Have you ever considered the possibility that wearable technology could vastly improve your life? The innovators at the WearTech Applied Research Center have. In fact, these entrepreneurs aren’t simply considering the health and lifestyle benefits of WearTech, they’re creating it.

The WearTech Applied Research Center, a collaboration between Arizona State University and local government, economic and healthcare organizations, opened in October in the newly-renovated Park Central and is positioning the Phoenix metro area to be the hub of wearable technology innovation. The first-of-its-kind applied research center will support an entrepreneurial ecosystem to improve quality of life and human performance through the development of innovative wearable technologies.

“Our goal with this institute is that we become proud Arizonans of an Arizona-based intellectual property generation,” said Chris Camacho, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC). “It’s less about importing other states’ and other people’s technology and more about building our own.”

With the help of a $750,000 grant that was awarded to GPEC from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Arizona’s MedTech innovators are changing the way consumers, medical providers, and the world view health and technology. And, in doing so, they are expected to further brand Arizona as the most innovative and forward-thinking MedTech center in the nation.

The foundation of wearable technology

The WearTech grant originates from the Economic Development Administration’s 2018 Regional Innovation Strategies program competition and it aimed at accelerating wearable and medical technology entrepreneurship in Greater Phoenix. The distribution of funds will be facilitated by GPEC, the Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation (CEI) at the Maricopa County Community College District, Arizona State University (ASU), the Partnership for Economic Innovation (PEI), and StartupAZ Foundation.

“We were very fortunate that a year ago as we went out and talked to the Legislature about garnering support the Wearable Technology Center,” Camacho says. “The Legislature afforded us — with the governor’s support — dollars to go build what we built at Park Central. Immediately upon finalizing the legislation, we were oversubscribed for the number of private sector WearTech companies that were seeking out the grant infrastructure that the state provided.”

Not your mom’s SmartWatch

When discussing WearTech, those not well-versed with MedTech and wearable technology may wonder, “What are we really talking about?”

“Wearable technology is identified as first being able to be physically wearable on the body,” says Joe Hitt, co-founder and CEO of GoX Labs, which operates out of the WearTech Applied Research Center. “Second, it needs to be able to do something — a quantitative measure — monitor heart rate, sleep or even glucose levels.”

The SmartWatch is probably the most recognizable type of wearable technology, but earbuds, head-wraps, harnesses and exoskeletons are additional examples.

“Wearable medical technology is the next generation of healthcare and can improve the quality of life for patients,” said Christine Mackay, director of Phoenix Community and Economic Development.

Among the residents and early innovators that are calling the 5,000-square-foot WearTech Center at Park Central mall in Midtown Phoenix home are:

• Hoolest Performance Technologies. The company is focusing on an electrical nerve stimulator earbud that calms anxiety.

• GoX Labs. Researchers are developing human exoskeleton standards and testing research in the pursuit of improved mobility and performance.

• Flexbio and TrueMobile Health. The company is working on an absorbent patch that can detect the presence of alcohol in sweat and is paired with software for wearable technology.

• LevelUp. This company is producing a baseball hat with an EEG headband that utilizes neurofeedback to enhance human performance.

The diverse projects housed in the WearTech Applied Research Center could not be more perfectly positioned, with the Phoenix Biomedical Campus, Barrow Neurological Center and a host of other predominant healthcare providers in close proximity.

WearTech Center in Phoenix will focus on development and research in areas including wearable technologies, wearable robotics, bioelectronics medicine and neurotechnology development with the goal to improve quality of life and human performance. (Photo by Alyssa Tufts, AZ Big Media)

Catapulting into a competitive market

While the physical logistics for the WearTech Center are optimal for its resident innovators, so is the logistic positioning within the growing MedTech sector. Arizona is becoming an increasingly more competitive arena for companies like Hoolest Performance Technologies, GoX Labs, Flexbio and TrueMobile Health and LevelUp.

Why now? Why should entrepreneurs and thought leaders in the MedTech space turn their attention to the Valley?

“Because now, the need for wearable technology, combined with public awareness knowledge, is intercepting,” Hitt says. “Prior, the public wasn’t aware of this type of medical technology. And the need for this technology has become more apparent with the rise of preventative diseases — 80 percent of chronic diseases are preventable.”

Furthermore, according to Hitt, insurers, consumers, medical providers and employers are starting to realize the potential to predict and monitor the progression of medical conditions.

“Wearables will help us predict chronic diseases and help us change behavior on a massive scale,” he says.

While greater awareness of wearable technology and what it can do in the healthcare industry certainly underscores the idea of “right timing,” so does having the support and access to research and a pipeline of talent from local universities.

“If you look at the top innovation hubs globally, the centerpiece is always a strong research university or universities,” says Kyle Squires, dean for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU. “This collaborative center converges our world-class faculty and impactful research with industry partners’ ideas and needs. It embeds our ability to effectively translate fundamental research into the marketplace at the pace of industry and make ASU’s backyard the competitive home of wearable medical technology.”

Expanding and scaling 

Camacho says ASU is continuing to fuel the labor force needed for these innovative startups by pursuing an aggressive plan to keep building one of the best engineering schools in the nation.

“This new federal award provides a great opportunity to strategically expand the scope, scale and reach of our MedTech Ventures Program” adds Gregory Raupp, director of the MacroTechnology Works Initiative and foundation professor of engineering at  ASU. “As the award encourages expansion in MedTech, it also promotes opportunity for continued intellectual property to be created in Arizona.”

That is something Camacho stresses as vital to shaping Greater Phoenix as the hotbed for WearTech development and advancement.

“I expect in the next few years, we will have a myriad of innovation centers across this central hub — the location of the WearTech Applied Research Center in Central Phoenix — that will redefine our city as we know it,” Camacho says.

Now that legislators have what Camacho refers to as “a taste of what these innovations are,” he expects more of a very good thing to come from Arizona’s groundbreaking MedTech innovators.

“As we put more and more of these in play, we’re going to be wildly successful in not only recruiting companies, but growing the base of companies in Arizona,” he says.

Industry analyst firm CCS Insight estimates the wearable technology industry, with more than 245 million devices sold in 2019 alone, is worth $25 billion globally.

“Today, there are more than 133,600 innovators and businesses in the Valley’s wearable technology workforce,” Mackay adds. “This includes electronic, biomechanical and mechanical engineers, electrical and electronic technicians and software developers, plus supporting occupations and vendors. This is a field that can draw upon experience, knowledge and acumen horizontally across many industries.”

And, Mackay says, “The Valley is establishing prominence at the inception of the industry. It’s a pioneering effort,
and Phoenix is the world center of the pioneer spirit.”