It's a bad time to be Russian: The country is moving fast toward pariah status. Still, an ambitious Russian startup is right now trying to overtake Apple Inc. in creating a truly breakthrough wearable device, and its origin has not stopped it from overshooting its crowdfunding target on Indiegogo by a factor of five.
The startup is called Healbe, and it was founded by Moscow consumer-research specialist Artem Shipitsin to produce the ultimate fitness bracelet. Apart from common functions such as step counting and sleep-phase tracking, the device, called GoBe, is supposed to automatically count calorie intake and burn by measuring glucose levels through the skin.
This would make GoBe unique and truly revolutionary: Apple itself has been rumored to be chasing such a feature for its elusive iWatch. In January, Mark Gurman, who specializes in exclusive Apple news, reported that the company hired a top medical hardware developer specializing in needle-less, non-invasive blood analysis. It is not clear whether the capability will be included in the first iWatch, as the technology is still young and untested. In fact, one company, Canada-based Airo Health, raised money on a crowdfunding platform last year to produce a wearable device able to track calories, but was forced to refund the money and admit it would not have a marketable device by the fall of 2014, as promised.
Shipitsin, however, claims he can ship GoBe by June, even though the device has not yet been independently tested. According to the founder, in-house tests have shown the GoBe prototype to have 80 percent the accuracy rate of a standard glucose meter. It also supposedly detects calorie intake to about 90 percent the accuracy of standard caloric tables.
Healbe had counted on raising $100,000 between March 5 and April 15 on Indigogo, but already has more than $548,000.
There is no way to validate the device's technological claims, and it may well follow in Airo Health's footsteps and end up saying mea culpa to its enthusiastic backers. After all, racing Apple takes a lot of nerve and more money, as the Cupertino company's rivals have found out over the years. The success of Airo Health's and Healbe's crowdfunding drives, however, is meaningful in itself. It tells the big tech firms that their current wearable devices are not exactly what the market needs.
Counting steps and ringing an alarm during the right sleep phase are nice functions, but they are not enough for the wearable market to really take off. Market researches predict that 17 million wearable bands, including fitness trackers and smartwatches, will be sold this year, but that's still a tiny industry worth a few billion dollars globally. This market is waiting for a major technological disruption, and automatic calorie-counting may just be it. It has the right quality of replacing a tedious process with instant magic. And it is enough to turn the laziest person into a health addict, constantly checking her wristband to see how many calories have been ingested or burned.
Though the glucose-measuring technology is called non-invasive, the first company to commercialize it in a wearable device will create a truly invasive gadget. That's what a true "killer device" should be: intrusive and addictive.
The struggling start-ups' courageous plans are a message to the big players: Stop messing around with boring devices that people will receive as gifts and stick in a drawer. Start working on a revolution. It's winner take all, like in the days of the first iPod.
(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @Bershidsky.)
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