Fitness trackers and heart-rate monitors are all well and good, but if you want to track activity inside the body, the solutions aren’t nearly as convenient. Iota Biosciences wants to change that with millimeter-wide sensors that can live more or less permanently in your body and transmit wirelessly what they detect, and a $15 million Series A should put them well on their way.
The team emerged from research at UC Berkeley, where co-founders Jose Carmena and Michel Maharbiz were working on improving the state of microelectrodes. These devices are used all over medical and experimental science to monitor and stimulate nerves and muscle tissues. For instance, a microelectrode array in the brain might be able to help detect early signs of a seizure, and around the heart one could precisely test the rhythms of cardiac tissues.
But despite their name, microelectrodes aren’t really small. The tips, sure, but they’re often connected to larger machines, or battery-powered packs, and they can rarely stay in the body for more than a few weeks or months due to various complications associated with them.
Considering how far we’ve come in other sectors when it comes to miniaturization, manufacturing techniques and power efficiency, Carmena and Maharbiz thought, why don’t we have something better?
“The idea at first was to have free-floating motes in the brain with RF [radio frequency] powering them,” Carmena said. But they ran into a fundamental problem: RF radiation, because of its long wavelength, requires rather a large antenna to receive them. Much larger than was practical for devices meant to swim in the bloodstream.
“There was a meeting at which everything died, because we were like two orders of magnitude away from what we needed. The physics just weren’t there,” he recalled. “So were like, ‘I guess that’s it!’ ”
But some time after, Maharbiz had a “eureka” moment — “as weird as it sounds, it occurred to me in a parking lot. You just think about it and all these things align.”
His revelation: ultrasound.
Power at the speed of sound
You’re probably familiar with ultrasound as a diagnostic tool, for imaging inside the body during pregnancy and the like — or possibly as a range-finding tool that “pings” nearby objects. There’s been a lot of focus on the venerable technology recently as technologists have found new applications for it.
In fact, a portable ultrasound company just won TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield in Lagos: