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Flexible electronics firm wrings fitness, physical information out of perspiration

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

A 2016 research paper about a de facto “lab on your skin” to collect and analyze sweat in a wearable patch got lots of attention and led to a new startup.

The paper, “A soft, wearable microfluidic device for the capture, storage, and colorimetric sensing of sweat,” which was published in Science Translational Medicine, had 22 authors. One of them, Roozbeh Ghaffari, became co-founder and CEO of the company, Epicore Biosystems Inc.

“As a result of that (paper), a ton of interest came in, so we started the company around that momentum,” Ghaffari said.

Epicore subsequently partnered with PepsiCo to develop and manufacture the wearable sweat analyzer device and branded it with the name of the food and beverage giant’s sports drink. The Gatorade Gx Sweat Patch and App system is marketed to athletes and fitness enthusiasts.

Especially vexing was incorporating microfluidics with the soft substrate inherent in FHE, said Ghaffari. Microfluidics are a challenge even in devices made of standard, hard plastics, he said.

The Gatorade Gx Sweat Patch and App system is a de facto “lab on your skin” to collect and analyze sweat. It was developed by Epicore Biosystems.
“Here we were building a wearable device that had microfluidics inside a soft substrate, so that presented other challenges around mechanical interfaces with the skin,” he said.

As many entrepreneurs learn, building the technology is just one step in a process.

“In a lot of cases, you can build the technology, but then it’s really challenging to get it to that next stage of volume scale up,” Ghaffari said. “So, we figured out ways of building this current technology at scale with the work we’ve done with NextFlex.”

Epicore, which has grown beyond a startup to become a small company, is a member of NextFlex, the institute within Manufacturing USA that focuses on development of FHE and a domestic manufacturing infrastructure for them, including workers.

While the Gx patch gives feedback and recommendations to its wearer about sweat and hydration from a workout, Epicore’s Connected Hydration system offers continuous, real-time hydration monitoring, and can be used for digital health care, athletic performance and worker safety.

Chevron U.S.A. Inc. is evaluating the Connected Hydration system devices in oil and gas personnel working in strenuous environments to remotely track signs of hydration and heat stress in them.

While Epicore’s focus so far largely has been on athletes and connected workers, the company is expanding into medical applications to assess and monitor patients too.

“What we’re trying to do is take the same technology that we’ve now scaled up for sports fitness and wellness and start to apply it for medical applications where hydration is important or there’s a specific biomarker in sweat such as chloride concentration that’s important,” Ghaffari said.

Hydration biomarkers such as sweat rate, sodium and chloride are important for management of chronic conditions like heart failure, diabetes mellitus and cystic fibrosis, he said. The potential for evaluating biomarkers non-invasively in sweat doesn’t stop there. Also measurable are pH and levels of cortisol, glucose, lactate, urea and other electrolytes in addition to sodium and chloride. The soft, flexible devices can also be designed to include heart rate and mobility tracking too.

“You can start building solutions for health management,” said Ghaffari. “That’s really where things are going as opposed to doing just a one-time diagnostic. We’re starting to build out capabilities to validate toward that goal.”

While the company’s devices have already been used for cystic fibrosis diagnosis and in clinical trials monitoring, Ghaffari said the company has its sights on health and dehydration monitoring for elderly care management too.

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