When Jeff Nosanov's baby was born and ended up in intensive care, something scary happened: the tiny vital sign monitors attached to his son kept falling off, over and over. Each time, all of the baby's stats—like whether he was safely breathing—disappeared.
Two years later, his new baby daughter also spent time in the hospital, and the same thing happened. It's a common problem with squirmy infants. But this time Nosanov, who was working at NASA, realized that he might be able to do something to help.
At NASA, Nosanov was working with new technology designed to find people in a disaster by using radar to measure breathing and heart rate from a distance. He realized that a similar device could be used in hospitals, or at home, to track health in babies or adults, and send instant alerts if there was a problem.
"You can imagine how a person presented with this problem with medical technology, and this potential solution, would just get completely obsessed with it," he says. "So that's been me for the last three years."
By beaming radar into a room—something that is as harmless as shining a flashlight—it's possible to spot tiny movements like the rise and fall of a chest as someone breathes. When the device detects a pattern that seems like a person, the software can convert the data into heart rate and respiratory rate. It's essentially a real-life version of a Star Trek tricorder—and closer to the fictional version than most other startups because it works from a distance.
Nosanov's new company, V-Sense Medical, is miniaturizing the NASA tech and creating a series of devices that can be used to monitor health, beginning with a version for nursing homes. Soon, they plan to have a version that can sit in a bedroom, and continuously monitor data at home.
"The short term value of our company is providing health alerts for the family," he says. "But the long term value is in an enormous database of vital sign information related to different health outcomes that the future industry of personalized medicine is going to need."
As other startup emerge to analyze DNA and predict your risk for diseases like cancer—and as medicine begins to shift to give treatments that are tailored to someone's own genetics—the field will need as much data as possible.
"Those companies require large amounts of very specific types of information about individuals and populations in order to be effective," says Nosanov. "Part of the value of 23andme, for example, in not just that you can see your genetics, but that there is a growing dataset of human genetics at the population level. That's why we want to do this in the home."
As the startup develops the technology, Nosanov says he thinks there will eventually be more uses for it beyond healthcare. "It's just fascinating," he says. "What we found in running the company for the last six months is that the more you think about it, the more interesting it gets. So who knows what will go from here."
The fact that he discovered the health application somewhat by chance points to the fact that countless other technologies could also probably find a second use—but current systems tend to keep that from happening.
"When you think about the NASA centers and research universities in the country, they all have for lack of a better term, they all have big filing cabinets full of technologies that are invented for one thing or another, or developed with some research grant or another," he says. "And then they go in the drawer and maybe they never get looked at again. And that's a real shame."
He hopes to keep finding unexpected uses for other designs. "Seeing problems identified by one community that may have solutions in another that nobody thought of yet, that nobody connected—drawing those connections is really important to me," Nosanov says. "And that's one of the most rewarding things about the company and the long-term stuff that we're doing."
V-Sense Medical is a member of the second class of Indie Bio, a biotech accelerator based in San Francisco.