News of the Apple iWatch — the $350 wrist-bound companion of the iPhone — got gadget addicts buzzing when it was announced earlier this month — a flashy and cool device for which app developers will likely find many uses.
Meanwhile, a Route 1 business has been taking the opposite approach, designing its own smart watch from the ground up with a specific purpose in mind. Vesag, a company based in the CCIT tech incubator in North Brunswick, is about to roll out the second generation of its health-oriented smart watch. What Vesag’s watch lacks in flash, it makes up for in functionality, as attested by its popularity overseas.
Company founder Rajendra Shadu invented the watch as a way to keep track of his elderly parents in India from his home in New Jersey. A few years ago Shadu was working at Verizon and had to go back to India to take care of his parents during a health crisis. He eventually had to return to the U.S., but still worried about his parents back home. “I started thinking, why can’t I monitor their health in the U.S.?” he says. “I patented the idea, and started working on the device.”
The first-generation smart watch, released in 2010, was designed to solve some of the problems not met by other emergency devices. It has five buttons, two of which call pre-programmed numbers with a single touch. The buttons can be set to call family members or 911 in the event of an emergency, far faster than someone could get to the phone.
“Most heart attacks happen between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m.,” Shadu says. “In fact, most of the time when an emergency happens, the phone is far away. This is right on the wrist.” There are other medical alert devices, but many of them have limitations, such as only working within a home. Shadu says some people don’t like to wear the bracelet or pendant-type devices because of how they look.
The first-generation of the watch was somewhat large and clunky looking, but it is still basically a wristwatch. In addition to allowing emergency calls, the watch automatically detects falls, and has a GPS device attached. The location tracking is especially useful for Alzheimer’s or dementia patients. It also talks to other medical devices, such as blood pressure, heart rate, or oxygen levels, and allows doctors or family members to see them in real time.
Although the watch was designed with the needs of the elderly in mind, Shadu says other people have bought it for its other features. He says a bicycle messenger company in Jamaica bought watches for its riders so they can quickly call for help when they are being robbed.
The new version, which Shadu says will go on sale soon, has more features than the previous one. Working over a wireless connection, the new watch can control home automation systems, such as unlocking doors for emergency personnel. It also has more sensors, measuring UV light, temperature, moisture, pulse, and a host of other variables. The watch can be set up to automatically summon help if the wearer takes it outside of a certain area, such as the home of an Alzheimer’s patient. The new version is also waterproof, so it can be worn in the shower, where falls are likely.
It’s all controlled with a five-button setup similar to that found on old digital watches. Shadu says he considered adding a touch screen, but decided against it. “The whole watch is designed in such a way that keeps senior citizens in mind,” he says. “It’s difficult to swipe on such a small touch screen. Having traditional buttons to go up and down through the menus makes it much easier for senior citizens to learn.”
Shadu grew up in India, where his father ran an insurance company. He got an MBA at Rutgers in Newark, and worked with IBM, U.S. Steel, and Verizon, most recently on point-of-sale systems. He and a colleague left Verizon to found Vesag, which makes smart watches and several other medical devices. The company employs about four people in the U.S. and 14 in India. The watches are made in China.
One reason Vesag is not yet a household name like Apple is that thus far, the watches have only been sold overseas due to the greater expense of insuring medical devices in the U.S. All that is about to change with the second-generation smart watch launching in a few months, Shadu says. It will be sold online and through partners such as LifeAlert.
Vesag’s original watch racked up awards, including the top spot in Connected World Magazine’s top 10 connected health devices list, winning the New Jersey Technology Council’s 2012 Innovation Competition in life sciences, Health IT; and the “Excellence in Medical Technology award” from FICCI Healthcare.
Shadu says he is a bit annoyed when Apple and Google tout smart watch technology as if it were new, while he has been making them since 2010. “Many companies look at it and say, ‘wow, this is very innovative,’” he says. “But we have already implemented it in other parts of the world.”
Vesag, 675 Route 1 South, Technology Center of NJ, North Brunswick 08902; 732-333-1876; Rajendra Shadu, founder. www.vesag.com.