Thanks to decades cultivating manufacturing relationships in Asia, Founder Neil Friedman’s new wearable device company has avoided today’s supply chain woes.
Asia has loomed large in Friedman’s life for more than 50 years.
“I’ve been sourcing and importing from Asia since 1971,” Friedman observes. “From ice cream to antimicrobials to health care technology — you name it. I’ve made more than 200 trips there, and I’ve worked out of offices in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China. Asia has been central to virtually all my ventures, and I’ve developed some extraordinary relationships there.”
It’s no surprise then that Asian technology figured into Friedman’s most ambitious undertaking: BodiMetrics, a company he founded in 2015 to develop and market health monitoring devices. Like all entrepreneurs, Friedman was constantly looking for a transformational product, a killer app — and he found it serendipitously during a visit to a consumer electronics show in 2019.
“I was walking around, and I eventually ended up at a booth manned by a Chinese gentleman who was demonstrating his devices,” says Friedman. “I asked him some questions; I looked at the collateral materials, and it dawned on me. I had a real ‘holy shit’ moment.”
What inspired Friedman’s awe was a finger ring and ancillary device that accurately measured a wide array of patient vital signs — respiration, heart rate, body movement, and blood oxygen — and remotely transmitted the data to nearby monitors. No cumbersome and uncomfortable lines, leads, or cables were required.
Friedman quickly entered into a partnership with the ring’s developer.
“That first ring was pretty broad and thick, so we’ve gone through multiple iterations to get it to where it is today,” says Friedman. “Our ring — the Circul + Sleep and Fitness Ring — is small, exceedingly durable, and it comes in three adjustable sizes that can be worn on any finger.”
Wearable health monitors are not new, of course, but the Circul + differs radically from other devices for two reasons, says Friedman. First are the dimensions of the product: it’s a small ring worn on the finger rather than a relatively large wrist device. That makes it more comfortable, says Friedman — but more critically, it contributes to far more accurate data.
“Wrist devices move, and movement has a tremendous effect on data accuracy,” says Friedman. “You need device stability to get good data.”
Friedman praises Fitbit and similar devices because they gave consumers some ability to track and log health metrics when they came on the market about a decade ago.
“It was an important step in the consumerization of healthcare, but the data wasn’t accurate to the degree needed for verified medical monitoring,” says Friedman. “You couldn’t log critical metrics like oxygen saturation. Wrist-worn devices can’t measure blood oxygen because there’s too much bone in the wrist.”
The Circul + achieves the stability needed for accurate readings through a unique design that essentially anchors the ring to the finger.
“It’s really more of a nut than a ring,” says Friedman. “It consists of a half halo on top of two vertical dropdowns that expand to a vertical half-halo on the bottom. The sensors are on the bottom of the device. When the dropdowns contract and lock on to the finger, it completely stabilizes the sensors, giving you that firm platform needed for accurate data.”
And for such a small package, the Circul + delivers a lot of data: continuous heart rate variability, blood oxygen, temperature, blood pressure, and overnight tracking of the four sleep stages (awake, light, deep, and REM). The measurements are logged and transferred to dashboards, allowing physicians and caregivers to access the information remotely.
“It obviates a major problem with health metrics as they’re currently assessed because it provides a continuous flow of information,” says Friedman. “Take oxygen levels. The way they’re usually collected now — through fingertip assays when the doctor or caretaker visits you — are largely worthless. They’re episodic. They give you a snapshot. That information must be analyzed as a trend. You want to see continuous numbers over time. That’s the only real way to accurately evaluate the patient’s condition.”
The Circul + ring also addresses a problem that has long bedeviled the wearable sensor sector: health care inequity.
“There has been a racial bias implicit with these devices because it has been difficult if not impossible for people of color to get accurate readings in certain metrics,” says Friedman. “Health care sensors typically are not calibrated for pigmented skin, and that can result in extremely inaccurate — and dangerous — readings.”
That applies most specifically to home oximeters, says Friedman. The typical oximeter placed on a fingertip simply doesn’t work well for patients of color. And while the issue has gone largely unaddressed in the United States, other countries are beginning to take it very seriously: in 2021, the British government launched an investigation into deaths among United Kingdom citizens resulting from poor oximeter data.
“We avoid that problem by placing our sensors on the bottom of the ring,” explains Friedman. “Pigmentation is minimal on the underside of the finger for people of all races, so the readings we get are extremely accurate.”
Despite its reliance on Chinese production facilities, BodiMetrics has avoided the manufacturing supply chain woes that have beleaguered other manufacturers during the past two years. Part of the reason, Friedman avers, is the deep relationships he has cultivated in Asia over four decades. And the physical dimensions of the company’s flagship product are also a factor, he adds.
“Circul + is a ring,” he observes. “It’s small. It’s not something that requires shipping containers and a big freighter. We can fly over enough devices in a single plane to meet demand for months.”
That said, Friedman is optimistic that multiple jets may soon be flying west from China with their cargo bays stuffed with Circul + rings.
“We’re entering the world of healthcare self-monitoring,” Friedman continues. “That’s the reality, and it’s only going to accelerate. And frankly, the Circul + ring is the best device on the market today. We’re exactly where we want to be.”
Challenges: “It’s not the supply chain, or issues with manufacturing or labor,” observes Friedman. “We’re mainly selling to the U.S. market, and our greatest challenge is the system of healthcare we have in this country. There are multiple impediments, and there isn’t enough emphasis on efficacy.”
Opportunities: “It’s simple,” says Friedman. “Our greatest opportunity is the need for equity in the health care system. We’re providing that.”
Need: “I’m happy to say we have no pressing needs,” Friedman concludes. “We need capital to expand, and we’re raising it without any difficulty. We’re helping people and making money at the same time, and that’s a blessing.”