As seen in Global Corporate Venturing, October 2015 issue.
There is a growing focus on developing advanced flexible materials, chemicals and manufacturing processes.
Once again this September we saw horrific scenes replayed on the anniversary of 9-11. Of nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives in the collapse of the World Trade Centre towers, 411 were first responders. What if those emergency workers had had enhanced visibility and wearable cameras, motion sensors and other devices embedded in protective fabrics to monitor their wellbeing, or wrist communicators providing real-time location tracking and crowdsourced updates from fellow responders?
The wearables application market is on fire. Most of us think of wearables as trendy accessories, but corporates are investing heavily to be at the right place at the right time in that market. Among the reasons, there are intriguing initiatives luring them to work with government agencies and startups to create life-changing solutions for first responders, disaster relief workers and the military.
Through new public-private initiatives launched by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Defence, some of the world's largest tech (Apple, Samsung) and defense (Lockheed Martin, Boeing) companies are on board. Many of these applications are also envisioned for civilian use to help people with disabilities, dementia, diabetes and heart problems, for example.
For me, this is an important story about how government, corporates and startups can bring their best thinking to the table and speed up innovation for the common good. About a year ago, DHS under-secretary for science and technology Reginald Brothers announced it was time to accelerate government funded research and development to benefit first responders. The science and technology directorate created a pilot accelerator programme – Emerge. Teaming up with the Centre for Innovative Technology, a Washington non-profit, DHS identified two accelerators, Dallas-based Tech Wildcatters and Chicago-based TechNexus, to manage the programme.
Emerge chose San Francisco for its first demo day in September. The innovations are mind-boggling. One company, Neumitra, has devices that quantify stress based on algorithms validated by doctors at Massachusetts General and Harvard. They can detect and manage stress levels to reduce burn-out among first responders and the military, for example, and help identify and treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Other innovations we heard about include a watch that charges itself from heat and movement and serves as a mobile battery from EnergyBionics, smart body armour that is 30% lighter from student-run startup Kofman Technologies, a smart glove with a remote control in the finger based on skiing applications from BearTek Gloves, a router in a bulletproof vest from HIS, an apps-based instant language translator – no need for connectivity – from Language Maps, a robotic ball of snap-together plastic and sensors that can be deployed in crawl spaces from Sensor Sphere, and a gesture-recognition platform that integrates motion-sensing devices to learn, track and analyse motion from Rithmio.
But that is only the beginning. With the explosion in wearable applications, there is a growing focus on developing advanced flexible materials, chemicals and manufacturing processes, such as 3D printing, necessary to include the circuits and sensors, and power ultra-thin chips in the latest products.
US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter came to Silicon Valley in late August to announce that the Department of Defence was investing $75m in the FlexTech Alliance. It is a consortium of 162 high-tech firms, researchers and non-profits developing sensor-laden electronic systems flexible enough to be worn by soldiers or moulded on to the exterior of ships and planes. FlexTech Alliance members include Apple, Boeing, Harvard, Lockheed Martin and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The consortium, to be managed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory, is contributing another $90m, which along with other contributions will bring the five-year funding total to $171m.
All of us face the challenge of filtering out information clutter, but finding a solution is critical for first responders to do their jobs effectively. Space agency Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is developing artificial intelligence, called Audrey– assistant for understanding data through reasoning, extraction and synthesis – which is designed to get the most relevant information to emergency personnel dealing with a situation.
Carter told his Silicon Valley audience in August: "I have been pushing the Pentagon to think outside our five-sided box and invest in innovation here in Silicon Valley and in tech communities across the country."
That is the kind of thinking we need from government. So the next time you put on your Fitbit or smartwatch, think about the potential of wearables for those whose jobs put them in harm's way.