by Erik Wicklund
Forget the wristband and watch – those mHealth wearables are so yesterday. Today's entrepreneurs have moved on to some even more interesting items, like necklaces, rings, pacifiers, and even soap.
Those products were among on display at the recent Slush fair, a seven-year-old gathering of some 1,700 tech startups, 800 investors and 15,000 participants in Helsinki, Finland. The digital necklace that stores health data and soap that encourages hand-washing were named winners of the inaugural Wearables for Good challenge, launched this year at Slush by a consortium headed by UNICEF.
Among the other wearables on display were a smart pacifier that can monitor an infant's sleep and a "wellness ring" that measures physical activity and sleep.
SoaPen comes in the form of a soap crayon, and is designed to encourage hand-washing in children 3-6 years old, according to company spokesperson Shubham Issar. It lends credence to the idea that mHealth concepts don't have to be complex or even technological to tackle some of the world's most pressing health challenges.
"We believe that a serious problem can be solved through a simple and fun solution," Issar said in a press release issued by UNICEF. "Our focus is to reduce infant mortality rates and the spread of disease by promoting the habit of hand washing with soap among children. SoaPen taps into the power of the two-directional awareness flow between adults and children all over the world, with the aim to reach as many hands as fast as possible."
The necklace, called Khushi Baby, is designed to store a child's immunization records and convey that via near-field communication (NFC) technology to a smartphone, where it can be viewed by healthcare providers and stored in the cloud.
"The Khushi Baby system enables access to culturally appropriate wearable digital medical records, even in the most remote and isolated areas," company spokesman Ruchit Nagar said in the UNICEF press release. "We believe in tracking each child's immunization to the last mile, and … we look to expand from monitoring the vaccination progress of 1,000 children in 100 villages to a larger beneficiary base in areas beyond India where our digital system can streamline access and delivery to healthcare. We also look forward to building our system to serve broader populations and medical applications, moving soon to a wider focus on a continuum of maternal and child healthcare."
Erica Kochi, co-lead and co-founder of the UNICEF Innovation Fund, said the Wearables for Good challenge, coordinated with the help of digital product developer ARM and frog, illustrates that mHealth ideas nered to be creative to adapt to "low-tech and unconnected environments," like those found in Third World and developing countries.
"We wanted to elevate wearable and sensor technology in a way that moves beyond fitness trackers on the wrist and towards improving the lives of mothers and children across the world," Denise Gershbein, executive creator of frog, a global design and strategy firm, said in the press release. "It was our goal to bring together a broad and diverse community of people whose ideas and efforts would be much more powerful when brought together in new ways. We are extremely pleased with the dialogue that has resulted from this effort, and truly humbled and impressed by the solutions generated by the winners. We look forward to seeing real impact in the world from these ideas."
The smart pacifier, meanwhile, comes in a digital maternity package developed by the Technical Research Center of Finland, which is also working on sensing technology for seniors. The scratch-resistant ceramic wellness ring is a product of Ouraring, located in Oulu, Finland, a former headquarters of Nokia. The company recently secured $2.3 million in funding, primarily from U.S. backers, and has another $650,000 raised from 2,000 backers in an international Kickstarter campaign.
"Savvy consumers would rather wear their nice Swiss watches than plastic monitoring bracelet," Kari Kivela, the company's head of design, said in an Associated Press article. "The ring does the monitoring instead."
mHealth innovation may well be an important resource for Finland, which has been in a recession for four years and is still smarting from the downfall of cellphone giant – and onetime mHealth pioneer - Nokia.
"This may not replace Nokia but it certainly complements Nokia's achievement," Mirja Kaarlela, the Finnish Funding Agency's director of health and well-being, told the AP. "Nearly everyone involved in the digital health sector uses the knowhow created by Nokia in health and fitness wearables."