A new organization called NextFlex has teamed up with GE Global Research and is looking to scale up hybrid, flexible electronics called sweat patches that measure fatigue in pilots, elite athletes and other potential medical users — all by analyzing their sweat.NextFlex is a young entity and an unusual one. Founded in 2015, the institute is partially funded by the U.S. Department of Defense as a public/private organization that helps transition developments that have been shown in basic research into scalable manufacturing technology.
“Our main goal is to build collaboration between teams to achieve technology platforms that can further advances in a range of industries because we can connect them to government bodies, universities, technology developers and suppliers,” explained Karen Savala, director of marketing. Among its medtech partners are Jabil, Flex, GE, Lubrizol and Molex. Because of the funding source, when it comes to government contracting, NextFlex serves as an interface vehicle to manage the relationship between government agencies and companies and contractors.
NextFlex is presently working to scale wearables called sweat patches — a project started under a NextFlex predecessor, the Nano-Bio Medical Consortium under the primary leadership of GE Global Research. They were the prime developer of the technology, with support by partners AFRL, Dublin City University, American Semiconductor, UMass Amherst, The University of Connecticut and the University of Arizona.
“This technology originally came from a request from the Air Force,” said Jason Marsh, NextFlex’s director of technology. “AFRL was pursuing non-invasive ways to measure biomarkers such as electrolytes that measure a pilot’s hydration status.”
GE has continued to develop the patch toward commercialization at the close of the funded project. The collaborators identified sweat because it is readily accessible during periods of intense exertion. The original work was conducted with a real-time and continuous measurement of electrolyte levels.
The resulting device is a flexible patch that captures sweat (e.g., from the small of the back) and transports it across a miniaturized sensor for biometric measurement, and the results are then transmitted wirelessly to a mobile device. “The team found that in-situ measurement of hydration can have broader implications that can translate across many industries including athletics and medical.”
The team at NextFlex provided the sweat patch work to GE Global Research, which hopes to ruggedize and scale the technology to a fielded product over the next 12 months. GE’s team will continue to test and iterate with the NextFlex team and be looking to ensure the materials properly transport fluid from the skin to the sensor.
“The team has proven that it can be done, but we are working to ensure it remains viable as you scale through to high output,” Marsh said.
This project is not the first NextFlex has worked on in medtech, but it has the potential to be high profile. Marsh hopes it will spur further collaborations in the sector, pointing to opportunities to develop smart bandages, pulse oximetry films, and sensors for chronic wound healing.
Marsh noted that NextFlex members have access to over $60 million worth of R&D through the 31 projects funded, which accelerates the growth of innovation in fields like healthcare with flexible hybrid electronics. The organization is looking to partner with large firms and with startups who can take advantage of access to large companies and leading universities as well as access to equipment and resources to bring projects to market. Small supply chain partners and materials suppliers are also a key part of the ecosystem and are welcomed as potential members.