Jay CabozBy Jay Caboz|July 20, 2021|13 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Billionaire Tomorrow

"The risk that created the wrist doctor"

You won’t know his name, but there is a slim chance you’ve glanced at his work, especially if you've been in a gym with your smartwatch. Entrepreneur Laurence Olivier has come up with innovative technology to help harvest the data hidden in the human body from a smartwatch - without ever needing to touch a needle.

Whether it’s shoving an earbud up your nose and into the brain for a Covid-19 test, or pricking your finger to check your glucose levels, finding out what’s going wrong with your body can be a daunting and painful task.

This is how three African entrepreneurs have chosen this practice to make their money.

It all began with a chance encounter at a tech competition back in 2009, in Stellenbosch University, near Cape Town. Venture capitalist Lauri Olivier was the judge. Riaan Conradie and his colleague Franco du Preez were the contestants. They wanted to prove that they could translate human biology and turn it into mathematical formulae – through a smart watch. The kind of watch you wear in a gym to track your heart rate.

In a nutshell the crew had come up with technology that just from your wrist can detect the early signs of cardiovascular disease, sleep deprivation, respiratory disorders, plus early-stage Covid-19.

They called it LifeQ and it began in 2014 in the shadow of Table Mountain in Cape Town. From here they have courted some of the major smartwatch brands in the world: Motorola; FitBit; MontBlanc; Sunto; Samsung; Fossil; TomTom; Life1 insurance; and Hannover Re to name a few.

These deals are merely the tip of the iceberg for the company.

“Usually, the health information on consumer devices represents a very small segment of the overall functionality of the wearable that otherwise is focused on social media applications and integrations with mobile devices,” said Olivier.

It’s even more remarkable in that Olivier grew up about as far away from technology as anyone could ever get. He grew up in Groot Marico, on the border between South Africa and Botswana, a small town probably more famous for writer Herman Charles Bosman, who was a teacher there, than tech entrepreneurs.

“Without access to electricity in my house, no TV and no modern amenities, I developed a strong desire to become part of the technology world from a young age,” said Olivier.

As if making up for lost time, Olivier has spent years cultivating that desire. He completed a degree in engineering at the University of Pretoria and went to work as a business developer for one of the largest conglomerates in South Africa, Anglo American.

But corporate office life didn’t suit him.He moved to Atlanta, United States, and venture capitalism where he joined Veritas Venture Partners; seed investors in Israel and the US. Shortly after, he invested in 4Di Capital – rated as the top early-stage venture capital firm in

South Africa that played a major role in establishing Cape Town as a technology ecosystem hub.

While the list of businesses he has helped to start up is almost as long as the N4 highway which links Pretoria to Groot Marico, it was a chance encounter with the pair of university students Conradie and du Preez at a science competition that set them on the road to smartwatch innovation.

“As a venture capitalist I have been asked from time-to-time to evaluate start-ups at conferences and business plan competitions. Emory University, one of the leading healthcare focused universities in the US, sponsored a national biotech business plan competition in South Africa in 2009 and asked me to serve as a judge. “

Du Preez and Conradie had just handed their PhD thesis in Computational Systems Biology (CSB) into the competition the night before.

“While I was not bowled over by the innovation that they presented, I was intrigued by their ability to apply CSB in the development of mathematical equations to describe the different functions, systems and organs of the human body, and in particular how all these systems interrelate,” said Olivier.

There was, however, potential. Olivier sent the duo back to the drawing board to see if they could turn their idea into reality. They came back some months later successful, and the project went from concept to development.

“At that time, no smartwatch existed that could sense into the body – only a Fitbit pedometer was in the market.  With the ideas still very speculative, I decided to personally fund further explorations.”

The team began making proof-of-concept wearable sensors. It was sophisticated science  that took years to develop. While the backend development continued to evolve, the team also needed better components in the smart watches to process the information.

“The semiconductors available for wearables at that time were not suitable for producing the accuracy and type of information for business and clinical applications. We met with various globally leading semiconductor companies encouraging them to produce semiconductors and sensors for wearables that would open up applications beyond consumer use,” said Olivier.

They managed to crack the right balance in 2015, completing their first wearable device integration with LifeQ’s technology in TomTom.

“Having a health monitoring wearable is like having a doctor tracking your body 365 days a year, not just once or twice. The wearable doesn’t sleep, it’s not emotional, and doesn’t get tired—it just works,” said Olivier.

LifeQ’s software can even be programmed to send out an alert if something is wrong.

“With 85% of current health costs related to chronic diseases, the importance of monitoring and diagnosing as early as possible cannot be overstated.”

“When the Covid-19 pandemic struck in the early 2020’s, LifeQ accelerated its focus on clinical solutions.  These include a Covid-19 early warning system as its first acute disease onset detection offering.  It will soon release proof of concept deployments of its real-time vital signs, hospital and various other remote patient monitoring clinical dashboards and solutions.”

A critical issue is whether this detection can be done with high sensitivity, yet with low false positives.  Covid-19 is especially difficult to diagnose because it affects everyone differently. According to their trial data, they say their system has successfully acted as an early warning system identifying Covid-19 symptoms before humans even knew they had it.

“We look at multiple variables to detect disease onset so to reduce false positives as much as possible.  Just looking at breathing rate or resting heart rate changes on their own is not sufficient. Contextual deconfounding is essential.”

Olivier is even willing to back his own tech, wearing a smart watch with the firmware on it.

“Clearly, as the CEO and founder of a company that enables wearables to serve as health monitors, eating your own dog food is the best way of making sure the end-users will have a frictionless experience and positive outcomes.,” said Olivier.

The tech could also be a game changer for Africa. Rather than develop their own smartwatch, Oliver’s focus has been on developing the tech for all.

“With our technology we will be able to provide remote access with doctors that would be able to for instance monitor the vitals such as heart rate, breathing rate, blood oxygen and beyond in real time of individuals and patients from any location in the world.”

“We are developing interfaces that will enable disease onset screening and true interactive remote patient monitoring for many specialized medical disciplines.  It is well known how smartphones have penetrated the African continent.  The same can be true for wearables.”

Now with bases in the United States, Netherlands, and Cape Town the company recently secured $47 million round to significantly expand its working capacity and drive higher reach, growth and profitability. 

“The lion’s share of current funding will now be used to evolve business and clinical solutions in the LifeQ cloud, that will expand the utility of the LifeQ enabled devices dramatically.”

One example is a remote patient monitoring system that will allow nurses in hospitals to keep a real time eye on patients in general wards.  The same system could be utilized by doctors to remotely monitor patients from their homes.

“Most of the remote patient monitoring systems available today are not providing real time access to the vitals of patients, and where they do, these typically require specialized costly wearables and sensors like patches that are not easy to deploy and involve high user friction.”

For Olivier and the LifeQ team the journey has just started.

“We have not even reached double digits percentages of the transformative impact of wearable healthtech. Our vision is to enable everyone to delay aging and empower people to become biologically younger.  Ageing well will allow people to have more energy, be more productive and lessen the probability of disease.”

“As wearables are advancing with better battery life, more computing power and more memory, it is possible to generate more advanced biometrics on devices with more comprehensive coverage of the physiological systems of the human body…,” he said.

For someone who grew up in the middle of nowhere it is a remarkable life in technology that can tell you how you are feeling with a glance at your wrist and it surely is going to grow. 

Without access to electricity in my house, no TV and no modern amenities, I developed a strong desire to become part of the technology world from a young age,

Laurence Olivier