For all the hype and investments in wearable devices, they have yet to deliver widespread, meaningful impact on healthcare, outside of narrow applications like measuring blood pressure and the number of steps a person walks in a day.
Count Zeb Kimmel among the skeptics, at least when it comes to solving harder problems for patients with diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“Mobile applications in healthcare haven’t taken off because they either lack medical precision or they make demands of their user that reduce adoption,” says Kimmel (pictured above, middle), founder and CEO of Cambridge, MA-based startup Atlas5D. “These demands are things like wearing [a device] or interacting with it or recharging it. For everyday fitness, that’s fine. But there’s large populations of people who cannot or will not use a wearable, or a wearable doesn’t generate enough useful information.”
Kimmel thinks his company can help fill those gaps. It has developed software to run a sensor-equipped smart device that sits on a shelf in a user’s home and passively monitors his or her movement and behavior. It can track things like speed, strength, balance, dexterity, and more, the company says. The idea is to more precisely and objectively assess the condition of patients suffering from diseases like multiple sclerosis, data that could help doctors and patients make better treatment decisions.
Atlas5D still has to prove that the data it collects are useful for patient care, but its commercialization efforts got a boost with today’s announcement that the company raised a $3 million Series A round from GreyBird Ventures. Kimmel says Atlas5D has now raised nearly $3.7 million since it was founded four years ago. The new money will go toward hiring more staff, funding additional research into its products, and helping it sign up more partners and customers.
Kimmel, a medical doctor with degrees in computer science and physics, came up with the idea to use the Xbox Kinect sensor to help monitor the condition of people with mobility problems. His company, formerly known as Zebcare, in 2012 went through Microsoft’s Kinect Accelerator run in partnership with Techstars. Two years later, the company participated in the MassChallenge startup accelerator in Boston.
Atlas5D has developed two versions of its product. The first, called Echo5D, combines a Microsoft Surface tablet with a Kinect sensor, which gets plugged into a wall outlet and connected to the home’s wireless Internet. The sensor uses infrared technology to track movement in a room, even in the dark. Atlas5D developed software to analyze that movement and gather insights over long periods of time.
Echo5D’s customers could be life sciences companies, hospitals, health insurers, and others in the healthcare industry. Possible uses might include measuring how well a person with a neuromuscular disorder is responding to an experimental treatment in a clinical trial, or helping a hospital or clinic determine which patients require closer monitoring so they can allocate nurses’ time efficiently, Kimmel says.
Atlas5D is currently working with Biogen and Massachusetts General Hospital on a small pilot study of Echo5D involving multiple sclerosis patients, Kimmel says. One aim of the study is seeing if Echo5D can help better detect sudden flare-ups of the disease, when the patient feels more fatigued and perhaps struggles to walk, sit, or stand, Kimmel says.
“These flares can be initially hard to detect,” he says. “It’s a very subjective feeling. You don’t know if it’s a flare, or maybe you’re just tired because you were up late the previous night.”
“We’re trying to objectively measure these changes,” he adds.
Kimmel expects to publish the study’s results this year. The company intends to run more studies of Echo5D, but it’s already seeking customers. “The more evidence we assemble, the more we move toward making this an off-the-shelf box,” Kimmel says.
The company’s second product, currently dubbed Alice, is a less sophisticated version of Echo5D that detects movement with a webcam and creates an online log of daily activity in a room. Its target customers are elderly people who want to keep living in their homes independently, and their adult children, who want more peace of mind that their loved ones are doing OK. The device can send text messages or e-mail alerts if there is a deviation from a user’s normal activity that might indicate trouble.
The product has already helped save someone’s life, Kimmel says.
One of the early testers of the device, the mother of an Atlas5D investor, suffered a stroke one morning and went down by the side of her bed, Kimmel says. “That was going to be the end of her because no one was supposed to check on her for the next three days,” he says.
The woman owned a Philips Lifeline device—an electronic pendant that can summon help if a person falls—but she dislikes wearing it, and it was sitting in a drawer when she fell, Kimmel says.
Her son had configured the Alice device to alert him if she didn’t walk past it by a certain time each day. It sent him an alert that she hadn’t passed by yet that morning, and he called her neighbor to check on her. Fortunately, the neighbor got to her in time, and she has recovered almost completely from the stroke, Kimmel says.
“That had a big impact on us, as you can imagine,” he says.
Still, the company is directing more of its energy toward Echo5D. That’s partly because its three-person team has more expertise in healthcare than in marketing consumer products, Kimmel says. Atlas5D also lacks the big marketing budget and distribution network required to successfully sell directly to consumers, he says.
The competition is also stiffer for Alice than Echo5D, Kimmel says. The Nest Cam allows customers to monitor homes remotely and set up motion-activated alerts. Other companies, such as OnKol and Lively, offer related products specifically aimed at seniors. Lively, for example, sells activity sensors that can be attached to objects like a bathroom door or pillbox, capturing data about behavior patterns and issuing electronic alerts to loved ones if there might be a problem.
There seems to be fewer companies using motion sensors to accumulate health data in the way Atlas5D aims to do with Echo5D, although Alarm.com Wellness says its smart sensors provide data that can help doctors make better decisions in caring for patients.
Alice is currently in beta testing. Atlas5D won’t start selling the product to the public until it finds a large partner willing to handle marketing and distribution, Kimmel says.
One of Atlas5D’s selling points for both its clinical and consumer products is that neither version stores or transmits images or video of the user. Kimmel was adamant that Atlas5D’s products don’t turn into suped-up nanny cams, which he feels are too “invasive.” He wants to balance user privacy with a reasonable level of data collection.
With Echo5D, the company covers the webcam lenses on both the tablet and the Kinect, so that they can’t record their surroundings. The company only wants data gathered by the infrared sensor, which tracks movement by measuring its distance from nearby objects, Kimmel says. It does this by emitting beams of near-infrared light and calculating how long it takes for those beams to bounce back, similar to radar.
Instead of taking a vivid picture of someone, the Kinect basically captures his or her shape—a “silhouette” or “fuzzy shadow,” as Kimmel puts it.
Meanwhile, Atlas5D’s consumer product uses a webcam to record video of the user. But the company’s software analyzes the images on the tablet, then deletes the images within milliseconds and transmits the data gleaned from them to Atlas5D’s servers, Kimmel says.
The challenge for Atlas5D was developing software that could render enough useful information without access to a huge database of images, which might provide more insights. Kimmel thinks Atlas5D has accomplished that goal, although customers will ultimately be the judges.
“There’s a lot of talk these days about how people should be willing to give up their privacy in order to get the benefits of real-world data or real-world measurements or the quantified self, whatever you want to call it,” Kimmel says. “We don’t view privacy and data insights as mutually exclusive.”