Haytham Elhawary thinks that wearable technology is fantastic — but that it’s application hasn’t been equal across all fields. “Traditionally, we’ve made technology for all types of populations, but industrial workers have been left behind. I think it’s because the technical people and entrepreneurs who build these things aren’t exposed to those environments.” But he’s happy to acknowledge that that’s starting to change.
Elhawary is the co-founder and CEO of One Million Metrics Corporation, doing business as Kinetic, which makes a wearable device called the REFLEX, designed to reduce industrial and warehouse workplace injuries. It attaches to a wearer’s belt loops and vibrates when it detects unsafe body positioning or movement, like when a person bends over too quickly or twists his or her back incorrectly. It uses sensors and artificial intelligence to create a map of the user’s body which measures angles, changes in height, and hip movement to estimate how one’s back is moving. While Elhawary doesn’t have personal experience working in a factory — he was a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard Medical School before working in robotics and artificial intelligence with various startup organizations — he does have personal experience with workplace injuries from a source close to home: his mother.
Elhawary grew up in London, where his mother was an elderly care nurse. He recalls her often being hurt and needing several surgeries for back injuries, which was a strain on his family and their day-to-day life. According to the U.S. Bureau of labor statistics, back injuries account for 38.5% of all work-related musculoskeletal disorders that result in days missed from work; a percentage that’s more than twice the amount of the next most frequent injury. For Elhawary, the frequency of back injuries among laborers combined with his own childhood experience inspired him to look at solutions for reducing occupational safety hazards.
While in the early stages of the REFLEX’s development, Elhawary partnered with his friend and future co-founder, Aditya Bansal. Bansal, an engineer and fellow robotics enthusiast, had already been dabbling in the field of wearables. He created a product designed to adjust the text on a tablet based on a user’s head movement, making it easier to read while on a treadmill. He called it the “Run-n-Read,” (“That’s what you get when you have engineers name products,” jokes Elhawary,) and attempted to crowdfund the device. While the crowdfunding wasn’t successful and the “Run-n-Read” didn’t move forward, Bansal and Elhawary were able to apply many of the device’s principles to the REFLEX.
Development on the device began in autumn of 2014, just after the failed “Read-n-Run” crowdfunding campaign. In addition to small personal contributions, Elhawary and Bansal pitched investors early on and found 16 out of the 90 people pitched who were willing to invest. With those funds, they experimented with several different prototypes. The first version incorporated sensors into a back brace, similar to the ones already worn by many warehouse workers. However, they learned that many workers found wearing a back brace cumbersome, and adding sensors and technology didn’t change their opinion. So the next version was smaller and involved a chest strap, similar to the chest straps used to mount action cameras on outdoor athletes. “But it got sweaty and gross and people didn’t want to wear it after that,” says Elhawary, “and we got a lot of feedback that it felt like a bra.” So again, they re-conceptualized, and finalized the current pager-sized version in 2017.
To test the devices, they partnered up with warehouses and companies to gain direct user feedback. In addition to feedback on how the device was worn, they also received feedback that industrial employes didn’t want to download a work app to their personal phones. That’s why the current version of the REFLEX includes a display screen on the device, rather than pairing to Bluetooth-connected devices. They also added a competitive element, allowing teams and individuals to compete against one another to determine who is engaging in the lowest-risk actions and movements. The devices require no lengthy calibration or personalization process so they can be removed and left at work every night to charge. Elhawary thinks that part of encouraging employees to wear it is connecting it to the daily morning routine, so they recommend that companies keep the devices near the daily arrival or clock-in station.