Accelerate - March 2015

Getting the measure of a man

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The idea of making a wireless, stretchable sensor to accurately measure human body motion isn't new – it’s just that no one had ever actually made one.

"We're an enabling technology that can bring to life the concepts and ideas of others.”

That was until StretchSense came along. When Ben O'Brien, Todd Gisby and Iain Anderson set up StretchSense in November 2012, they already had prototypes of the improved sensors they created as part of their PhD work in artificial muscle at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute.

“We all put in $5,000 each and gave ourselves a year before we'd think about going and getting ourselves a real job,” says Gisby.

By January 2013 they had their first sale – “someone had a problem that our soft sensor could solve”.

Currently there are 15 people in the StretchSense team, which Gisby says is very much a collective effort.

Constructing a real-world product from the sensors they'd created for their doctorates grew firstly from the fact that no one else was doing soft stretch sensors – except in a controlled laboratory setting.

“We asked ourselves, ‘what happens, or doesn't happen, when you take these sensors outside?’” he says.

“How do they stand up in terms of practicality and being fun and easy to use?

“That gave us a number of areas we had to deal with, questions we had to answer.”

Gisby says they knew there were individual facets of soft sensing technology out there, but they operated in isolation.

StretchSense sells evaluation kits in a form suitable for general experimentation. “It is a tool to help people become familiar with the technology.”

Alongside the StretchSense kit, the team customises the technology to individual clients, with a large number asking interesting, ‘can it do this?’ questions. Much of the time StretchSense acts as a consultant as clients’ particular challenges are solved.

The three areas with greatest current applicability are health and rehabilitation, sport and fitness, and animation and gaming.

StretchSense's medium-term business model is to provide sensing technology for other businesses to incorporate into their own products.

“We're an enabling technology that can bring to life the concepts and ideas of others,” says Gisby.

“Ours is a powerful model as we can talk freely with people from different markets – we're a technology that provides a way for them to deliver something new and different and valuable.

”Nothing a customer tells us leaves the business, and because we're not competing with them, we can work together very closely for a faster and better result.”

Having forged ahead in a completely new market segment, much of the business’s ongoing strategy is to stay ahead by being innovative and providing solutions to customers’ problems.

StretchSense undertakes some of its own R&D, and is always learning by working alongside its customers. The company holds patents with The University of Auckland and has also submitted strategic research projects to Callaghan Innovation, “especially if we see common elements across several projects”.

“Where we want to be is at the stage where people order in volume, and we have a sensor production line,” says Gisby.

“We have the ability to design and the flexibility to manufacture 100,000 units a month. We're hoping to reach that level sometime this year.”

Updated: 4 September 2015