Centimeters below the skin, a new wearable is slated to sense the deep tissues and essential organs, built and patented by researchers Sheng Xu and Shu Xiang.
Born out of the University of California’s Center for Accelerated Innovation, Softsonics hopes their new device will provide a continuous and more accurate measurement of blood pressure, both for people in intensive care and for those going about their daily lives.
“Wearables is a really unique field; we can sense a lot of signals from the human body. From minute to minute, second to second,” said Xu. “The limitation was that current wearbles can only sense signals close to the skin. But this only scratches the surface; we must look deeper.”
Currently, the team is in pre-seed stage, seeking to disrupt how blood pressure is measured in America, the leading cause of death nationwide.
"The ultimate mission of an engineer is to change the real world, so I’m always seeking to maximize my impact to society."
Q: What has been your experience with UC San Diego and its diverse entrepreneurial culture?
Xu: I am very grateful for the overall environment at UC San Diego. I’ve enjoyed attending a variety of presentations put on by OIC – from learning how to license a technology to IP protection. My colleagues have been extremely successfully translating ideas into product.
Xiang: We are very lucky that San Diego is a bio hub. We had a huge amount of help from the local and UC San Diego entrepreneurial ecosystem. Currently, we are an alumni of IGE’s MedTech accelerator, while a team member is also participating in the Basement’s Converge program; we have found incredible talent from Rady’s “Lab to Market” course. All of the programs taught us a great deal and helped us shape our business plans.
Q: What excites you about your work?
Xiang: As an engineer, I’ve been working in a lab for many years, and I’ve seen a lot of great technologies stop at the doorstep of the lab. The ultimate mission of an engineer is to change the real world, so I’m always seeking to maximize my impact to society. I want to see the technology invented in a lab help people in a real world and that’s what excites me about the opportunity.
Xu: Blood pressure is a high-profile disease. Cardiovascular disease is the #1 disease in U.S. It kills more people than all cancers combined. Unfortunately, my father died of a cardiovascular disease. He passed away in two hours of diagnosis. Our device can open up a new sensing dimension. A device that allows continuous blood pressure sensing would help patients like him to be aware of and maintain their cardiovascular health, and that’s what is exciting about the technology.
Q: Describe a typical day in Startupland. What does your day look like?
Xiang: For me, my day is occupied talking to people – mostly customer discovery and interviews. Right now, we are focusing on market research, talking to mentors and potential clients interested in this life saving technology.
Q: How do you define innovation in the 21st Century?
Xu: Innovations in the 21st century will likely happen at the boundary of disciplines. Specific to wearables, nobody looked at the signals below the skin, and a wearable that reads signals deep underneath the skin would capture an abundance of data. That’s only possible when we combine expertise in materials science, electrical and mechanical engineering, and biomedical engineering.
Xiang: When academic people think of innovation they think of a paper. What we learned in the commercialization process is that what works in academia, might not work in real life; and what matters in real life might not have much academic value. Innovators need to see what the need is in the real world, then come up with the technology, whether a beautiful new technology or something that’s not so sophisticated but gets the job done. This is, what I think, the key criteria for innovation in any age.
Q: What role have mentors played in your success/journey?
Xiang: We have come across incredible mentors working in the UC system. We have worked or are working with several mentors at IGE MedTech accelerator: Ms. Gioia Messinger, Mr. Michael Collins, Mr. Dennis Abremski, and mentors of the I-Corps program: Mr. Charles Zahl and Alan Waskin, and various mentors members at Converge: Mr. Mark Leibowitz, Mr. Murray Reicher, Mr. George Eiskamp and Mr. Gregory Horowitt, as well as the faculty for the Rady Lab to Market class, prof. Amy Nguyen-Chyung, and Lab to Market mentor Mr. Darrel Drinan. We started as engineers not knowing how to run a company, slowly learning how to establish connections and build a basic business plan from all those mentors. We are super grateful for their help and guidance along the process.
Xu: Mentors are very critical for first-time entrepreneurs like us, as there are potentially so many ways to fail. Fortunately for us, UC San Diego has a great ecosystem and great support for faculties in this regard, and I have a lot of senior colleagues who are also successful entrepreneurs as well. I have got a lot of good advice from my colleagues.
"It’s highly unlikely that you can sit in a lab and come up with a genius commercial idea without testing it. Same with the entrepreneurial experience. Test your hypothesis. Go into the real world and see if it’s feasible."
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in the startup process? How were you able to overcome them?
Xiang: The greatest challenges are still ahead. For every entrepreneur, finding the right people and funding is key. We are still in the process of finding potential collaborators who share the passion and vision to help the team and talking to investors to secure funding.
Q: What advice would you give to a UC San Diego student thinking about starting a company?
Xu: My advice to them is simple: develop a truly useful and practical device. What do we mean by this? As innovators, we must talk with end users and learn what problems they have. For example, I build biomedical devices, so I need to talk to physicians and doctors.
Xiang: I echo Sheng’s comments as the value in the academia is a bit different than in the commercial world. It’s highly unlikely that you can sit in a lab and come up with a genius commercial idea without testing it. Same with the entrepreneurial experience. Test your hypothesis. Go into the real world and see if it’s feasible.
Campus has great mentorship programs including IGE, The Basement, and Entrepreneur in Residence, and we are very grateful for their support and what they have taught us. If you are a UC San Diego student or faculty who are thinking to go down the commercialization path, there is a lot of help out there.
Also, don’t hesitate. Just do it.