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Yes, Sweat: Startup Offers Real-Time Biofeedback During Exercise

A group of entrepreneurial scientists have developed biosensor technology that they hope to commercialize as the first wristwatch-based device that athletes can use to get precise feedback on their intensity levels during workouts.

La Jolla-based Electrozyme’s biosensors can detect the concentration of lactate in sweat, said Joshua Windmiller, the company’s CEO and co-founder, who developed the technology at the University of Cali-fornia, San Diego.

Measuring lac-tate, a byproduct of aerobic and anaerobic exercise, normally requires athletes to do con-trolled exercise in a laboratory, where a technician draws blood every 10 minutes or so. Elite athletes, especially endurance athletes, use “lactate threshold testing” to get biofeedback data to develop exercise programs for enhancing performance.

Windmiller seeks to bring that degree of accuracy to the masses via disposable sensors, applied to the back of a wristwatch, to detect lactate in sweat. It would be the first product on the market to do so, he said.

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“Lactate is the gold standard for measuring exertion and performance levels,” he said.

Lactate threshold is the point at which muscles tend to give out. When the body produces more lactate than it can process, there comes a point when the body can’t continue. So as the intensity of a workout increases, athletes approach a physiological ceiling where they can no longer maintain a certain pace.

In theory, if athletes could monitor their sweat lactate levels in real time, they could adjust their intensity.

Jared Tangney, chief operating officer of Electrozyme, said such knowledge would be a huge plus, especially for runners, cyclists and other endurance athletes.

“We can tell you how fast you should be running on your run or how fast you should be cycling on a bike and what pace you need to stay at below your threshold,” Tangney said.

Partner Key to Launching Product

Testing of Electrozyme’s earliest prototype biosensors, which were imbedded on a temporary tattoo worn on the skin, showed promising results. Research involving 10 cyclists who wore the tattoos during a 30-minute workout, whose intensity increased over time, accurately reflected changes to lactate amounts when compared with sweat lactate levels collected by scientists.

Still, more testing needs to be done, Windmiller said, to show that the sweat lactate levels indicated by the biosensors are as accurate as those derived from blood testing.

Electrozyme is testing the biosensors in some 100 athletes in partnership with an unnamed Fortune 100 company. Windmiller hopes to have enough data by August to start integrating the sensors into a marketable product.

“Our goal is to make the disposable sensors and then have our partner integrate the sensors on the back of a wristwatch,” Windmiller said.

The company targeted fitness enthusiasts first because they represent a huge market, Windmiller said, citing the millions of wearable fitness devices sold annually in the U.S.

“The sports and fitness industry also has the lowest barrier to entry because it isn’t regulated like the health care industry,” he said. Also, it “has a defined user base that is passionate about adopting new technologies to maximize individual performance.”

Other Applications Envisioned

If all works out, Windmiller would use the funds from such a partnership to refine the biosensors and start working on other applications, such as in security, environmental monitoring or its original application — health care.

Windmiller started working on the technology as a UC San Diego post-graduate student with nano-engineering professor Joseph Wang. That research focused on body-worn sensors to help the military identify serious injuries.

“We developed techniques to identify chemicals in the blood indicative of shock, traumatic brain injuries and other battlefield injuries,” he said.

From that, Windmiller thought about developing sensors that wouldn’t need to prick the skin to detect physiological data. The company started working on disposable strips that can be integrated with multiple platforms after considering problems inherent in a wearable tattoo, including stickiness and the potential for it to slip off during exercise. Electrozyme hopes to partner, Tangney said, with a company like Garmin Ltd., which develops sports watches; Fitbit Inc., which offers various fitness devices; or Nike Inc., whose FuelBand measures activity.

“We’re moving toward something that’s more user-friendly,” he said.

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