interview and photos by Skylar Cole
This Akron-born company, created by Drs. Chelsea Monty-Bromer and Hanieh Ghadimi, is using fabric sensors to change the way we think about our sweat.
The goal is to create a sensor that will be similar to a Fitbit. The sensor would track hydration, sodium output, lactic acid buildup and other factors based on the contents of your sweat. That information would then be transferred to an app that would tell you just what you need to stay hydrated or when you might need to take a break.
Monty-Bromer is a professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at The University of Akron. Ghadimi was her postdoc before creating RooSense.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Skylar Cole: Why did the two of you originally start the company?
Chelsea Monty-Bromer: We originally thought [our technology] would be for veterans, inside of their prosthetic limbs — it would kick on like a cooling device. When [veterans] come back from combat, especially younger veterans, if they have a lower limb amputation and they run, they start to sweat, and that can cause chafing, which can cause a blister. So we developed a way to signal a cooling device that the prosthetic limb was too hot.
The problem was that the cooling device required too much power. So we had a sensing mechanism, but we had nothing to use it for.
We participated in a program called NSF iCorp, and in that program, they had you go out and do discovery and customer interviews with a pretty wide range of different customers.We found that endurance athletes, or athletes who are exercising for more than three hours at a time, are typically worried about their hydration status, and specifically how to develop a hydration plan — what hydration products to drink and when to drink them and how much to drink. We were seeing a lot of people with cramping issues, people that were kind of guessing and checking what drinks to drink. We kind of found a really cool market need, and once we found that, we decided to take that technology and make it into a company.
SC: How does the technology work?
CM-B: We electro-spin nylon. So we get nylon just like you would think about [in] pantyhose, except for it’s a little thicker and white. So we get this material and then we functionalize it with carbon nanotubes to make it conductive. And then we further functionalize it for whatever we want to look for. So, right now, we’re looking for sodium ions, the salt that’s in your sweat. Once we functionalize it further, we can then detect sodium ion concentration. In that way we can kind of bin athletes into low-, medium- and high-salt sweaters. Each kind of sweat pattern needs a different kind of sports drink or sports powder, or whatever people want to drink.
SC: You previously mentioned endurance athletes, but would this benefit everyday people?
CM-B: So we think, like, marathon runners, triathletes, soccer players, football players, especially during this time of year when they’re out practicing twice a day… Anyone whos a high-level athlete who is having problems staying hydrated or with cramping, we will be able to help them. The longer you’re exercising at a stretch, the more you will need us. But as we get more data, we can start to help the everyday athlete, so people who are only working out an hour or so every day.
SC: Where do you see this idea going? Do you plan on scaling it?
CM-B: We are in talks right now to join a joint venture with a company that makes hydration drinks. The idea is that they can send out the sensor and an athlete can wear it during their actual workout plan, maybe during a race, and then the data will go to an app where they can access the data, where [the other company] will be able to prescribe them a hydration plan that is specific to them. That’s kind of the first round, and then the athlete will send the sensor back so we can reuse the hardware.
The next round would be having athletes wearing it all the time. So we would make a band, sort of like a Fitbit. The more data we get, the more information we will be able to give athletes to tell them, ‘OK, your heart rate went up, your sodium concentration went up and your temperature went up. You need to take a break or you need to drink something.’ As we have more and more data, then it can be something you can envision going into assisted living or hospitals — places where you really want to know about people’s health, to get into the idea of everyday health.
SC: How big is the technology?
CM-B: Right now it’s just an armband.
SC: What has been your favorite part about this whole process, whether it be starting the company or developing the technology?
CM-B: It’s really cool to be doing something that no one else has done before. It’s really exciting. And no one else has made a fabric sensor like this. It’s really fun to be making something that no one else has made and be developing a monitor that will then help, and maybe even change the way we think about healthcare and being on the frontlines of that.
SC: That must also make it difficult seeing as no one has done this, there’s no reference point.
CM-B: Right, so there’s a lot of education in this. So when we go to pitch the idea, we kind of have to make sure that we educate our audience as to how important this is, especially for high-level athletes, because a lot of people either don’t exercise or they exercise a little bit so they’re not really seeing these issues. Gatorade, one of the biggest sports-drink companies in the world, is finally starting to do some education for us; that has been helpful. But yeah, making a smart textile that no one else has made has been the best part for me.
SC: Did either of you have any experience with entrepreneurship before this company?
CM-B: No, we’re completely new at this. We actually use the small business development center which is in Bounce a lot. We rely on them a lot and talk to the entrepreneurs and residents here to kind of get their insight. Being at Bounce is very helpful because we are able to get a lot of resources from people who have started or worked with companies. Having all of these resources is very helpful.
I think the most important thing is that this is just the beginning. We just have a couple of grants now, but we’re really hoping to ramp up and scale it and, little by little, change the way people think about hydration.
Skylar Cole is a senior at Bio-Med Science Academy