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045 – Ryan Kraudel – Blood Oxygenation Sensors for Consumer Wearables

This week’s episode of the Future Ear Radio podcast features Ryan Kraudel, VP of Marketing at Valencell. Ryan has been on the podcast a number of times, as he is the most knowledgeable person I know with regards to biometric sensors, and since biometric monitoring has been such a large theme for Future Ear, he’s been in high demand. With the release of the Apple Watch Series 6 and it’s new flagship feature, blood oxygenation readings, I thought it would make sense to have Ryan on this week to break down this new type of sensor that’s making its way to consumer wearables.

We start with how exactly this type of sensor works and why it shines red and infrared lights in order to capture blood oxygenation, as opposed to the green lights emitted by the PPG sensors that capture heart rate. As Ryan explains, blood oxygenation (SpO2) sensors are designed to measure the percentage of red blood cells in the blood that are carrying oxygen. Oxygenated blood will absorb red and infrared light differently than non-oxygenated blood, so using reflective light, the sensor captures the readings and feeds it through sophisticated algorithms to determine the percentage of oxygenated blood (you want to be around 95% or above).

As Ryan has pointed out on the podcast before, this new wave of biometric monitoring features that consumer wearables are capable of are largely due to breakthroughs in the data science. Through a combination of the miniaturization in the hardware and the increasing sophistication of the machine learning algorithms that are processing the data, the result is a growing set of biometric data types that can be captured and logged. The more types of data that can be logged accurately, the better people will understand their unique physiology and body.

It’s important to point out that Apple does not claim this new sensor is intended for medical purposes, but rather for “wellness.” At the same time, it should be noted that Apple is partnering with a variety of universities and medical facilities to research how blood oxygen levels captured from the Apple Watch can be used in future health applications. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Apple’s ResearchKit here, which is the API framework that the company uses to sign up participants for these type of research studies and then feed the data captured to the researchers. Through ResearchKit, Apple can effectively legitimize its “wellness” features by validating the use cases with researchers. It’s brilliant.

So what types of applications can these types of SpO2 sensors enable for consumer wearables? Respiratory conditions is a big one, namely asthma and COPD, with the Apple Watch or similar type of wearable alerting the user to the potential of an upcoming asthma attack or COPD complication. As Ryan points out, another big use case would be sleep apnea, as the sensor would register early warning signs in the blood oxygen levels decreasing as you sleep. And then of course you have diseases like COVID and other respiratory illnesses, which is what we discussed in the, “Wearables as early detection health systems,” podcast episode.

It will take time for these type of use cases to become fully legitimized as medical-grade use cases, and unless companies like Apple intend to register their wearables as full-blown FDA class-1 medical devices, they’ll probably remain as “wellness” use cases. That said, I always come back to the 2018 Apple keynote when Apple COO, Jeff Williams described the Watch as, “an intelligent guardian of health.”

Apple is making it abundantly clear through its messaging and emphasis on health-based features, that the most unique area of opportunity for the Apple Watch is centered around this theme of preventative health. We’re seeing the ground work laid now and should expect more progress made both in terms of the types of data that can be captured through new types of sensors, but also in the legitimacy of the data through the partnerships with academics and healthcare entities through ResearchKit.

Alerting people to threats to their health, especially specific threats that individuals are high-risk to, goes beyond compelling and into “must-have” territory. If Apple can truly build wearables, or feed third-party wearable data into their Apple Health repository that fits this bill (*hint* *hint* biometric-enabled hearing aids), Apple’s runway appears to be very, very long.

“I believe, if you zoom out into the future, and you look back, and you ask the question, ‘What was Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind?’ it will be about health.” 

Tim Cook, 2019.

-Thanks for Reading-

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