Julien Penders over de trends in wearable technology.

Our ambition with Bloom Technologies is to empower moms to raise healthy happy families.

MIC Vlaanderen praat met Julien Penders. Julien, oorspronkelijk uit Luik, studeerde af aan de Boston University en behaalde een diploma in biomedical engineering en maakte naam bij IMEC. Hij speelde een cruciale rol bij de ontwikkeling van de reference Sensor module voor Samsung's Simband platform, waarschijnlijk het meest geavanceerde reference platform ooit ontwikkeld. Zijn volgende (ad)venture is Bloom Technologies.

Keep an eye on IMEC's spin-off Bloom Technologies

In case you forgot, this little country of ours can produce serious talent. Julien Penders is a case in point. Originally from Liege, Julien graduated from Boston University with a degree in biomedical engineering and subsequently made a name for himself at IMEC, the word-leading research institute in nanoelectronics. As program manager of the Body Area Networks team, Julien played a key role in the development of the reference sensor module for Samsung's Simband platform, probably the most advanced reference sensor platform developed yet. We spoke to Julien about trends in wearable technology and his next (ad)venture, Bloom Technologies.

Can you tell us a little about your time at IMEC?

I worked at the Holst Centre in Eindhoven, which is a joint venture of Imec and TNO, a Dutch R&D organisation. In 2006 I created a research group called Body Area Networks, to explore applications of wireless sensor technologies in healthcare and wellness. This was in the early days of wearable technology so we began modestly, but as the trend took off from about 2008-2009 onwards we secured contract R&D work with global technology companies. The bulk of our work was developing prototypes of wearable sensors for our customers. The last project I was involved in was the development of the sensor module for the Samsung Simband’s reference platform.

How does this platform compare to other body trackers on the market?

Obviously I'm biased but I'll say that from a sensors technology perspective this is the most advanced platform developed to date. It is in a different category to most fitness trackers. That's because it consists of multiple sensors - optical, electric and physical - that work together to enable new biometric measurements.

What are you working on today?

Currently I'm based in San Francisco working at Bloom Technologies, a spin-off company from Imec which I founded with Eric Dy, a friend and former colleague at Imec. Our ambition with Bloom Technologies is to empower moms to raise healthy happy families. Our vision is to use the transformational experience of pregnancy and childbirth to drive behavior change towards healthy living for mom, baby, and family.

Let's talk about the role of sensors in healthcare. What are the obstacles and opportunities, and how is Bloom playing into these?

Broadly speaking there are two main areas where sensors play a role. 'Cure & Care' is one area. Here the goal is to improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare, especially as it pertains to chronic disease. Sensors come into play as a means to monitor and manage patients on a remote basis, especially in the home environment. The other macro-trend is consumer health, where technology is used to empower people to manage their own health. Here we realize that there are things you can do for your own health, especially with regard to your lifestyle and the prevention of chronic disease. Yes , there are genetic and environmental factors that also shape your health, but your lifestyle you have a measure of control over. This is the opportunity that I have been embracing at Imec, and now also with Bloom Technologies.

That market is already pretty crowded. And many products suffer from user drop-off - changing behaviour isn't easy. How will Bloom Technologies differ from the rest?

Absolutely, notwithstanding the technical advances, wearable technology has thus far failed to engage consumers. At least, there is no sustainable engagement from the user. That's a major problem - how do you solve that? Our view is that you have to create short-term benefits to motivate users. Human beings don't respond well to long-term benefits or risks.

But that's what most products on the market try to do using gamification or by incorporating social elements.

Yes, but those techniques don't produce sustainable motivation. They don't address real problems, and the benefits aren't real either.

Agreed, badges are overrated.

With Bloom Technologies we want to tackle this problem head-on. Our approach is to target a very specific audience who share a set of clear short-term needs: mothers to be. We did a lot of user research and found at least one urgent question they all have: am I having contractions? And so we're using that very specific need to motivate expecting mothers to use wearable sensors. The product we are developing will be able to measure contractions - that will drive adoption - but it will also be able to measure a range of other relevant parameters such as activity, stress, sleep and movement of the baby. We are using those five parameters to model the user's behaviour and subsequently push personalised messages to help her lead a healthier life, for herself and for the baby. Pregnancy is a great opportunity to make changes in one's lifestyle. For example it's a time when many women stop smoking. That's because there are clear short-term incentives and also because 9 months is a sufficiently long time to create new habits. Our solution could be described as a pregnancy coach, and it will consist of three key components: a wearable sensor, behaviourial analytics, and personal messaging.

Interesting. So you are using an urgent need to drive adoption, and then leverage that adoption to produce more benefits?

Yes, we envisage three steps in this regard. First, we focus on the short-term benefits to drive adoption. Secondly, we engage the user to improve her lifestyle more generally. And thirdly, we enable consumer generated datasets to drive new clinical research. For example, today it is still very difficult to accurately predict pregnancy problems. By mining huge datasets it may be possible identify markers for pregnancy problems such as preterm birth.

And so you're based in the U.S., but Bloom Technologies will maintain a Belgian link?

Yes, the market is in the U.S. right now, that's why we established our HQ in San Francisco. But we also have a European subsidiary in Diepenbeek, mainly to leverage the knowledge and expertise in Europe. Belgium and the Netherlands have excellent competencies in sensors, algorithms and clinical research. And our strategic partnerships with the Ziekenhuis Oost Limburg and Imec are obviously crucially important. Our core technology was developed at Imec. We want to remain close to them.

Let's talk about technology trends. How would you define a sensor? Are there misconceptions about that?

Yes, there are a lot of misconceptions. A sensor typically is a part of a device that transduces physiological, physical or optical parameters into electric signals. There are different formats obviously, ranging from wearable to implantable to ingestible. When people talk about sensors they often are referring to the wider system, including the processing unit, the wireless connection, the battery, but that's better defined as a sensor system.

What are some key technology trends in this area?

The key enabling technologies have been miniaturisation and low-power sensors. Sensors have got smaller and smaller and need very little electric power, and that makes possible wearable sensors, ingestible sensors and so on. And that's also why Imec is so well positioned. The third key trend is integration. I'd say that is the main challenge we face today. With integration I'm referring to the interface between the electronic and the biological world. We have very efficient electronics available to us now, but how do you ensure that sensors produce valid and reliable readings in a real-world settings, and how you motivate people to wear sensors for the long term? Those are the key questions today.

Would you agree that we are seeing a platformisation trend in the market? I'm thinking of open prototypes like Samsung Simband’s reference platform, operating systems like Android Wear and cloud-services like Qualcommlife. Can we look forward to a boost in innovation in this space?

I totally agree. The difficult work is being done here. The platform approach will accelerate research and entrepreneurship because it will eventually make the hardware a commodity.