Proving the Business Case for the Internet of Things

Empatica partners Drive on smartwatch to predict lung infections

Steve Rogerson
March 5, 2019



MIT Media Lab spin-off Empatica is working with the US government's Barda Division of Research, Innovation & Ventures (Drive) to develop a smartwatch that will alert users when they are developing a serious respiratory infection, before any symptoms appear.
 
The smartwatch will be based on the technology of Empatica's FDA-cleared Embrace2, a smartwatch worn by people living with epilepsy. Embrace2 uses machine learning to monitor physiological signals, detect any unusual patterns and immediately notify caregivers in the case of possible convulsive seizures.
 
The partnership with Drive will use this technology to evaluate health signatures that can predict pathogen exposures prior to the manifestation of any symptoms, and alert the user and any caregivers.
 
"Our team is very honoured to support this ambitious project,” said Empatica CEO and co-founder Matteo Lai. “It's a great opportunity to produce novel science and products to potentially help millions of patients in the USA and around the world. It is also a sign of inspired leadership by Drive's team, with its deliberate vision to support technology at the service of better healthcare."
 
This Powered by Drive project is part of Drive's Enact early notification to act control and treat portfolio. Products developed under Enact aim to empower people by letting them know they are sick before the first symptom appears, encouraging early treatment and potentially reducing the spread of bacteria and viruses. Until symptoms appear, it is difficult for the person at risk or the caregiver to be able to know and take action. Additionally, infectious disease trends are not known, which means prediction is not easy.
 
The predictive capabilities that will be developed create an opportunity for individuals, caregivers and health care professionals to identify people at high risk, in real time, enabling faster treatment and prevention, which can in turn further reduce transmission.
 
Approximately 1.25 million people in the USA are hospitalised every year as a result of community-acquired respiratory tract infections, and their care costs amount to more than $4bn. Meanwhile, although harder to calculate, the indirect cost of these infections is estimated to be higher, with income losses for those missing work due to illness rounding up at $9bn. More recent estimates by the World Health Organisation put the cost of influenza epidemics to the US economy at $71bn to $167bn per year, while in 2017-18 the country had a record number of flu deaths.
 
This impact is magnified on a global scale. In 2013, lower respiratory tract infections caused more than 2.6 million deaths worldwide, making them the fifth leading cause of death overall and the leading infectious cause of death in children younger than five years. Meanwhile, acute respiratory infections are the world's third leading cause of death after heart disease and stroke.
 
The example of Embrace2 in epilepsy demonstrates that wearable technologies can offer the capability to ensure prompt attention to serious health issues, which can even save lives. Empatica hopes that through the partnership with Drive, this capability will be expanded to other fields.
 
Empatica co-founder, chief scientist, and MIT professor Rosalind Picard said: "Imagine if your future smart watch could tell you your body is fighting sickness before you have any obvious symptoms – and that if you go to sleep two hours early tonight and drink a special beverage you would have 70% less chance of coming down with the flu tomorrow – how would your life be improved? Multiply that by 49 million people in the USA who had influenza in 2018, how would our world be improved?"
 
Empatica is a MIT Media Lab spin-off, with offices in Boston, Massachusetts, and Milan, Italy. It has 65 employees and designs everything in house.