Are Wearable Flexible Electronics the Next Big Thing? MC10 Says So

The Wall Street Journal
Yuliya Chernova

December 17, 2012

MC10 is making electronics that are so supple and thin that they can conform to the human body, thus enabling the use of electronics for the first time in certain products, such as on-skin stickers to monitor a baby’s fever or inside the body, replacing large pacemakers, and even industries, such as cosmetics.

That is both a huge opportunity and a challenge, for the 30-person Cambridge, Mass.-based startup that just raised $10 million in new capital from medical device giant Medtronic, another large corporation, and its venture investors, such as North Bridge Venture Partners and Braemar Energy Ventures.

“The biggest challenge for us is awareness,” said David Icke, chief executive of MC10. “It’s getting into the minds of creative people,” he said, adding that product designers in certain industries aren’t used to thinking that they can incorporate electronics and add functionality or create new products with it.

MC10 is currently working on a multitude of products that can use its technology. The first is a scullcap, developed in collaboration with Reebok, that could be worn under helmets by athletes, and that should be available for purchase next year. The skullcap, with embedded MC10 chips, will measure the impact of any collisions, and alert athletes and their supporters of the need to seek medical attention if a certain threshold has been exceeded.

“Our initial focus has been on applications where you’re going where technology hasn’t gone before,” said Icke.

Sometimes MC10 comes up with its own product ideas, and sometimes an idea comes from outside the company.

The startup’s co-founder, and MacArthur Fellowship “genius” John Rogers, co-authored and published a paper last year in the journal Science about epidermal electronics, or electronics that can be applied to the skin like a temporary tattoo. That elicited interest from cosmetics companies, said Icke. “We didn’t think about cosmetics and electronics,” said the CEO.

Now MC10 has a prototype of a sticker-like patch that can be worn by consumers, that determines a person’s skin type, and can refer the person on theirs smartphones to the product optimal for their  skin characteristics. This type of product could be on the market in 12 to 18 months, said Icke. A  sticker like that can also measure someone’s exposure to ultraviolet light and alert the uses to the need to reapply their sunblock, for example. For the maker of lotions and sunblocks, the product enables “that digital connection to the consumer that’s a much better, deeper connection,” said Icke.

The startup hopes to start with consumer applications, work in some digital-health products, even as it incorporates electronics into medical devices that need a longer time and stringent approvals to get to market. The idea is to expand the huge semiconductor chip industry into a new line of applications.

“The most exciting stuff is where people who haven’t thought they can use electronics before can now be freed from that boxy, rigid format, and can allow electronics to flex and stretch and bend and move seamlessly with the body,” said Icke.

Write to Yuliya Chernova at Follow her on Twitter at @ychernova