WiseWear, Maker of Iris Apfel Tech Jewelry, Still Testing Med Device
San Antonio—WiseWear has attracted plenty of international attention for its effort to sell a chic wearable device. Vogue, Slate, and InStyle, among other publications, wrote about the company’s Internet-connected jewelry in 2016 after WiseWear began working with a team of prominent designers, including documentary subject Iris Apfel, to bring a fashionable aesthetic to the tech accessory.
Like other wearable technology, the San Antonio company’s device tracks users’ daily steps, the calories they burn, and offers smartphone options such as calendar reminders, while also incorporating safety features, including the ability to send out emergency text messages and calls by tapping part of the bracelets. Much of the interest has been driven, however, by the company’s use of famous designers to make a wearable look attractive—in gold or palladium jewelry settings, of course.
What’s often not mentioned about WiseWear is its first product: a hearing aid that uses internal sensors and electronics to monitor gait, balance, and other health factors in elderly people. In 2015, that product received a $179,538 small business innovation research Phase 1 grant from the National Science Foundation. With that funding, the company has been developing algorithms that, when used with its technology, might be able to predict how likely it is that a person could fall and be injured, says WiseWear CEO Jerry Wilmink. The company is moving into Phase 2 of the SBIR grant, he says.
“It allows us to not only function like a hearing aid, but also pick up when a senior is dehydrated, pick up when their gait is off, when their balance is off, and use some machine learning—some deep learning—to compare that to the baseline,” says Wilmink, who has a doctorate in biomedical engineering from Vanderbilt University. “Then, when they’re at risk for falling, it whispers in their ear, and can predict when a senior is at risk for falling, three months, six months, one year out.”
Those capabilities might seem too prescient to be true, but Wilmink says that the company has data that show it can predict risk of a fall with 70 percent accuracy within a month time frame. To develop the right algorithms, the company used mined data of people who fell based on motion at a person’s waist, monitoring changes in gait and balance, he says.
WiseWear uses a different design for its hearing aid than for the jewelry, and keeps the two operations separate, Wilmink says. The hearing aid and its potential are still in experimental stages, and Wilmink says the company will have to seek approval as a medical device to sell it. That’s why the company is using the grant funding to pay for the hearing aid and money from investors to fund the jewelry development, he says.
Though it may seem to be more surface level than the hearing aid, the jewelry has some innovative technology itself. The novelty in WiseWear’s jewelry lies in its ability to transmit information wirelessly using metal, says co-founder and vice president of engineering David Elam.
WiseWear developed a design and method of applying it, for which it has patents, which allows an antenna to in essence couple with metal, using that metal to transmit the signal it’s sending, Elam says. Antennas typically have trouble broadcasting through metal casing, which traps the energy emitted by the antenna and doesn’t allow it to be broadcast, he says.
WiseWear’s design resolved that, and was the first to do so fully, Wilmink says. That capability, which Wilmink says is core to the company’s intellectual property, is what enabled WiseWear to make its fashion-focused jewelry line out of metals, instead of more casual rubber materials, like many wearables. The jewelry line designed by 95-year-old Apfel is for sale online and at stores like Saks and Nordstrom for $295 to $345.
Other companies, including FitBit, have made metal devices, but they need to have holes or gaps in the metal in order to transmit the signal, Wilmink says. It can also be transmitted through a smartscreen. WiseWear’s jewlery, on the other hand, doesn’t need gaps or a screen, giving it a more “gilded” appearance, Wilmink says. (Coincidentally, Wilmink says he grew up attending University School near Cleveland, OH, with Fitbit founder James Park.)
“People see it and think it’s beautiful, and they don’t realize it’s not possible without that technology,” Wilmink says.
Now, WiseWear is working on other new products, such as smart apparel and other more “rugged” devices that could be used for military applications, Wilmink says. WiseWear is planning to launch a new product, possibly this year, that is focused is on safety and security for the entire family, Wilmink says, though he won’t provide more detail yet.
WiseWear works on its new products in a 5,000-square-foot factory in San Antonio called design lab Sense Technologies which it acquired in 2014. Before the bracelets, WiseWear tried to launch a fitness focused wearable device through IndieGoGo, but canceled the campaign after it failed to meet its goal.
Before founding WiseWear in 2013, Wilmink researched biomedical applications of radio frequencies for the Department of Defense. That’s where Wilmink and co-founder Elam met, developing the expertise that led to WiseWear, he says. The idea for jewelry came in at the CES conference in 2015 when Wilmink was chatting with a colleague about his transmitter technology, and the colleague suggested applying it to clothing items, such as jewelry.
“I was laughing because we’re a bunch of hardcore technology guys and we’re in Texas,” Wilmink says. “You just wake up one day and you’re making smart jewelry. It was 12 pivots along the way.”
Wilmink is keeping funding for jewelry and other consumer wearables separate from the hearing aid device, which would require clearance as a medical device. If things work out for the hearing aid, WiseWear may try to license it to a larger company in that industry for marketing and other “heavy lifting,” Wilmink says.
For the consumer products, WiseWear has raised about $6.2 million in funding, including a $2.5 million round in late 2015. The company hasn’t taken traditional venture funding, and with some revenue from the jewelry, it may not, Wilmink says. WiseWear is planning to bring its product to other countries, however, which requires costly intellectual property filings, he says.
Similarly, WiseWear may begin trying to license its technology to businesses, such as jewelers or original equipment manufactures, that might want to use it—rather than let those companies try to reverse engineer it, Wilmink says.