Today (19 May) the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism announced the winners of its Wearable Alcohol Biosensor Challenge, a competition to design a discreet device capable of measuring blood alcohol levels in near real-time. The winning prototype and recipient of the $200,000 first prize was submitted by BACtrack, a company known nationally for designing and selling portable breath alcohol testers for consumer use and professional use. Their entry, the BACtrack Skyn, is worn on the wrist and offers continuous and non-invasive monitoring of a user’s BAC. Alcohol is detected using a fuel cell technology similar to that in devices used by law enforcement for roadside alcohol testing. The device connects via Bluetooth to a smartphone to store data.
“NIAAA issued this challenge to spark innovation in alcohol biosensor development. We were very pleased at the level of response and quality of prototypes that we received from the biotech community,” said NIAAA Director George Koob, PhD.
The Wearable Alcohol Biosensor Challenge, issued through Challenge.gov in March 2015, called for non-invasive wearable technology that could improve upon existing alcohol biosensor technology used in the criminal justice system. An improved alcohol biosensor could be a valuable resource for the alcohol research community, decreasing reliance on participant self-report in scientific studies.
NIAAA received eight submissions and the working prototypes were tested for accuracy and reliability in a laboratory setting. Most of the designs took the form of fitness tracker-type watches that estimate blood alcohol content (BAC) based on the amount of alcohol escaping through perspiration (known as “transdermal monitoring”). One notable exception was a color-changing temporary tattoo applied directly to the skin.
Entries were judged based on accuracy, reliability, and frequency of blood alcohol measurements; ability to accurately collect and store data or transmit data to a wireless device; data security and privacy safeguards; and plans for manufacturing. The designs were also evaluated for marketability, appeal to wearers, and overall feasibility.
Second Prize: Second-prize ($100,000) was awarded to Milo, a Santa Barbara technology startup, for their design for a wearable blood alcohol sensor. Milo’s wrist-worn wearable pairs with a smartphone and uses disposable cartridges to continuously track BAC.
Honorable Mentions: BioInk (a color-changing tattoo design by a company of the same name); TAMS (transdermal alcohol monitoring system from a team affiliated with Florida International University).
With wearable technology becoming ever more popular, NIAAA hopes that the Wearable Alcohol Biosensor Challenge will stimulate public and private investment in alcohol-monitoring devices. Well-calibrated alcohol biosensors will provide an objective measure of alcohol consumption for research studies, with participants being able to avoid the inconvenience and discomfort of having blood drawn at regular intervals. The data collected would also be more accurate than self-report. Alcohol biosensors have commercial appeal as well; members of the public concerned with their personal drinking, or in the counsel of a therapist, would be able to use the discreet device without stigma.
Challenge competitions are a creative way for the federal government to seek innovative solutions from the public. The Wearable Alcohol Biosensor Challenge marks the first time NIAAA has awarded a prize through Challenge.gov