The co-founder of Berkeley, California-based startup Eko Devices explains the origins of and prospects for the company’s ‘smart stethoscope’, which can detect heartbeat patterns more accurately and help doctors to interpret them.
The ‘Interactive’ section of the annual South by Southwest (SXSW ) technology fair in Austin, Texas, which is a real meeting point for emerging digital trends, focused this year on the health sector. Using connected objects to make life easier for medical patients is today a key development area for both innovative startups and established digital technology specialists [see our articles on Stemp and Apple Watch]. And there are definite opportunities in the B2B market here, as is being proved by Eko Devices. The Californian startup has created a smart attachment for a stethoscope – called the Eko Core – which enables physicians to hear patients’ heartbeats with greater accuracy. L'Atelier reported on the stethoscope already a year ago and Eko Devices co-founder Connor Landgraf, who holds a Master's Degree in Bioengineering from the University of California, Berkeley, told the SXSW audience about how the venture got started and outlined its future prospects. The idea for the ‘Core’ hit him when he was taking a senior bioengineering class at Berkeley. A number of doctors who came to the class to discuss medical technology and devices were asked which instruments most needed upgrading. “Unanimously, they agreed the stethoscope was at the top of the list,” revealed Landgraf. “They made it clear that using this 200-year-old technology was as much an art as a science.” He discovered that mastering the use of this everyday medical implement can take years. He immediately saw an opportunity to build a ‘smart’ system along similar lines to Shazam, the mobile app that enables users to identify any song or music wafting about in the vicinity.
Design collaboration with a hospital
On gaining his Master’s degree, Landgraf set out to develop the ‘health sector Shazam’ – a ‘smart’ stethoscope attachment. "We developed a digital adapter which links the hundred-plus-year-old analog stethoscope with a smartphone or tablet. In addition we created an algorithm which analyses, detects and categorises many hundreds of sounds,” explained the Eko Devices CEO. The invention is therefore not 100% digital but rather an extension of the traditional stethoscope that links up with a mobile app (currently available only on iOS devices). The idea is to help a medical practitioner detect a potential cardiac problem in the patient so that the patient can be referred to a specialist in good time or receive a prescription for the right medication. The design phase took 22 months. "The hardest part was developing the hardware and the algorithm. We worked in close cooperation with a hospital on the coast to gather patient data and build a sizeable data base," Landgraf told the audience.
B2B plus B2C opportunities
The launch of Eko Core is now scheduled for May. ‟Our primary target market comprises doctors, physicians, paediatricians, cardiologists and medical students. We’ve designed the entire product in-house, but it will be manufactured by sub-contractors and entrepreneurs.” In the meantime the startup is putting the finishing touches to its clinical trials with the department of cardiology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). In March Landgraf and his team raised $2 million in a funding round led by existing investor Founder.org with, among others, the co-founders of Shazam also on board. ‟This funding means we can now concentrate on commercialising our product and also invest more in research and development. In the medium term we envisage developing our technology to address other medical needs, such as analysing patient breathing.” So the aim seems to be to develop a range of products designed to assist healthcare practitioners. In the long term, Eko Devices is also planning to sell its products directly to the general public. ‟My vision is to develop a personal tool to enable patients to monitor their cardiac problems themselves at home,” revealed the Eko Devices CEO.