Getting ‘shimmered up’ for med tech

25 Feb 2013

Karol O Donovan, applications team leader, Shimmer Research, and Kieran Daly, CEO

Dublin-based Shimmer Research is going from strength to strength, providing sensing platforms for research and enterprise. Claire O’Connell talks to Shimmer CEO Kieran Daly about how the technology is opening up opportunities with clinical applications, from Parkinson’s disease to physiotherapy, and the practicalities of bringing connected health to the market.

Remember when the word Google didn’t exist? Fast forward a few years and it’s so commonplace today we even use it as a verb. Now make room for Shimmer and the concept of ‘getting shimmered up’.

It’s a term Shimmer Research CEO Daly uses to describe how researchers and businesses are using the company’s small sensor-housing devices to collect measurements about how people move. Why? Because the data could be clinically relevant, or it could help to improve fitness.

Shimmer’s boxes are palm-of-your-hand small, and Daly shows me one that is fitted out with a strain gauge. As I squeeze the device I can watch as my (rather puny) efforts are transmitted wirelessly to a tablet and displayed on a scale.

It’s a simple demo, but it drives home how easy the modular devices are to use. The core box contains a battery, processor and transmission capabilities that support a suite of sensors to measure movement and orientation – and daughter boards can add several other functions, explains Daly.

In practice, that means Shimmer’s technology can measure a person’s movements and joint motions in three dimensions. It can track cardiac rhythms, assess muscle function and read galvanic skin response (a measure of stress). It can also gather information on location (with GPS), barometric pressure and link in with a strain gauge.

A division of Irish company Realtime Technologies, Shimmer licensed the core technology from Intel Research.

“We were looking at ways of moving further up the value chain, getting our hands on a product,” recalls Daly, who describes how through Enterprise Ireland Shimmer Research met with Intel in 2007, secured a worldwide licence to commercialise the technology and started shipping products at the end of 2008.

Today, Shimmer Research has 20 staff between Dublin and Boston and the company has clients in more than 60 countries, including the ‘leading light’ universities.

“It has been an accelerated few years,” says Daly, who is now preparing to move Shimmer’s Dublin operation from Realtime’s site into Dublin City University’s Innovation Campus in Glasnevin.


Shimmering in research and enterprise

A large chunk of Shimmer’s revenue – about 30 to 40pc – comes from supplying the research and development market, and while the company works with many academic institutes in Ireland, the bulk of its clients are in universities and hospitals overseas. In many cases, the clients use, adapt and hack the modular Shimmer boxes for their own research needs, explains Daly.

“We don’t find the use case in the research world,” he says. “We say here is a bunch of ‘Lego blocks’ and rather than spending your time hooking up this hardware, really the brain power should be focused on understanding what the data means and converting that into information, figuring out what is clinically significant, developing the algorithms and finding the nuances of data.”

However, in some cases, Shimmer Research gets actively involved in collaborations, and Daly describes one – with Harvard University and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston – which captures objective measurements of tremors in people with Parkinson’s disease with a view to personalising their medication.

“The drug regime for Parkinson’s disease is a very complex cocktail so to improve the efficacy and minimise side effects the person comes into the hospital and gets ‘shimmered up’ for a couple of days,” he says. “During that time the clinicians turn the dials on the medication and you get real, hard data about the amounts of tremors the patient is having. That helps you to steer the medication regime and reduce the side effects.”

Other products are already commercially available, including a system in Spain in conjunction with Telefónica, where a physiotherapist can send a patient home after a knee replacement. The patient wears a device on the knee while doing their exercises and gets real-time feedback on their movements, and the physio can keep track of their rehabilitation exercises and progress remotely.  

Shimmer is also developing its own products, too, broadly in the areas of kinematics and rehab, adds Daly. He sees potential in the field of connected or mobile health, but also some practical hurdles to implementing the technology.

Connecting mobile health technology and care

“Everyone is super-excited about the possibilities of connected health and rightly so because we are all carrying these computers in our pockets,” he says, gesturing towards our smartphones on the desk. “But the business model and clinical efficacy have yet to be fully figured out.”

One of the challenges is to find ways to integrate connected health solutions into healthcare systems, he notes. “At Shimmer we have a wearable ECG, but clinicians ask where in pathway does this fit in – do they want to be getting calls when they are out at a dinner party on a Friday night? If it’s a real-time alerting triage system, the system may not be geared up to deal with that.”

Meanwhile, the regulatory environment for using mobile health in the clinic is still being hammered out, according to Daly, and he sees a big push to the more consumer-driven wellness and sports markets instead.

“There is a stampede towards this consumer side,” he says. “But the challenge here is that the people who are really interested in this ability to track their health may not be the ones who really need it.”

From a business perspective, Daly now sees an urgency to plugging the connected health technologies into the populations that could benefit.   

“In 20 to 30 years’ time there are going to be sensors all over the place, but for the next five to 10 years how do we as businesses and enterprises get this stuff integrated?” he asks. “That is the bit we need to start bridging and the potential is huge.” is hosting Med Tech Focus, an initiative which over coming months will cover news, reports, interviews and videos, documenting Ireland’s leading role in one of the hottest sectors in technology.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication