Kevin Logan has operated MACSEA, Ltd., for 30+ years from Connecticut’s scenic fishing village of Stonington. After substantial budget cuts by MACSEA’s biggest client, the U.S. Navy, Kevin launched Body Biolytics, a spin-off startup that leverages field-proven MACSEA pattern recognition technology into the wearable device space.
A seasoned business owner, Kevin is also leading the startup effort for Body Biolytics. He’s investigating the various funding channels in Connecticut and has a lot to share with startup founders who are just getting started. Kevin recently participated as a panelist in the Southeastern Connecticut Startup Roadshow event held in Groton on 9/4.
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How did Body Biolytics get started?
I founded MACSEA in 1982. We developed artificial intelligence technology that performs real-time diagnostics of high-valued, mission-critical machinery, like a ship’s main propulsion engines. Our technology also predicts equipment failures before they happen. The Navy became early adopters of our diagnostic technology back in the mid-80s, resulting in the installation of our system on over 40 surface vessels.
With the military market drying up in the past few years, we began looking for new ways to leverage our neural network-based pattern recognition software into new markets. Thirty years ago, our software could have been called “bleeding edge.” Today, neural network models are being applied in many industries. Medical device diagnostics is a hot topic these days and our core diagnostic algorithms are as applicable to human health monitoring as they are to machinery.
Back in May, we won first place in a technology innovation challenge sponsored by Under Armour. Using our strength in data science and analytics, we developed algorithms to identify physical exercises from bio-sensor data coming from a wearable Under Armour chest strap. After reading all the high-growth predictions, we launched a new company, Body Biolytics to enter into the wearable technologies arena. As a new startup, Body Biolytics is just coming out of the chute, but we see a lot of potential in this space. We’re competing with other startups in the space, many of which are well-funded from accelerator programs in other areas of the US.
Because of the Under Armour award, our logical launch point into the wearable space is sports and fitness. We see a growing demand for useful, actionable information in many different applications beyond sports, so I fully expect that our technology will be leveraged in other ways in the future. Many evolving context-aware applications can deliver useful information and services based on what you’re doing, in the same way location-based apps provide similar services based on where you are. We’re initially focused on activity recognition, but that’s just the beginning.
What does the wearable technologies market look like?
The market is in its infancy. In my opinion, people aren’t getting much value out of this first generation of wearable devices. Surveys have shown that once the novelty of an activity tracker, for example, wears off, a large percentage of people stop using the device within a few months. Simple activity tracking apps aren’t all that engaging. But when you start to look at medical applications and other ways wearable technology can improve people’s lives, I think this space is going to explode. If you look at what’s happening with smart watches, Google Glass, glucose-monitoring contact lenses, smart textiles and clothing, mood detection, and many other context-aware applications that input data from biosensors, this really is unprecedented.
Add to this the Internet of Things, where sensors are being embedded into homes, autos, furniture, and anything else you can think of; you quickly realize that there’s an explosion of data happening – really big data. We want to ride the wave by doing what we’re good at – model building, pattern recognition, and predictive analytics – extracting value from that big data.
What does Body Biolytics do and how is it different from the gazillion other apps that monitor physical activity?
First, let me tell you what we don’t do: 1) we don’t make a wearable device and 2) we don’t make a smartphone app. We do develop algorithms that can take data from the wearable device and feed results into apps. Our initial offerings are Activity Recognition Engines (AREs), which are essentially data processing and pattern recognition algorithms (i.e. software). There are a “gazillion” apps out there and more wearable devices being introduced each week. Our goal is to have our AREs running in the background somewhere, maybe on the cloud, supporting those gazillion customers. Scalability is what it is all about.
For wearable sports/fitness devices, current activity tracking technology rarely goes beyond pedometer-type step counts, whose accuracy has been proven to be poor. Mileage and calorie burn information is typically calculated by standard formulas and really doesn’t accurately represent actual energy expenditure. The heart rate monitors may provide accurate heart rate, but in order to make sense of that data, you need to correlate it with the specific activity you were doing at the time. That’s where we come in. We developed an ARE that identifies the exercise being performed, based on the motion data captured by the wearable device. Now the user can go through the workout without having to stop for data entry into a phone app, leading not only to an improved user experience, but also to a more scientific assessment of performance and conditioning over time because heart rate can now be tied directly to activity.
There are lots of use cases for activity recognition beyond sports/fitness. Our development roadmap includes monitoring of elder activities, with the idea of providing a means for family and immediate care providers to remotely monitor elderly people, providing assurance that they’re okay and their daily activities are normal. Similarly, there is an obesity epidemic in the US, which often leads to increased problems related to diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, driving up health care cost. Activity monitoring and recognition can also provide an aid in quantifying and monitoring improvement programs. Both of these markets are rapidly growing in terms of the numbers of users who will presumably be “connected” somehow to the Internet of Things.
Based on conversations at recent tech conferences, we’re also seeing some interest in a few other wearable applications that have the potential to deliver real value to the user. For example, smart clothing with embedded biosensors to detect dehydration, heart arrhythmia, mood changes, and many other medical or quasi-medical conditions. But Body Biolytics needs to crawl before we can run. We need to focus, get funding in place, and progress to the monetization stage as quickly as possible. The possibilities are exciting and things are happening quickly. This is a very active startup space.
What stage of development is the app for Body Biolytics in, and what’s your next step in getting it to market? What has been your biggest challenge to date?
Our path is fairly clear: we need to generate IP for the company, bring on talent in a number of areas to get organized and efficient, and we need to aggressively penetrate our target markets. Basically, we need to do all the same things as any startup. We are currently seeking funding and strategic partnerships to bring our technology to market. Without mentioning names, we have initiated conversations with a few leaders in the wearable space and are also talking to some startups that may need our technology as well.
Funding continues to be our biggest challenge. Since MACSEA grew organically, fundraising for a startup isn’t something I’m experienced in. We’re feeling our way through the Connecticut state and venture funding circuit and finding this to be an interesting challenge. There are several state-funded organizations, some whose charters seem to overlap others. It can be daunting and time-consuming for a startup to go through this discovery process. I think Connecticut has a lot of smart and dedicated people trying to help start and grow companies here.
Like most tech entrepreneurs, I’m focused on the technology. The rest of the startup process is a learning curve. Mentorship is critical for moving forward quickly. I recently met a Harvard Business School MBA-type who was successful in raising funds for a startup in Boston. Spending an hour on the phone with him was extremely informative. I wish I knew the right person to call in Connecticut to get that same kind of information. I think our startup support infrastructure is somewhat fragmented, which means the tech entrepreneur has to spend more time in discovery. The situation is improving in Connecticut and I think efforts like The Whiteboard is some proof of that.
In the Southeastern CT/New London County region, the community to support high growth startups is still maturing. Is this true and what could help support its growth?
I would agree that there doesn’t seem to be, but I think things are evolving, at least in the bioscience area, with Connecticut Innovations/CTNext, CURE, SECTER, and UCONN all sharing common ground. You can see right away that there appears to be some fragmentation in the startup support community, just by this list of names. I’ve talked to all these folks and found them very friendly, open, and eager to help. But my feeling is that these folks mostly stem from the science community and not so much the business community. I’ve had a few great brainstorming sessions, but there hasn’t been much of a follow-up. That’s partly my fault – we’re all busy people, right?
As far as what could help build it, that’s a tough question. Success breeds success. If Connecticut startups are successful and stay in Connecticut, I think the system can feed on itself by engaging those successful people in a way, either through direct investment, mentorship, etc., to help more startups grow. That’s the whole concept of accelerators, but there’s a lot more to it than just providing office space.
What advice can you share with up-and-coming entrepreneurs – or seasoned vets who are reinventing themselves – about how to be successful in Connecticut?
As far as Body Biolytics goes, I don’t think I’m qualified to answer this right now. Hopefully, if you check back in about a year, we’ll have a good story to tell and some good advice to give out. I guess some advice I could give, as a techie/inventor type of person, is to set aside some portion of your time to dig deep into the markets you’re going after and make sure that you’re solving an existing problem or at least establish some level of demand for your innovation. Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you can build a viable business around it. I see a lot of useless apps out there. The next thing to consider is how to get there from here. Resources are ALWAYS tight. I not sure the word entrepreneur goes together with risk-averse, but if there’s any way to test the water before jumping in, then do it.