Wearable tech startups focus on workplace health and safety in Vancouver

LifeBooster, Nanozen Industries, and Vandrico Solutions are developing products for use in mining and other industries

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Entrepreneur Stacey Wallin says “shiny” wearable devices for consumers and athletes, such as the Apple Watch, may hog the limelight, but she believes her technology startup will come out a winner by zeroing in on wearables for the workplace.

      The cofounder and CEO of LifeBooster told the Georgia Straight that her Vancouver-based company is focused on developing wearables for use in occupational health and safety at mines and construction sites. It’s not the only local startup hoping to cash in on this market.

      “We really wanted to take this technology and apply it to something that may be a little bit less glamorous but has the ability and the impact to save people’s lives and to really, really help increase their quality of life,” Wallin said in a meeting room at Wavefront, a federally funded accelerator for wireless companies.

      Seated next to LifeBooster cofounder and vice-president Bryan Statham, Wallin explained that the startup is designing and prototyping three wireless sensors that, when worn voluntarily by workers, will read their biometric signals and offer an accurate picture of their bodies’ movements. This data will help companies pinpoint situations where labourers are at high risk of back strain, carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain injuries, and other musculoskeletal afflictions.

      LifeBooster is in the process of filing a provisional application for a patent, so Wallin and Statham were tight-lipped about the technical details. But they noted that their hardware and software form a real-time, 3-D ergonomics monitoring system.

      “It’s going to show the exertion, the repetition, the overall picture of which parts of the body are being used the most and whether or not they’re reaching the threshold of the recommended range of motion and torque for those body parts,” Wallin said.

      Statham noted that LifeBooster’s system is aimed at the construction, oil and gas, mining, and warehousing industries but could be deployed by any company making use of manual labour. The startup hopes to raise a round of seed financing in the next several months and start workplace trials as soon as this fall.

      According to Wallin, LifeBooster’s technology hasn’t been a “hard sell” to companies and unions in B.C. She asserted that data from the sensors will lead to more detailed risk assessments, better monitoring of high-risk employees, and more effective rehabilitation of injured workers.

      “The company can actually give them duties that are maybe more aligned with their skills, instead of putting them behind a desk or whatnot,” Statham said of employees returning to work after an injury. “Because a lot of times the injury doesn’t occur with the job they’re doing. It could be from a slip or something like that.”

      Nanozen Industries is another local wearable-tech startup that’s focused on occupational health and safety. CEO Peter Briscoe told the Straight that the company is commercializing technology invented at the University of British Columbia by Winnie Chu, a former assistant professor in the school of environmental health.

      According to Briscoe, Nanozen’s DustCount sensor can detect particulate matter smaller than 10 micrometres in diameter. It’s designed for use in mines and sawmills.

      “The purpose is to detect particles that are carcinogenic or could cause explosions,” Briscoe said by phone from Vancouver.

      Briscoe noted wearable devices could help a company monitor “hot zones” in a mill. He added that this technology brings “movability, portability, and also a whole new level of accuracy” to the measurement of workplace air quality.

      Meanwhile, Vandrico Solutions is in the business of improving machine-to-person communication in large commercial and industrial settings, according to Gonzalo Tudela, the North Vancouver–based startup’s cofounder and CEO. Companies in the airport, mining, and resort industries are using Vandrico’s Canary platform, which works with mobile and wearable devices.

      One project Vandrico is working on, Tudela noted, will see a computer system automatically send an evacuation alert to workers in an area where there’s the potential for a mine collapse any time an elevated risk is detected by seismic-activity sensors. This system will incorporate data from geologic and engineering models, and location tracking of trucks.

      “Machine-to-person communication is about taking the machines and the data that’s being generated in real time and creating very sophisticated algorithms of which to employ and deploy in an occupational setting for health and safety and other reasons,” Tudela told the Straight by phone from his office.

      Tudela maintained that wearable devices are ideal for “critical alerts” where a worker might only have 10 seconds’ warning of an impending disaster. He asserted that this kind of tech will “without a doubt” save lives.

      “Watches are the best,” Tudela said. “We still have a lot of learning to do as an industry around head-mounted displays, or on the smart glasses. They are being used and they are being deployed—don’t get me wrong—but it’s more costly and it’s more leading-edge, whereas I find that smart watches have lower barriers to entry for an organization that wants to adopt new technology.”