Young achiever enables the next-generation of sensory technology
If the cloud has been defining the current era, Ben O’Brien is already riding the next big wave - an era of wearable, sensory technology. As the CEO of StretchSense, O’Brien and his team are providing the technology base for the next-generation of business and consumer products.
StretchSense is based out of an industrial unit in Onehunga, Auckland - with a couple of mismatched couches and a coffee table set up at the edge of the workspace, it’s the kind of DIY cool, low-cost start up environment you’d imagine. It was here we talked to O'Brien, who at 28 years old is a finalist for the Fronde Hi-Tech Young Achiever Award for 2014. He talked us through the StretchSense journey, its opportunities, and his views on the Kiwi hi-tech industry.
“The basic product is an elastic band with Bluetooth. When you stretch it, it transmits to the smartphone. This is fantastically exciting if you want to measure human body motion. So you can take this elastic band and you can stick it into clothes and into shoes, onto the body, into medical devices, pretty much anything that’s going to wear straight onto the body. Then you can measure body motion and capture kinematic data.”
O’Brien is passionate and articulate in describing what StretchSense does, and when you learn about the opportunities the product offers, you can’t help but join in his enthusiasm. The uses cases are truly exciting. In health and rehabilitation, the technology enables medical practitioners to closely track the progress and movements of patients - even if they aren’t in the hospital or clinic.
“If you can keep someone out of a hospital for a night that’s ten thousand dollars just like that. So that is boom time for medical device companies all around the world. Take America - you've just had Obamacare come in they've got to drop costs in hospital by 10% but simultaneously get much improved patient outcomes - so drop costs and improve patient outcomes - that’s a tough ask. The only way you can do that is by fundamentally changing the system.”
“The real change is going to come by moving people into the home. Right there care is cheaper, if you take them out of those hospital beds. Also there are secondary issues - if you go to hospital you’re going to get sick from all sorts of things. So if you can be in the home with smart, unobtrusive, precise technology that’s tracking what you’re doing, then all of a sudden there’s a very strong value proposition there.”
While the possibilities that StretchSense enable in the medical world have been their biggest sales driver so far, accurate motion capture technology is also needed in augmented reality, as well as the motion picture, animation, and gaming industries.
“Anywhere there’s an avatar or representation of yourself, whether its in the movie industry or the gaming industry, for your entertainment or someone else’s, then you can use this technology to capture that. The other major market that we target is sports training, imagine being able to visualize and track your technique as you kick a rugby ball. As you can see the key theme through all this is measurement of human body motion”
This underlying theme means use cases go beyond industry specific change, into consumer technology we interact with, or soon will interact with everyday, as O’Brien explains, “take that a step further - what happens when we’re wearing technologies like Google Glass or contact lenses when all of a sudden now you’ve lost this touch screen way of interacting with your device. You’re going need to be able to interact. Not only is there a data entry deficit, but there is a need for more intuitive and more kind of emotive interaction with technology which isn’t there yet”
It’s a world of possibility for O’Brien, who prior to StretchSense, spent the past seven years at Auckland University. He started out studying mechatronics, after hearing about engineering from his dad, “he lent me one of his books about the space race, and I was reading about the rocket scientists who were sort of saying physics is what tells you where the rockets going to go, but its the engineers who make the rocket go. Scientists discover, engineers create. That sounded pretty cool.”
The move to the Biomimetics Lab, part of the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, was almost dumb luck after his friend saw an ad for a summership there in 2005. O’Brien applied, completed the summership, then began his PHD and went on to win several awards, including the Vice Chancellors Award for Best Doctoral Thesis in 2010 & Rutherford Foundation PostDoctoral Fellow. Last year, he added the 2013 Prime Minister's Emerging Scientist Prize to his accolades.
Crucially, it was at the Biomimetics Lab where O’Brien met Todd Gisby, StretchSense CTO, and Iain Anderson, associate professor and head of the Biomimetics Lab, and StretchSense CCO. After getting a taste for selling (with the support of UniServices) custom electronics to other labs and institutes around the world, the decision was made to start StretchSense, with O’Brien and Gisby leaving their roles at the lab to focus on the business full time in November 2012.
“Todd, myself, and Ian put some money in to help start the company up. Then we worked over Christmas to build this product. We started selling them locally in January  then globally in March and since then we’ve been growing and growing and growing.”
“Since we’ve formed, we’ve pretty much bootstrapped. We were lucky to get an angel investor in [Ralf Muller] who’s now chairman of the company, and that was really important for both working capital as well as the wisdom that he brings. But we bootstrapped to over half a million in sales last year, which was pretty good for such a small starting point. We only put $5k in each at the beginning. We grew it pretty aggressively.”
The product is sold as an 850 USD evaluation kit, which includes the sensors, circuit, battery, and the app. StretchSense then provide customisation. The team had to get very good at B2B selling skills, such as getting face time with international clients. “It’s also learning their organisation, learning their market, learning their application. Because we are technology providers, that means we’ve got to learn lots of different markets. Just knowing a few right words to say is all the difference between credibility and just them hanging up.’’
“The end game is licensing of deals - depending on the deal size. So we’ll always have a part in this because we think manufacturing IP is really important to capture.” O’Brien sees the all-round, deep knowledge StretchSense provides for customisation of the sensors as being crucial to having a successful future. “I don’t want to just be an IP player because that’s just all stick no carrot, I think you actually have to bring value to the table for license deals. So we will always have the capability to supply a certain amount of sensors and then whether we license of supply just depends of the size of the deal.”
As an export, O'Brien sees the knowledge StretchSense provide as the key. “It’s value for New Zealand - this is mostly selling knowledge. This is a physical representation of a lot of ideas.”
O'Brien sees a lot growth in the New Zealand hi-tech industry, starting from the individual entrepreneurs. “What I’m seeing is a lot more people around me who are wanting start companies a lot more, the idea that that’s a possible career path, a sort of vision, that it’s not actually as hard and that we can do it. Even from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute where we came from, there’s a number of startups that are coming out there. There’s really like this bubbling ferment that I see. And I think that’s really important - often talk to people who are in government or high up and they often have a top down view - like, how are we going to structure things so that we get this, this, and this.”
“My opinion is that at that level their job is to knock barriers out of the way, but not try and push anything through. Then at the bottom end, you need a whole bunch of people just to say, you know what, we’re going to start companies. We’re going to sell high tech things, we’re going to get out there, and just do it.”
The growing amount of start ups is crucial, especially when it comes to getting more young people into the hi-tech industries. “We need examples. We need people who can be articulate about the role of science and technology. I went and talked to some schools recently and you’ve got to engage them and make it exciting and interesting. Then you show them how. But you’ve got to sort of get to that ‘exciting interesting’ - and it can be. The company is fun, its a dynamic environment, you create crazy new technology, you enable the future, you do all sorts of things - you show the cool first, then you say, this is what you do. This is how you get there. Then you coach them through it. I think don’t start by saying ‘you need to do this because of your future,’ you start by saying ‘this is the future you could have now.’”
It’s a future Ben O’Brien is living, one he clearly enjoys, and undoubtedly will continue excel in at the helm of the StretchSense team.
To keep up to date with Ben & StretchSense, visit www.stretchsense.com.
About the Fronde Hi-Tech Young Achiever Award:
The winner of this category will be an individual (aged 30 or less on 1 May 2014) who has and is making an outstanding contribution to a New Zealand hi-tech company. They could be an employee or a young, entrepreneurial business owner; no matter what they do in their day-to-day business they will be able to demonstrate qualities that single them out as a leader and achiever.
The 2014 Gala Dinner announcing the winners of Hi-Tech Awards will be taking place in Christchurch on Friday 16th May at the Air Force Museum at Wigram.
By Holly Grover