Bloom Technologies, one of imec’s most recent spinoffs, has developed the first wireless body patch to monitor expecting moms and their baby. Started in 2014 by a team of imec engineers and researchers (Julien Penders, Eric Dy, Torfinn Berset and Marco Altini), the company has its headquarters in San Francisco and offices at BioVille, the life-sciences incubator in Diepenbeek, Belgium. The company went live with their patented technology at the Samsung Developers Conference in November 2014, where they won the best startup award. Since then, Bloom has been reaping positive comments and awards: finalists at the Impact pediatrics competition at South-by-Southwest, semi-finalists for the Advamed 2015 Healthcare Innovation award and finalists at the recent Health 2.0 Launch! event. Imec magazine talked to Julien Penders, cofounder and COO of Bloom Technologies and former researcher and program manager at imec and Holst Centre, about the blooming startup.
imec: What gave you the idea to develop monitoring for pregnant women?
Penders: Like many good stories, this one started with a personal experience. Three years ago, my wife and I were expecting a baby. And I saw firsthand how she, like all expecting mums, wanted more information on what was happening. How was the baby doing? What was it she was feeling? Were these contractions for real? Pregnant women have to leave a lot to guessing and hoping. There isn’t much objective information to go on. At the same time, at imec and Holst Centre we were developing these very accurate wearable sensors. We saw a possibility to apply these innovations to improve the comfort and health of pregnant women.
So with our wireless patches, we want to monitor the health of the baby to give the mom more information. But there is also a second application. During a pregnancy, a lot of the future health of the child is programmed. And this may be influenced by the lifestyle choices of the mother. Think of smoking, stress, sleep, or lack of physical activity. Also here, we want to help mothers and coach them to raise a healthy family.
Luckily, during a pregnancy, most women are very engaged, and it is easy to motivate them to use technology, and to keep using it.
imec: So you believe there is a real interest in these kind of applications?
Penders: Yes, we are convinced there is a huge demand. And this has been confirmed through the extensive user research that we performed in the early days of Bloom. People have more and more access to information about their health, with new possibilities coming every day. So naturally, pregnant women don’t want to be left in the dark, especially since they are going through such an important phase of their life. Today however, there isn’t much available for personal pregnancy monitoring. The last innovation in this domain took place in 1971 and since then, nothing much has changed.
Also, today women get pregnant at a later age then they used to. But this comes with an higher risk for problems during the pregnancy. So also here, the demand for information and monitoring is on the rise. In general, the first 1,000 days of life from conception to toddler are hugely important for anyone. They really help shape the life and health you may expect. We have set ourselves the goal of improving these first 1,000 days with the help of technology.
imec: When should pregnant women use your product?
Penders: From the day a woman knows she is pregnant, she may start using our monitoring tool. It will make her more confident to make the right choices, without guessing. And it gives her the peace-of-mind that everything is ok.
At first, the product will be available from the Bloom website as a consumer product. Then through consumer adoption, we will prove our worth in the medical world. And as we see it, this will be a natural step. If we have a good product, women will be hugely enthusiastic, and become advocates for our technology. In the pregnancy wards and doctors cabinets, they will talk about our product and what it does for them. And this will help to get the doctors on board.
But it doesn’t stop there. With the help of our users, we will collect the most comprehensive dataset on maternal and fetal health ever. We’ll leverage this unique dataset to validate and identify new risk factors for pregnancy outcomes, and work with the medical community to design better interventions. This is how Bloom will contribute to change prenatal care and improve birth outcomes. And that’s what motivates me and the team at Bloom.
imec: How did you go from imec to setting up a spin-off?
Penders: I started out as a researcher at imec and Holst Centre, and later became program manager for wearable technology. First we were working on the building blocks only, on getting the technology to an accurate, clinical level. Once we were confident that we had a sound platform, we started collaborating on applications and products, think of Samsung’s Simband project. Working on these project brought me into contact with the market and its demands. And it got me thinking about end products for consumers, something we don’t do at a research center such as imec. But here were all these great technologies. So one day, together with Eric Dy, who was account manager for North America at imec, we decided that we wanted to go the last mile and leverage the available technology in a promising area.
imec: Do you know of any other companies involved with wearable technologies for pregnant women?
Penders: When we started, there were only a couple of companies active in this domain. Today however, it has become much more crowded. Four companies have announced their plans publically, and we know of three others that are developing applications. Even Apple has earmarked fetal monitoring as an important topic.
This is actually good news for us since it proves that there is a great opportunity. At Bloom we’re combining unique technology with proprietary analytics to offer a solution at the intersection between consumer and medical worlds. This puts us in a unique position both from a technology and a business perspective. But we’re also aware that eventually it will come down to speed and quality of execution. So we’re working hard to leverage our competitive advantage as fast as possible!
We at Bloom Technologies see ourselves as builders of an application for family health. The expecting mother is the one most motivated to use our technology and to promote it to her family. That is our perspective, and we take measures to protect our IP in this area.
imec: Why did you start Bloom Technologies in the USA, and when will your product be available there?
Penders: The USA offers us a large and uniform market, with the same regulations holding for the complete country. There are over 4 million pregnant women per year in the USA – and this is a much larger market than we’ll have in Belgium, or any other European country for that matter.
Also in the USA, the users are more ready to use new technology. Look e.g. at Fitbit which was launched in the USA in 2008, and which took to Europe only four years later. There are a lot of early adopters in the USA, and we expect it to be no different for our product. Here, people have the mindset that they are responsible for their health, and that they shouldn’t wait until their doctor takes action, which is still the way many Europeans think. But I’m confident this will change soon!
We’ll have a soft launch of our product this fall in San Francisco’s Bay Area. Then we’ll start a period of testing and evaluating the product. This should give us a lot of useful feedback, which we will incorporate before organizing a general roll-out in the USA.
imec: Will Bloom’s body patches be prescribed by doctors one day?
Penders: That is our ambition, yes. We are aware that it is a complex and long process to get a foothold in the medical world. But our customers should help pave that way. And to make the process easy once this gets going, we already design our tools with the requirements for FDA approval in mind.
In a first stage, our product will give women information. But once we get FDA clearance, we are ready for the second stage of our business plan. Then we can start evolving towards a real medical application for screening pregnant woman for possible pregnancy complications.
imec: As an obvious advocate for wearable technology, which wearable tech do you wear?
Penders: Currently, I’m wearing a Fitbit and Apple watch. At home, I have a collection of smart watches, like the ones from Samsung, the Gear, Gear Fit, and Gear 2.
I wear these tools because I’m curious to see what is possible, what people can actually do with wearable technologies. And it helps me to understand the limitations of what is currently available. What I see is a technology that is still in its infancy, too limited to help people manage their health. So there are many opportunities for people who want to improve wearable tech – like us at Bloom Technologies.