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Spectrometer-on-chip to add blood pressure, glucose, hydration to Apple Watch


Apple and other brands are exploring next-generation health tech with Rockley Photonics. This is a UK electronics startup that is developing a unique spectrometer-on-a-chip platform capable of detecting blood pressure, glucose, hydration and alcohol levels from the wrist.

In fact, the Cupertino-based outfit is Rockley’s largest customer. Other brands which are interested and actively working with the startup include Samsung, Zepp Health, LifeSignals Group and Withings. This was revealed in a recent SEC filing as Rockley prepares for its $1.2 billion listing on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).


The next generation sensing platform

The next generation tech utilizes green LED technology that is common to most smartwatches and fitness trackers on the market. But Rockley’s sensors are significantly more accurate than the tech used today.

Essential reading: Best fitness trackers and health gadgets

The light on the underside of a smartwatch probes under the skin where it is scattered by blood vessels and cells and the interstitial fluid in between. The reflected light is analyzed by the wearable to capture info such as heart rate and heart rate variability. Red LED is used to gather info on blood oxygen levels.

The difference between Rockley sensors and the ones typically used today is that higher wavelengths are utilized in addition to those on the visible spectrum. This has the potential to revolutionize the non-invasive healthcare market which was created by the advent of fitness trackers.

“Wearables cannot match the diagnostic detail provided by invasive techniques. But non-invasive techniques have much scope for diagnostic improvement compared to existing smartwatches,” says Andrew Rickman, Rockley’s CEO.

“And while a blood test may provide far greater detail, it indicates only what is happening when a sample is taken. A wearable, in contrast, can continuously monitor the user. This creates new healthcare opportunities.”

The tech underpinning the next generation sensor goes under the name “non-invasive diffuse reflective spectroscopy.” As mentioned, this still uses the green light technology as blood haemoglobin has a good light absorption at that wavelength. But Rockley has extended the light’s spectral to measure a wider range of absorption peaks.

“We are addressing the visible range and extending it into the infrared range, getting much more accuracy using laser technology compared to LEDs which opens up a whole range of things,” says Rickman.

To achieve this Rockley has shrunk a bench-top spectrometer to the size of a chip. Of course, the miniaturized version reduces performance and the size of aperture that collects light. But Rockley has managed to greatly improve on the signal-to-noise ratio as compared to a full size machine. This makes the data usable for capturing a wide range of biophysical and biochemical biomarkers.

“It will go a lot further than watches today, a lot deeper but not as deep as a blood draw,” says Rickman.

The basic module of the sensor is expected to be able to monitor blood oxygen, hydration, heart rate, heart rate variability, core body temperature, breath rate and blood pressure. The advanced module slaps on other biomarkers such as alcohol levels, carbon monoxide, glucose and lactate.

Generation one of both modules is expected to launch in the first half of 2022. The initial target market for this are wearable tech companies – predominantly the big brands.

Diseases also have their own biomarkers which can be identified. So the tech could potentially be used to alert of an early onset of coronary arterial disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, Covid-19, asthma, cancer, flu and more. The possibilities are endless.

“The diseases that are predominant over life, each one has a handful of biomarkers,” adds Rickman.

“A non-invasive smartwatch can measure these, providing good indicators of the early onset of a disease.”

There are lots of startups and most of them fail. The fact that Apple and other big brands are working actively with Rickman gives much hope. Plus there’s the listing on the NYSE which should accelerate the commercial launch of the platform.

The wearable tech opportunity is enormous and the company is actively targeting this part of the market. Rockley hopes to eventually make tens of million of units per week. It is projecting revenues of $1.1 billion in 2024.

new sensor to bring blood pressure glucose hydration to apple watch 1024x420 - Spectrometer-on-chip to add blood pressure, glucose, hydration to Apple Watch

Bringing laboratory precision diagnostics to our wrists has the potential to revolutionize healthcare. It almost sounds too good to be true. Such tech will enable fitness tracker and smartwatch users to detect diseases earlier, better manage nutrition and focus on preventive healthcare. Best of all, the next-generation sensors could be in our gadgets as soon as next year.

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