Are wearable tech startups just looking for problems?
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Are wearable tech startups just looking for problems?

You can only admire some people and their sense of optimism. At this year’s Wearable Tech event at London’s Excel centre in the Docklands, a number of early stage startups gathered to showcase a range of wearable products, most of which can only be described as ‘reaching’. Entrepreneurs eagerly pitched their ideas at the ‘Startup Theatre’, which at first seemed OK but then you realised a lot of the ideas were so similar you could have almost written the presentations yourself.

Nevertheless there is no doubting the skill and artistry of some of the people present. Some of the technical achievements were certainly leading edge, such as the fabric circuit boards from Express Circuits, while the virtual reality and augmented-reality applications from companies such as Octagon Studio illustrated just how far the tech has evolved in recent years.

Yet there was a strange feel about the place. To be fair this was what the early dotcom years looked like – a lot of website ideas looking for audiences that didn’t really exist. It’s a difficult stage in evolution. Do you create markets, which is inherently difficult to do or do you follow the crowd and try and make better products in an increasingly crowded space?

Investors are traditionally cautious on the ‘creating new markets’ idea and with good reason. Inevitably that means there will be a lot of similar ideas floating around looking for particular niches while dreaming of the mass market. But for general consumers, unless you are really serious about your running or fitness or completely paranoid about your health, there is little here beyond the watch.

Nick Hunn, founder and CEO of Wifore and one of the competition judges for the event, agreed, saying that while there was no shortage of innovative startups at the Wearable Show, the enthusiasm wasn’t matched by evidential business planning.

“With few exceptions it’s keen young gym users designing tech for keen young gym users, pushing more shiny products into what is already a crowded market,” he commented. “Elvie – a pelvic floor exerciser, which won the startup Dragon’s Den was a welcome exception, showing that there are much bigger opportunities to be targeted if you don’t blindly follow the mainstream. It’s another of the better wearable startups I’ve seen recently which have been started by women. I think there may be a lesson there for the industry.”

Niche

Perhaps the industry has to ask itself what problems it is trying to solve. Health is clearly an area where wearables are finding traction, a little like Google Glass did before it was recalled to the lab. There was in fact an area of the show completely dedicated to health-related applications and it was a health focused company – Withings – that won the event’s overall award for wearable tech achievement.

While Withings took the plaudits and will no doubt do well on the back of its philosophy to create every day, unobtrusive products to monitor health, perhaps one of the more obvious and understandable niche applications was from Israeli startup Nuvo.

The company has quite simply created a pregnancy monitor called PregSense, enabling women to capture vital pregnancy data through a set of sensors built into a wearable strap. It’s a simple but effective idea. There is also a simple baby heartbeat monitor called Ritmo Beats so you can listen in. And if you are interested in taking things a stage further (and we all know some prospective parents do this) there is also Ritmo Surround, a safe pregnancy audio system so that parents can play favourite tunes and recorded voices direct to the womb.

Next to Nuvo was Tarquini Leone, essentially a three-man team that has created a ‘smart’ shirt for golfers. The shirt tracks the user’s movements and starts analysing the golf swing, providing instant feedback via a smartphone. Meanwhile, live on stage was Thomas Claussen, co-founder of Ambiotex, wearing his heart-rate monitor shirt with little flashing light. He says he is already in talks with the German military although there was a sense that, like so many others, mass consumer market is what he really wants.

How many smart shirts can one man buy? Are they washable at 30 degrees and do they tumble dry? So many questions for a very fragmented market that will only really move forward with consolidation and a killer app. The same could probably said for this industry as a whole. It’s exciting and great to see ideas and innovation but it needs case studies quick - and one or two successful exits. We won’t be looking at another Google or Facebook anytime soon.

 

Now read:

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Wearable Tech’s top 10

BaselWorld’s watchmakers ignore smartwatch revolution

From the Gulf War to Harrods – one man’s race to get wearables to market

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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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