With the Qualifying Round of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition only a few months away, we had a chance to catch up with Aezon, a Johns Hopkins-based team vying for a position in the Final Round of the competition. One of the younger teams in the competition, Aezon has already spun out a start-up, Aegle, representing one component of their three-pronged approach. We had the chance to speak with Neil Rens and Krzysztof Sitko, two of the fifteen members on the team, about their project and how it’s going.
Michael Batista, Medgadget: I know many of our readers have been following the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE (QTXP) competition but can you start with a brief synopsis of what this is all about?
Neil Rens & Krzysztof Sitko:The competition challenges teams to build a device capable of continuously monitoring vitals such as blood pressure, respiration, temperature, oxygen saturation, and heart activity as well as diagnosing different diseases such as urinary tract infection (UTI), mononucleosis, and HIV. Consistent with the continuing development of digital and personalized medicine, the competition aims to catalyze the translation of these technologies into consumer devices. In fact, one of the core judging criteria will be usability—the devices are designed to operate without the help of a doctor. Of over three hundred teams that entered, Aezon is one of the remaining thirty. All teams will submit technical descriptions as well as accuracy and usability data in early May. From there, XPRIZE will select ten finalists who will submit functioning devices in February 2015. The top three teams will be awarded $7, $2, and $1 million, respectively.
Medgadget: Can you tell us about who makes up the Aezon team?
Rens & Sitko: The Aezon team is a group of Johns Hopkins undergraduate students led by Tatiana Rypinski (BME ’15). Our fifteen-member team comprises students from many different majors including biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, biophysics, and computer science. Unlike most of the teams competing for the prize, Aezon is unique in that we are not industry veterans. For this reason, we are not limited by what has been traditionally thought possible. Our cross-disciplinary background enables us to approach problems from all perspectives, resulting in an innovative solution to the challenge posed by XPRIZE.
Rens: I joined soon after Tatiana formed the team. While spending a summer interning at the Scripps Translational Science Institute, I learned about digital medicine from one of its pioneers, Dr. Eric Topol, and got hooked on its potential to transform the way medicine is practiced. When I saw the chance to participate in creating one of these digital devices, I jumped on it.
Medgadget: How did you all come together, what was the initial spark?
Rens: Tatiana sent out an announcement to the entire undergraduate student body. Over sixty of us initially got involved – who wouldn’t want the chance to build a tricorder and a shot at $7 million!
Medgadget: Let’s get into your technology, what health metrics is your system able to capture?
Rens: Our system uses a three-tiered approach linked together by our app and cloud systems. The app and cloud take care of data processing and storage, and do so in a HIPAA compliant manner. Next, we have the vitals monitoring unit, which is being developed by Aegle. This elegant neckpiece continuously measures ECG, respiration, blood pressure, temperature, and oxygen saturation. Finally, the lab box is a portable, automated device for biosample analysis. This device can analyze blood, urine, and saliva for cholesterol, glucose, UTI, mononucleosis, and strep throat. We are currently working to integrate more diagnostic capabilities into our lab box, but already have enough to submit for the first round of the competition in May.
Medgadget: Why did you decide to go with three technologies (app, vitals monitor, lab box)?
Rens: We feel that this approach is the most user friendly. In the United States, the majority of people own smartphones. Aezon wants to seamlessly integrate with a user’s daily routine; making the app the center of our system seemed like the obvious choice. By separating the “wet lab testing” from the vitals unit, we were able to create two devices that are optimized for their respective tasks. The vitals unit is lightweight and has a unique form factor that allows for comfortable, continuous wearing. Meanwhile, the lab box focuses on automation of sample testing. While it is helpful to track someone’s vitals continuously, there is no need for them to carry our lab box with them everywhere, like when they’re exercising. All of our technologies communicate wirelessly via Bluetooth LE (low energy) ensuring the multiple devices act as a seamless system.
Medgadget: What differentiates Aezon’s technology from some of your competitors in the competition or in the mobile wellness space?
Rens: Every member of Aezon is a “net native.” We grew up with the Internet, which means we have certain expectation: instant updates from Twitter, news about a revolution on the other side of the world, the ability to view our personal health information on our phones. Our fresh outlook on medicine and our innovative ideas give us an edge when it comes to addressing the QTXP challenge. As far as we know, no one else has tried to integrate this many diagnostics into a single system. Even our competitors at Scanadu haven’t fully addressed the competition guidelines – their “Scout” fails to continuously monitor vitals, a key component for the XPRIZE challenge. Not only is Aezon unrestrained by what has traditionally been thought possible, but we are also untethered by the typical profit motives of the business world. XPRIZE is all about creating incentive where there previously was none- who would have thought it economical to combine such a wide array of diagnostics and health metrics into a single, user-focused, palm-size device? Much like XPRIZE, though, we are less concerned with turning a quick profit than we are with changing how medicine is practiced. With our system, patients can spend less time and money getting pricked and prodded at the doctors’ office and more time talking on a personal level with their physician about how they can address the health problems our system has identified.
Medgadget: I understand Aegle, a recent start-up, is also a component of Aezon, can you explain the distinction?
Sitko: The Aegle team consists of the members of Aezon who are working on the vitals-monitoring device. As we were working on our device, we realized that the possibilities for such a technology exceeded the vision that was laid out by the competition. We decided to create our own subgroup to pursue these exciting applications.
Medgadget: What is Aegle specifically interested in exploring?
Sitko: Aegle is really excited about the possibility of bringing our device to clinical areas such as chronic disease management, especially for heart and respiratory. We also think there is the potential to improve home monitoring and to have this patient collected data be used as a means to support clinical data, improve patient compliance, and reduce costs. There is a lot of value in 24/7 monitoring.
Medgadget: Why did Aegle decide to focus on fitness first?
Overall, we see a need to help individuals get access to better, more contextualized biometrics with data that’s ultimately more humanized and personal. The fitness market also gives us a quick and direct way to get user feedback on what patients are looking for. Beyond personal fitness, there are also exciting clinical opportunities in fitness rehabilitation where our technology can play a role such as when a doctor prescribes a fitness regimen or series of exercises and wants to track the patient’s health during the workouts.
Medgadget: Aegle is currently incubating with DreamIt Health Baltimore. How has that experience been?
Sitko: It’s been an amazing experience working with the DreamIt partners and staff who add a great deal of experienced insight into our start-up efforts. Having a chance to work with other start-up companies at various stages of development and interact with industry experts has generated invaluable connections to propel our efforts forward.
Medgadget: Aezon’s Indiegogo campaign is well underway, if you achieve your goal, what are you planning to do with the funds raised?
Rens: So far, we’re really proud of the system we’ve built but we still have improvements we want to make. Most importantly, we plan to conduct more robust usability and accuracy testing using real human samples. Not only will the samples cost money but we also need to start manufacturing higher quality lab boxes for usability testing (currently they are 3D printed).
Medgadget: Besides Indiegogo, are there other opportunities for our interested readers to get involved?
Rens & Sitko: Tell your friends about us! Follow us on Twitter @AezonHealth and @AegleArc. If you want to do more, we could use support with validation and usability testing, which will require financial resources and high quality manufacturing. You can contact us personally at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Medgadget: What’s the timeline for Aezon moving forward in terms of both the competition and the company?
Rens & Sitko: Right now our main focus is the May submission. We are optimistic that we will make it to the semifinals round. If we win, we plan to invest the prize money in putting our device in the hands of consumers as soon as possible.