Area’s Biotech

By Audrey Elsberry, posted Feb 16, 2024
A patient wears one of Predicate Healthcare Performance Group's chest sensors. The sensors track the biometrics of patients who could be at risk for sepsis. (Photo c/o Predicate Healthcare Performance Group)
Wearable technology is nothing new. 

Smartwatches hit the consumer market about 20 years ago and continue to evolve as companies compete to release the most all-encompassing product. As wearable technology becomes commonplace in everyday life, biometric sensing technology tracks all kinds of data – not just your 10,000 steps. 

“AI is starting to weave itself into our social culture. Say you have a wearable on 24/7; you don’t even know it’s there,” said Morris Nguyen, founder of Wilmington startup Predicate Healthcare Performance Group. 

“The form factor for these wearables is getting smaller and less noticeable,” he said. “Patients who are monitored are more aware of their health, and that is a huge step in reducing mortality and improving the overall population’s health.” 

Predicate is one of multiple Wilmington startups using wearables in the medical technology industry. The company uses a chest sensor to aid health care workers in detecting signs of sepsis. Sepsis is a deadly reaction to infection in the body. But the signs of this condition are difficult to diagnose and easy to miss, Nguyen said. 

While the startup primarily uses a chest sensor to pick up biometric data such as heart rate, breath and body temperature, it can also use the data tracked by a smartphone or smartwatch. The goal is to increase health equity by allowing people to utilize technology they might already have, Nguyen said. 

Smartwatches can have a hefty price tag but are more mainstream than a chest sensor. This is one reason why David Reeser, co-founder of Wilmington-based OpiAID, chose to pair biometric tracking software with a Samsung smartwatch. 

OpiAID’s mission is to help those with substance abuse disorder use their body’s data to facilitate opioid abuse recovery.  

“Wrist-worn devices are capable of collecting really intricate data that can significantly inform care,” Reeser said. “And that’s just been in recent years that it’s gotten to be so good.” 

He added that OpiAID will not be tied only to watches in the future. Sensors in fabric will be the future of wearable technology. IoT, or the Internet of Things, is a term used to describe objects embedded with sensors or other technology capable of exchanging data with other devices. 

Reeser said the ability to embed sensors in objects, like clothing or fabric in general, where data can be collected and transmitted will be valuable to AI and medtech companies like OpiAID. 

“The fourth industrial revolution is leveraging the data coming off of IoT and Io(medical)T devices and turning it into value,” he said.

Rather than leaving users to interpret their data, Nguyen said he hopes his product will help emergency medical workers. 

Conversely, Laavanya Rachakonda, director of UNCW’s Smart and Intelligent Physical Systems Laboratory, said she wants to remove the necessity of another person analyzing health data and empower people to monitor themselves through wearables. 

She wants to build on the existing framework of smartwatches and improve them, she said, by bringing the computing power closer to the user. Smartwatches usually get biometric data from the user, then send that data to the cloud for processing, and then send the analysis back to the user. Her research aims to create software that does all those things in the watch itself, she said. 

As part of the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s partnership with Wilmington-based startup Nuream, she is also researching using fabric as a sensor (FAAS) in pillowcases. She said the idea is to create a smart fabric pillow cover that analyzes brain data and the user’s sleeping patterns. 

The FAAS technology could evolve into shirts that track your movements, she said. 
“Wouldn’t it be cool to have available, for example, a shirt … which is automatically monitoring, for example, falls in elderly,” she said. 

Whether or not people are aware of it, our devices sensing biometric data has already become normalized, Nguyen said. This technology will continue to evolve into smaller devices, even tattoos, he said. 

“It’s not a question of ‘if,’” Nguyen said, “it’s more a question of ‘when’ broader adoption will take place with wearables and AI in health care.”
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