Toolmaker Talk: Alexander Grey (Somaxis)
February 29, 2012
The first speaker at last week’s QS meetup in San Francisco was Alexander Grey. He told us about the muscle-activity sensor he had developed and the fascinating things he had learned about himself from using it. The result of many years of thinking and work, he’s now eager to find collaborators, so he jumped at my suggestion to participate in this series.
Q: How do you describe Somaxis? What is it?
Grey: We have developed a small, wireless sensor for measuring muscle electrical output. The sensors stick onto the body adhesively (like Band-Aids) and transmit data to our smartphone app. One version “MyoBeat” uses a well established heart metric to provide continuous heart rate measurement (like a “chest strap” style sensor). A second version “MyoFit” uses proprietary algorithms to measures the energy output of other muscles. For instance, one on your quads while running can give you insight into how warmed up you are, how much work you are doing, fatigue, endurance, and recovery level. If you use two at the same time, it can show you your muscle symmetry (when asymmetry develops during exercise like running or bicycling, it can indicate the onset of an injury). Our goal is to get people excited about understanding how their bodies work.
Grey: My parents used to run a clinic that used muscle energy technology (sEMG) along with a special training method called Muscle Learning Therapy to cure people with RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) and other work-related upper extremity disorders involving chronic pain. Each sEMG device they bought cost them $10K. I started to develop early symptoms of TMD (Temporomandibular Joint Disorder) when I was only 10, and my father used sEMG to teach me how to control and reduce my muscles’ overuse. The training worked, and I still have it under control today.
Years later, I decided to start a company to develop and commercialize more accessible / less expensive sEMG technology, with my mom as my investor. (My father has passed away, but I think he would have supported the idea.) At first we were going after a workplace safety service — I developed an algorithm that quantified people’s likelihood of developing an RSI injury in the future, and envisioned a prevention-based screening/monitoring service to offer to progressive companies. The feedback I got from VCs was that we needed to start with a bigger market. So we redesigned the product to make it small, cheap, and completely wireless. I also started working on a new set of sports-related algorithms to interpret muscle use into useful metrics.
Q: What impact has it had? What have you heard from users?
Grey: Having this new kind of tool at my disposal has really been a lot of fun, and has allowed me to run some new kinds of experiments that haven’t really been practical before.
For example, I wondered: for a given running speed, what cadence or stride rate would use the least energy, and so delay the onset of fatigue? I put sensors on my both quads, hamstrings, and calves. I created an audio track that increased from 120 – 170 bpm in increments of 5pm, 15 seconds on each. I kept my treadmill locked at 6.5 mph (my “comfortable pace”). By adding up the work done by all 6 muscles in the legs, I got a snapshot of the energy expenditure at each stride rate / cadence. The resulting curve [see graph above] answered my question: for me, at 6.5 mph, 130 bpm is my “sweet spot” that minimizes energy expenditure. It also showed a second trough in the graph, not as low as 130, but still pretty low, at 155 bpm. So if I need to run uphill or downhill, and want to keep the same speed but take shorter steps and still try to minimize energy burn as much as possible, I should shoot for 155 bpm.
Another test that these tools allow us to do is to figure out how recovered someone is from exercise. I did a test where I ran at a fixed speed every 24 hours (that’s not enough recovery time for me – I’m not in good shape). The first day, the muscle amplitude was about 1000 uV RMS (microvolts, amplitude). The second day, the amplitude started out at 500 uV and decreased from there. So the lack of sufficient recovery showed up in the data, which was quite interesting to see.
Whenever we have volunteers in the lab offering to help out (runners, usually) they geek out over these devices and the insight that they can get into the muscles of their bodies for the first time. We’ve had about 40 volunteers help out with muscle data gathering, and about 60 with heart rate testing.
Q: What makes it different, sets it apart?
Grey: Our design goals for our sensors are “good enough” data, wireless, long battery life, and comfort (wearability). Key to this is using a low-power, low-bandwidth radio. The trade-off is a much lower sample rate and a/d resolution than medical-grade sensors. Our sensor transmits processed data, not the raw data. However, our data is good enough for sports and fitness, where you want to see some predigested metrics and not raw graphs or frequency analysis. The benefit is that our battery life is 100 hours, and our sensor is small and light enough to attach using an adhesive patch. The up-side of an adhesive-based solution is that one-size fits all, it’s very comfortable, and there is no tight and annoying strap around your chest.
Q: What are you doing next? How do you see Somaxis evolving?
Grey: We are mainly focusing on improving the physical sensor itself: rechargeable battery, completely waterproof (current version is water resistant), and a smaller size. And maybe a medical-grade version with much higher sample rate and a/d resolution.
We also want to open up the hardware platform so that others can develop applications for it. For example, maybe someone wants to develop software for Yoga that uses muscle isolation to help do poses correctly. Or perhaps someone wants to focus on a weight-lifting application that assesses power and work done during lifting. We can envision many possibilities for sports, gaming, physical therapy, and health.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
Grey: I would love to hear from anybody who has ideas about potential uses of our technology! Also, we are fairly early-stage, so if anyone wants to work with us (individuals) or partner with us (companies) we definitely want to hear from you. You can reach me at email@example.com
Product: MyoLink platform: MyoBeat (heart) and MyoFit (muscle)
Website: www.somaxis.com (coming soon – there’s nothing there right now, but check back again soon)
Platform: Sensors stream data to an iPhone app (Android under development) and certain sports watches (Garmin, etc.)
Price: $25 for a starter set of 1 Module (MyoBeat or MyoFit) and 4 adhesive patches. Or you can buy 1, 2 or 3 Modules, with a one-year supply of patches, for $75, $125, or $170, respectively.
This is the 11th post in the “Toolmaker Talks” series. The QS blog features intrepid self-quantifiers and their stories: what did they do? how did they do it? and what have they learned? In Toolmaker Talks we hear from QS enablers, those observing this QS activity and developing self-quantifying tools: what needs have they observed? what tools have they developed in response? and what have they learned from users’ experiences? If you are a “toolmaker” and want to participate in this series, contact Rajiv Mehta at firstname.lastname@example.org.