The chronic loss of bladder control is a complicated problem, not least because of the social stigma attached. It’s more common among older people—according to the CDC, over half of American adults at the ages of 65 and over are affected by incontinence—but it can happen to anyone, male or female, young or old. And there are few options for managing the condition. Usually people wear adult diapers or opt to get surgery done.
Jean Rintoul wants to provide people with another way. She’s the CEO of Lir Scientific, maker of a new wearable device called Brightly, which aims to turn the $17 billion adult diaper industry on its head. The beltlike device carries biosensors that noninvasively “see” the bladder expanding. Using Bluetooth, it can then send a discreet alert to a person’s smartphone to preemptively let them know it’s time for them to take care of their business.
“The idea is to give people back some dignity and independence,” says Rintoul, who has worked at several wearable companies, including Intel’s Basis and Emotiv, an Australian startup that develops brain-computer interfaces based on EEG technology.
Along with its unique use case, Brightly also stands out for what it’s not trying to be. At a time when Silicon Valley startup culture is widely criticized for targeting its products to a narrow population of well-off 20- to 30-year-olds, Rintoul is looking to serve a different and decidedly less glamorous market. What’s more, in setting her sights on a chronic medical problem rather than a consumer inconvenience, Rintoul may be her way to cracking a problem that few tech companies have solved: making a wearable that’s truly useful.
A little more than a year ago, Rintoul started going to medical hackathons and reading peer-reviewed studies in search of a combination of good tech and a good concept for a medical wearable device that people hadn’t seen before. The idea for Brightly came up after she’d studied up on bioimpedance spectroscopy, a technique by which tiny electrical signals are sent through the body to noninvasively measure subtle changes in body tissue.
“I realized the bladder is one of the easiest things to see with the technology because it’s this large balloon of conductive material which is expanding and contracting,” Rintoul says.
Rintoul was also thinking about incontinence because her father had prostate cancer. Those who undergo surgery for the illness can be at higher risk for the condition. When she settled on the problem she wanted to solve, she and two of her colleagues that she had met through the hacker community signed up for HAX, an accelerator program based jointly in San Francisco and the manufacturing hub of Shenzhen, China, that aims to help new companies build and pitch new hardware products. After creating a working prototype while still in China, Rintoul and her team signed on a group of volunteers to test it out.
Brightly is tentatively priced at about $400, which might seem expensive at first glance, but looks like a bargain compared to ultrasound devices currently used in hospitals, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. These devices are also much bulkier compared to Brightly.
Rintoul acknowledges that her startup is still in its very early stages. Right now the company has the data from the small trial and just went public with the idea a few weeks ago. The next steps, Rintoul says, are conducting pilot studies with urologists. She’d also like to test the device in hospitals, where it could help nurses by signaling when patients need to the bathroom, she says, pointing to the soaring numbers of patients who die because of bedsores from bed-wetting.
Anne Suskind, an assistant professor of urology at UCSF, is a little skeptical of Rintoul’s idea. She says the device seems to be a fancier way to do a timed bathroom trip for patients dealing with incontinence—manually setting an alarm as a reminder to use the bathroom. “If you’ve figured out how quickly you fill up your bladder, you’re always going to be emptying it at the same interval, more or less,” she says.
But Rintoul sees applications of the technology beyond incontinence. The ability to measure tissue changes in the body could be used for applications from basic medical imaging to exercise (imagine tech that measures lung expansion).
And whether or not the devices get broad adoption among consumers, Rintoul says at least she’s doing work she believes in. “For some types of startups, it does seem like their goal is a race to the bottom of tiny innovations,” she says. “We’re trying to take a broader perspective with our technology, especially by targeting an older population. After all, we all are getting older.”
Also in Wired: