Miner’s canary in the age of space travel
We caught up with Alex Moss, CEO & Head Designer at Canaria and Product Development Director Dr Rob Finean in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. Alex and Rob are currently in Queensland taking part in the energy and resources sector focused Unearthed Accelerator. With James Lynn, their London based team member, they are making a personal safety wearable that provides comfortable, unobtrusive biomedical monitoring of vitals.
The Canaria team is developing a cutting-edge internet of things (IoT) wearable that monitors your vital signs and alerts you before anything goes wrong.
Reading an array of different biometrics signals including heart rate, heart rate variability, oxygen, temperature, respiratory rate and head position, their earpiece will gather individuals’ medical data.
By using artificial intelligence, they can then start to establish meaningful patterns in that data so they can predict, and importantly warn people, before something catastrophic happens.
“Imagine that Canaria is a miner’s canary in the age of space travel. The whole point of it is that it warns you before a catastrophic event happens,” explains Alex.
“We are able to detect with our little earpiece when you are about to be so fatigued that you pass out,” she says.
“You can make so many situations safer. Fatigue, falling asleep at the wheel, epilepsy, a stroke — if you could detect a stroke before it was about to happen then you could raise the alarm, because once you have had a stroke you can’t do it,” says Rob.
The Canaria team met in April last year at the London 2016 NASA Space Apps Challenge, a weekend long global hackathon.
It was Alex’s first proper entry into the tech/space industry. Prior to the hackathon she’d been an entrepreneur and art critic in the arts and fashion sector; before having a career crisis and spending nine months in her friend’s garage reskilling herself in the technology industry.
She heard about the NASA event and started researching the potential problem of carbon dioxide building up in space stations.
“The problem was CO2 in space crafts, because in a zero gravity environment it’s a huge issue especially when there is no ventilation; so if you’re just sitting there breathing in and out you’re going to build up a pocket of carbon dioxide in front of you,” Alex explains.
“So best case scenario you feel dizzy and unwell; worse case you pass out,” she says.
While reading everything she could on the subject and trying to get into the headspace of an astronaut in an international space station she found herself playing with her upper ear piercing.
“I was fiddling with my piercing, that I had done when I was 15 years old, on my concha (inner ear) and I realised that I had never really noticed it,” she says.
“I had worn a lot of ear cuffs that were very fashionable but the most comfortable ones I could wear for weeks at a time and not have to take off,” she says.
“And part of the time I spent in the garage I was getting quite a bit into neurology, and reading a lot about this, so I went oh hang-on, there are loads of nerve endings around the earlobe and not that many around the concha,” says Alex.
“So if you position something there as an anchoring point for technology, such as a carbon dioxide monitor, then that’s a whole other avenue that hasn’t been explored,” she says.
“So, I turned up on my own at this NASA hackathon, I pitched in the morning and Rob and James were there and really liked the idea,” says Alex.
With Rob’s understanding and interest in medical devices and data, he suggested reading pulse oximetry through the ear, as it would provide more data on vital signs, and then a carbon dioxide monitor ‘mission patch’ on the chest with a wireless power transmitter.
“I knew that things like pulse oximetry, which is the kind of clip they put on your finger when they want to measure your heartrate, and I knew that it would fit in an earpiece and that you could then get a continuous stream of data that you could transmit wirelessly to somewhere else,” says Rob.
“And then James came on board as well and he knew about wireless charging, which hadn’t even existed six months earlier, but he knew that there was this wireless technology that meant you could have a much smaller battery in this thing and you could keep it going for much longer and so the whole technology side of it began to develop around what we could do with it,” explains Rob.
Their idea won them the NASA Space Apps global award for best use of hardware 2016. They set up a company and have been working to develop their product over the past 16 months.
The team realised early on that their device had many more applications than just on international space stations.
“There were about 12 different markets that we thought it could go into,” says Alex.
“Anything with extreme environments and extreme stresses, so that also includes medical applications,” explains Rob.
“We also thought this would be amazing for miners because we can read CO2 and vital signs simultaneously; that’s where the name came from. Mining was there from the very inception of Canaria,” adds Alex.
With mining applications in mind Alex and Rob are taking part in the Unearthed Accelerator 2017 in Queensland.
Unearthed, one of the five industry-focused accelerators receiving Advance Queensland support, is working with large resource industry companies, researchers and entrepreneurs to help drive diversification and growth in the energy and resources sector.
Canaria found out about Unearthed from one of Richard Branson’s friends while they were pitching at the Extreme Tech Challenge finals, on Necker Island, in February this year.
“One of Richard’s best friends is a well-known American VC, Bill Tai, who is a huge fan of the Unearthed people and he is a big supporter of the tech boost here in Queensland and Australia as a whole,” says Alex.
“And he said to us ‘one, you guys need to work on Virgin Galactic and two, you guys need to go to Queensland and get into the mining industry that way, here is the contact at Unearthed, go talk to each other, you should be working together’,” says Alex.
“We are really excited to be working with Unearthed, in London there aren’t many mining companies. The access to industry that Unearthed can provide in Australia is paramount,” says Rob.
Rob and Alex have been really impressed with the startup ecosystem in Brisbane and in Queensland as a whole so far.
“One of the things is the size of Brisbane; the London tech scene is great, but it’s so huge it’s really hard to navigate; whereas the Brisbane tech scene, is kind of a size that I can get my head around and I can actually find people in it, says Rob.
“And the way it works with the regions, like the way down on the Gold Coast and up along the Sunshine Coast that it all seems to be completely keyed in. Brisbane is part of a much bigger and more connected area. London is really a bubble,” he adds.
“It’s small enough, and the calibre of talent is high enough to be able to make serious progress,” says Alex.
Canaria are looking to build a Queensland team to complete their full-sized prototypes.
“We want to work with local talent because it’s superb and the mentality is great,” she says.
“The talent pool here is absolutely brilliant. We had initially considered keeping our product development in the UK, then we came here and we got involved in the community and we took part in some hackathons and we met such an array of talent,” she says.
“So, Brisbane tech people, hit us up. We’re looking for people with skills in embedded software, data scientists, and an electronics engineer who knows about manufacturing; ideally who have done medical devices before,” says Alex.
“If you want to work on something that is really cutting edge, and that can save lives, that’s something that is really important to us as well,” she adds.
What’s next for Canaria? Short term they are working on proving their effectiveness and trialing their products on the ground in the mining industry.
“We’re kind of ticking all of the risks away, and proving one piece at a time that we can do this, so that we have got a product there that even though we haven’t actually built the final product yet- because that costs quite a bit of money to actually manufacture the thing, we’re proving that it is going to work. We know it’s going to work,” explains Rob.
“Our goal in the Unearthed Accelerator is, before Christmas, to have signed a contract with somebody to do a trial in the resources industry to actually do this on the ground with real people,” says Rob.
“So, this is before we go to any sort of a manufacturer and build a final-sized device or anything, because we know it is going to change,” says Rob.
They also understand how important it is going to be to have worker buy-in.
“Workers are going to have to love it rather than thinking this is just another thing that they’ve got to do,” says Rob.
“And that’s why we will continue to do work with the international space agency, putting them on extreme athletes, on astronauts, on the most high performance individuals,” says Alex.
“So, it suddenly goes from: here put this really dull cap on your head and we’re going to be doing lots of invasive stuff with your data; to this device is being used by the most high performing athletes in the world and it’s amazing and it’s comfortable and it will save your life,” says Alex.
Long term they are excited about the potential to individualise data, and research into medical fields and new technology.
“We’re very excited about long term potential for research and where that can lead us, and looking forward to just making the mining industry a better place to work,” says Alex.
If you’re interested in working for Canaria you can contact the team at firstname.lastname@example.org
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