What you need to know about building a wearable-tech business
BY BRYAN BORZYKOWSKI
Dan Eisenhardt used to be an avid swimmer. While he enjoyed the workout, he always wanted to know more about what his body was doing when it was in the water. He wanted to measure his heart rate, how far he’d travel, how many strokes he took, and more. In the 1990s, though, if he wanted to know how far he swam, he’d have to do it old school: keep track with a pen and paper.
When it came time to pitch an idea to an entrepreneurship class he was taking at the University of British Columbia, he presented goggles that could tell a swimmer all those things. That idea never took off – it was too hard to make it work for water – but he did develop ski goggles that display everything from speed and airtime to heart rate and distance. It’s been four years since Eisenhardt sold his first pair of goggles, and the founder, president and CEO of Vancouver’s Recon Instruments Inc. knows his biggest growth years are still to come.
Eisenhardt is just one of the growing number of entrepreneurs who are part of the massively expanding wearable-technology sector. Credit Suisse predicts the industry, which is about $3 billion today, will grow to $50 billion within five years.
While Eisenhardt has been involved longer than most – he incorporated in 2008 – there are still plenty of opportunities for people who want to tap into this budding sector, either through software development, app creation or even making the wearable technology hardware itself. “This industry is booming,” says Eisenhardt. “Don’t take any shortcuts, grind it out and you can do well, too.”
There are three areas of growth in this sector, says Angela McIntyre, a research director with Gartner Inc., a technology- research firm. The largest segment today is fitness and health, and there are already a number of products on the market, such as Fitbit and Jawbone. These devices measure things like heart rate, steps taken, distance walked and sleeping patterns.
Then there are wearable glasses and cameras, such as Google Glass or Eisenhardt’s Recon. While the average person can use these devices to take pictures, or bring up maps or social-media information, McIntyre says these products will be a hit with construction workers, manufacturers, oil-rig employees and anyone else who needs to keep their hands free. “Say you’re a technician trying to fix something in a remote location and you get stuck,” she says. “Instead of talking to someone over the radio, you can get video streamed your glasses that gives you tips on how to fix it.”
The last category is smart watches, rings, jewelry and other clothing. Watches will make reading emails that much faster – you won’t have to pull out your phone anymore, the messages will just pop up on your wrist – while Bluetooth and near field communication-enabled rings and wristbands will allow you to pay for goods in stores with a just a swipe of your hand.
While there’s probably a market for any technology that will make people’s lives and jobs easier, two areas that small businesses may want to target are health-care and in-the-field jobs.
Wearable tech may be taking off with personal health-monitoring bands, but it’s in hospitals where these devices will really find a home, says Tom Emrich, founder of We Are Wearables, a Toronto-based organization that holds events to help foster the adoption of wearable technology.
Doctors are already using Google Glass to monitor a person’s vital signs or to get information about patients in other rooms, he says. They can also monitor other machines all while keeping their hands free to work on a surgery. “You don’t have to disrupt operations anymore,” he explains.
It will also become easier to keep an eye on patients after they leave the hospital. In the not-too-distant future, heart-tracking sensors will be woven into shirts, says McIntyre. Other types of wearables will be able to monitor blood glucose levels in diabetics, or track how many calories someone has consumed.
For those performing complicated non-medical jobs, it’s on-your-face wearables that are in demand. Emrich cites an example of a solar-power company using Google Glass to help its technicians see the electrical characteristics of a roof. Warehouse employees will be able call up a map of their building to see where they should drop a new pallet. It will also be popular for on-the-job training, says McIntyre. “You can show someone how do something and they can keep using their hands,” she says.
Building a Wearable-Tech Business
Starting a wearable-tech business takes time and money. Unlike other devices that are made by a few big-name companies, anyone can make a wearable gadget today. While that may be a boon to budding entrepreneurs, it also means there’s a lot of competition and that you’ll have to build the hardware – and the software – yourself.
Toronto’s Bionym, one of Canada’s most promising tech companies, never intended to get into the hardware game. Its founders developed a way to identify individuals based on heartbeat, and it wanted to license that technology to other com- panies. If a device can read someone’s unique heartbeat, people will be able to unlock their house doors, start their cars and pay for goods without needing keys or credit cards, says Andrew D’Souza, Bionym’s president.
When no one wanted to license its technology, Bionym built its own hardware. To do that, the company had to raise $1.4 million from investors, spend years doing research and development, and then work with third parties to build its Nymi bracelet.
The device is going on sale this fall – with 10,000 preorders – and D’Souza expects more sales to come.To meet future demand he’s hired a manufacturing expert in supply-chain manage- ment, and he’s had to seek more investment (he recently secured about $10 million of venture- capital funding). “It’s certainly more difficult,” he says about building the hardware. “There are more moving parts and more complexities than building a software product.” Budding wearable-tech entrepreneurs don’t have to get in the hardware game, though. The Nymi and Recon wearables need applications to make their products better. When D’Souza’s product comes out, it won’t be able to do a whole lot on its own.The biometric sensors in the bracelet will be able to identify individuals, but so far only two apps have been created to work with his gadget (the bracelet interacts with iPhone apps via Bluetooth). One will help users fill out payment infor- mation on mobile-shopping sites, while the other will allow users to store and recall passwords. D’Souza needs more people creating apps that utilize Bionym’s technology.
There are other software-development opportunities, especially when it comes to programs that can provide users analytics about themselves, says McIntyre. Entrepreneurs might want to build pro- grams that the health-care sector can use to gain more insight from the data collected by wearables, or training modules for companies that will be getting workers up to speed while on a job.
Another area to explore is fashion, says Emrich.These are devices people are going to wear, so they have to look good.Think about creating a line of clothing that includes wearable technology, or glasses that turn Google Glass into some- thing a little less sci-fi. “I’m not sure how this will shake down, but [I think that] there will be a time when we walk into a department store and see racks of wearable tech,” he says.
The wearable-tech sector is still at a point where anyone can make it.The key is having a good idea, finding partners to help you build on that idea and then sticking with it.That’s been Eisenhardt’s approach. “You have to have the passion to see it through,” he says. “You need to very quickly find partners that are on the same mission as you and you have to build something that has staying power.