IDUN Technologies: The future is forgettable

Wearable technology has grown from a buzzword to a billion-dollar market. Actually, that’s an understatement. Grand View Research predicts the market for medical electrodes (diagnostic and therapeutic devices) will be worth $2 billion by 2025 — but that’s just a partial view since there’s also further potential in consumer wearables, such as for sports. Zurich start-up IDUN Technologies has developed a patented material that dramatically expands the possibilities for this burgeoning industry.

by Robynn Weldon

Séverine Chardonnens, Co-founder & CTO and Simon Bachmann, Co-founder & CEO

The dry advantage
IDUN’s DryodesTM are gel-free, reusable electrodes that provide clinical-grade signal quality. Why is that so revolutionary? Co-founder and CEO Simon Bachmann explains: “What was previously possible was short-term monitoring, where you could for instance monitor your heart for maybe 24 hours to look for problems; or you have these implantables that you put in your chest for maybe two years to monitor certain patterns; but there was nothing in between, for two to four weeks. The problem is that if you put something on the skin for an extended time, it leads to skin irritation, or the electrodes dry out and stop working. So there was this this sweet spot of opportunity.”

The design is bio-inspired, mimicking the geometry of grasshoppers’ feet to achieve a self-adhesive surface that doesn’t rely on gel. It works under water too (tested at up to 40m below the surface), opening up exciting new possibilities for research as well as sports performance monitoring. According to Séverine Chardonnens, CTO and co-founder, the gel is a big problem for conventional electrodes.

“Usually if you want good signal quality, you’re going to use a gel. Which is okay for a few hours, but then after some time it gets irritating. If you’re measuring your brain, that’s the worst, you’re going to have gel in your hair. And you can’t shower because the gel washes out. But if you don’t use gel, relying on the commercial electrodes on the market, they just don’t perform. So having a dry electrode leads to more comfort and you can use it for longer, but where we are innovating is having a material that brings the same signal quality as you would have using the gel. It’s the best of both worlds — to have both comfort and very good signal quality.”

This combination raises some tantalising possibilities. At present, IDUN’s products are used mainly for clinical research. The Dryodes are sold through OpenBCI, a company that sells brain-computer interface hardware to customers ranging from individual researchers to Fortune 500 companies. For director of operations Shirley Zhang, the company’s academic origins were a major draw. “The Dryode addresses a gap in the market for an easy to set up, low-impedance and comfortable dry electrode,” she says. “Its proof of concept and body of data spoke to the robust engineering behind the product.”

But the level of comfort and accuracy they offer, and the different ways in which their ground-breaking material can be applied, pave the way for applications ranging from the super-personal — individualized health advice — to large-scale workplace optimization.

Forgettables give better data
From the start, the IDUN founders were interested in preventative medicine. (The name is taken from the Nordic goddess of health and immortality.) But you can’t get actionable health data without consistent monitoring. “We always said, we have to build forgettables,” says Chardonnens. “That’s when you forget you’re wearing it. The next generation of wearables has to be so unobtrusive and so easily integrated into your habits that it’s just part of your daily life, like your smartphone.”

Expanding on this, Bachmann explains: “If we want to get access to millions of users, to record their data, we need something which is already in the user’s life. Otherwise you need to convince them to buy and use another product. But with devices like headphones, you already have them with you all day, you’re listening to music. So this is a perfect location to monitor brain activity. There is a big technical challenge in getting the necessary signal quality and the comfort level in headphones, but our material can be arbitrarily shaped in three-dimensional forms and the signal quality is proven.”

Which means access to big data. Which means powerful health monitoring, advice and insights. Welcome to the Internet of Humans.

For instance, monitoring brain activity as users go about their daily lives can deliver valuable understanding of not just their physical, but also mental health. When do you lose focus at work? Maybe getting a well-timed nudge from your smartphone to take a break, open a window or get a coffee would help you to be more creative, more productive.

On one end of the scale, Bachmann sees potential for monitoring and improving employee well-being across an entire organization; on the other, for individualized health advice that takes account of your personal response to exercise, or music, or fresh air. “It’s your guardian angel!” says Chardonnens. Even better, tracking the brain waves of patients using antidepressants could facilitate more accurate dosing and improve their response.

So how do we get there from here, and what’s IDUN’s role?

Bridging the reality gap
“What we’re actively working on is the recording of signals from those areas where technology is already in place, like headphones — showing proof of concept with our electrodes,” says Chardonnens.

Bachmann elaborates: “We’re looking at the validation of scientific concepts that are proven in literature, but not yet in real life. No one really has the know-how. The market is very fragmented, so they may have know-how in electronics, or in materials or in signals, but no one has the know-how on, for example, how the material influences the signal. Bringing every part together is synergistically much stronger.”

He continues: “Imagine human machine interfaces that allow you to control your environment with your body data — even something as simple as a smart home application that is tailored to how you feel today. We’ve had that idea in science fiction for decades but now we’re getting there in terms of technology. Of course, a company like Apple, for instance, has the audio experts, they have designers, they have software developers — but what they don’t have is the concept of what happens between material and physiology. We are trying to solve that whole value chain.”

And what makes IDUN the right company to bridge the gap?

It’s their holistic strategy, says Chardonnens. “We’re very strong in materials, and we’ve noticed that our customers didn’t have this know-how. They are specialised in electronics or whatever. We are strongest in materials and are building up on the algorithmic and physiological parts, through our hiring and our research partners.”

Bachmann confirms: “You have to use that holistic point of view to build solutions that are really worth something. And you have to have the imagination. What we’re describing doesn’t exist yet, so there can’t be know-how yet. So we’re trying to spearhead this competence — we’re the first ones building these systems.”

Betelgeuse is the limit
This expansive vision has already driven the pair to great achievements and landed both of them on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Since participating in the Swiss Startup Factory’s accelerator program in winter 2017 — at which time they were still finishing their Master’s degrees — they’ve graduated, patented their technology, founded a business, raised funds and fully launched their first product.

The Swiss Startup Factory program was crucial in developing a business mindset (as well as opening valuable doors to financing). According to Bachmann: “We have optimal preconditions, coming from a top technical university. But the implementation and the mindset we first had to learn in a hands-on approach. The Swiss Startup Factory is excellent in bringing together people who want to move things and making it happen.”

“Wanting to move things” describes the IDUN founders well; from a very early stage of their studies they started chasing the goal of entrepreneurship. What motivates them?

“First, freedom is very important to me,” says Chardonnens. “I wanted to start a company because there are no limits. Second, we have such great energy in the company, and externally, with our customers. We are meeting so many great people who want to do something and move the world, so the energy that we get back — I’m living for that. And the third thing is that I love what we’re working on. I really enjoy the market we’re in, seeing what’s new, where the train is going, talking to customers who are doing amazing things about the brain… I really, really love that!”

Bachmann agrees enthusiastically. “It’s these three things, and in that order. Entrepreneurship, because it’s a lot of fun. Then it’s the team, and then it’s the technology.”

The subject of the strength and closeness of their team keeps coming up in our conversation. Fostering an inclusive workplace is something they obviously relish; Chardonnens has described herself on the company website as a “CTO with people skills” and as “{Soft[Tough(Soft)]}”.

“I was always about taking care of people,” she says. “I have that mommy style. And now,” she addresses Bachmann, “you really see the value of that, so you jumped on that train.”

Four of their fledgling team of nine people are women — an enviable achievement in the notoriously unbalanced tech environment. “We don’t look to fill quotas,” says Bachmann, “but we have a lot of women applying, and they’re really good. It’s about creating an environment where the genders apply in more or less equal numbers.”

And then where they thrive, evidently, and generate even more shared energy in pursuit of the dream of better health through better data. IDUN’s ambition is expressed on the meeting room wall, providing daily inspiration: “Betelgeuse is the limit.” Because if you settle for the sky, you’re just not thinking big enough.

IDUN Technologies Forgettables



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