Wearable tech: Kiwi company takes on its own international customer at top awards

Described by its founder as a "rubber band with bluetooth", NZ company StretchSense's wearable tech products have reached the top 22 in the world at a leading WT competition

Executives at Auckland-based wearable technology (WT) business StretchSense will be on the plane to Germany this month, after the company won a finalist slot in a leading global wearable tech competition.

StretchSense, as its name suggests, makes elastic belts fitted with small, light, stretchy, wireless sensors that measure human body motion. Founded in 2012, the company has more than 80 customers in 15 countries. 

Now it has been named a finalist in the WT Wearable Technologies Innovation World Cup 14/15 – out of more than 500 entries. It is the only New Zealand company on the list.

StretchSense CEO Ben O’Brien says his company will be one of 22 international tech firms travelling to Munich to compete at the WT Wearable Technologies Conference on February 2.

O’Brien, who was the 2013 recipient of the Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize, will also present a paper at the conference, which has an estimated 80,000 attendees.

He says StretchSense was one of the first companies to recognize the potential for stretch sensors.

 “Our goal has always been to stay ahead of the curve in terms of innovation.

“Being named a finalist… confirms that we set the standard for making it easy to use high performance sensors without interfering with the natural motion of the body.”

StretchSense CEO and leading scientist Ben O'Brien

The StretchSense belts work by measuring the amount of movement in the stretchy elastic when someone moves (kicking a football, for example, or doing a rehabilitation exercise) and then transmitting the information wirelessly to a smart phone app.

The sensors have been used in a range of industries from animation and gaming, to sports and rehabilitation.

Ironically, StretchSense will be competing against one of its own customers at the WT World Cup. Canadian company Heddoko, which has incorporated the Kiwi technology into a 3D sensing sports garment, is a finalist in the same Sports & Fitness category.

O’Brien says travelling to Munich will give StretchSense an opportunity in an important market. Germany is “in a powerhouse position in the medical devices sector, an area which holds huge potential for using stretch sensors”, he says.

His company is already involved in a partnership between bio-engineers from the University of Auckland and leading scientists at the Stuttgart-based Fraunhofer, one of the largest research organisations of its kind in the world. StretchSense technology will be a crucial component of the intelligent arm brace being created in the German-Kiwi collaboration.

Emerging as a “wearable tech hero” in Munich isn’t the first time StretchSense has been in the limelight. The company has been a winner and finalist in the New Zealand Innovators Awards for the past two years.

NZIA 2013 - StretchSense from NZ Innovation Council on Vimeo.

StretchSense CEO Ben O’Brien (right) and CTO Todd Gibsy at the 2013 Innovation Awards

In addition, in 2014, the company was a finalist in the Hi Tech Start Up Company of the Year, the Fronde Hi-Tech Young Achiever and the Kiwinet Research Commercialisation Awards.

Globally, wearable technologies is a rapidly emerging industry, with US analysts Market and Markets predicting the industry will be worth more than $US8 billion by 2018, and another global forecast showing a $US70 billion value by 2024. An article in British newspaper The Guardian suggested 2015 will be the year when wearable devices gain traction among a broad consumer market.

Meanwhile, StretchSense recently completed a capital raise, with investors including Flying Kiwi Angels and the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund. The funds will be used for business development, increasing production capacity and securing intellectual property.