Smart tech in focus: Kymira
Tim Brownstone founded smart garment company Kymira from scratch, taking his university research and using it to create potentially lifesaving technology – learning the ropes along the way.
We sat down with Tim to learn more about how he turned theoretical ideas into reality, and how Kymira is setting the standards for the emerging e-textile sector…
What is Kymira’s offering, and how has that changed since its inception?
We define ourselves as a “smart textiles” or “smart garment” business, depending on which industry we're talking to. We build technology into the fabrics that are used to produce items of clothing. It's a bug bear for my head of marketing that we're often referred to as a sportswear brand. But we’ve always said that we're not a sportswear brand, we're a technology company with a sportswear brand. Sometimes, we’ll put out fresh releases just for Kymira Sports, but in terms of Kymira as a whole, we very much see ourselves as a technology company.
Our first tech product, which came from my university research, is a range of smart garments. They basically capture visible light and body heat from the wearer, converting it into very specific wavelengths of infrared light, and then re-emitting that back into the wearer's muscles. As my academic research found, this causes a number of biological reactions that aid in rapid wound healing.
For an athlete, this allows them to enhance performance, accelerate recovery, and reduce injury occurrence. We've not created wound dressings as yet; we’re working on chronic care treatments, for illnesses such as arthritis, Raynaud's disease and chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia, as well as for rehabilitation from strokes or operations. That's what really brings a smile to my face, and sometimes a tear to my eye – we get the best stories from that side of the company.
In 2016, we started working with the next “smart” technology, with our two mainstay projects. The lead one is a garment that monitors cardiac rhythm (ECG) and a number of other factors, such as respiration and blood oxygen levels. It uses that data to extrapolate and forecast the occurrence of a heart attack. While we're not there yet, the eventual goal is to be able to use that technology to accurately diagnose the occurrence of a heart attack two days before it happens. We hope that intervention will stop it from ever happening in the first place.
The second project is an adaption of one of the technologies we've developed from that first project. We can monitor foetal movement in the last three months of pregnancy using the same technology, categorising the type of movement of the baby – for example, a kick rather than a roll. It measures the strength of the movement and tracks it over time, which is important because if you can detect the reduction of foetal movement then 58% of stillbirths could be prevented. It was a relatively easy adaption of our technology that could potentially have a very large impact on prenatal care; in our early tests, we're getting just over 90% accuracy with the detections and our algorithms.
What led you to create Kymira?
I'd been working on the technology that became Kymira's first product while I was an academic student. I intended for it to be used for medical applications, but couldn't afford to fund all the potential certification that would have been required by myself. Nor did I have any idea how I would find someone else to fund it for me. I had no experience in grant writing.
What ended up feeling more of a natural fit for me was to start using the technology through a sportswear brand, with the intent that I would reinvest revenue into the ongoing medical research and into new innovations. Fortunately for me, that's proven true over the last six years, and here we are today with customers all around the world and new technologies on their way.
HQ: Reading, Berkshire
Ownership: Privately Held
Company size: 11-50 employees
Did you fund the business in part through crowdfunding?
For the very first production line, we had a very small success with Kickstarter, which helped get us off the ground. The first two-and-a-half years were pretty much entirely customer-funded, as we grew very slowly from just me to a couple of employees. The last few years of the company, we've won a massive investment of research funding, and then taken investments to match that funding.
Was that instrumental for expanding the company further?
Absolutely. Especially the support of Innovate UK - without them I don't think that the company would be anywhere near where we are now.
How has the company grown over time?
In the last two, to two-and-a-half years, we've grown from two people, to hiring 11 or 12 full time employees. The team has grown a lot, and we share our office with one other company in our own building. We used to be in a little Portacabin! The biggest change is that the technologies we're working on are actually out and helping people medically, rather than just being used for a sporting application. That's what means the world to me - we're actually helping people.
What have been the key challenges in scaling your business?
I think, sadly, the universal problem for any scaling company will come back to resource. I think the biggest lesson learned over the last 12 months was that we hired too late, and consequently became victims of our own success. One of the big challenges that we've had to overcome is making sure we stay ahead of the curve with regards to our people hours. We were so busy that it reduced productivity, and consequently we suffered for that. It's always the entrepreneurial mind that says, ‘I'll just put in those extra hours and we'll get it done.’ But as we expanded the team, it's not fair to expect that of everybody. That was a hard lesson learned last year.
In terms of the funding side, it's time consuming to make sure that you have enough to be successful. With basic funding for a medical device, it could potentially take at least three years to get onto the market, possibly up to 10. You have to have a very long-term approach.
"Fortunately, the way we've constructed the business now is that we have the revenue from the sporting side as well as just on the innovation side, to carry us through those periods when a new product’s being developed."
We're seeing that business model work quite nicely for us, so revenue has not been as high an issue on the list of challenges. However, it's one that you have to be constantly mindful of, because your expenses are always increasing and you have to make sure revenue or funding can match.
The other main challenge is communicating the technology to outside parties. Communicating our technology in a way that's readily digestible for the consumer has been something we've had to learn to improve over the years. Ultimately, you can create an amazing technology, but if no one actually understands it then you're unlikely to ever sell it. That means it's not likely to be helping anybody. You have to balance the complexity of the technology with accessibility.
How is Kymira a disruptor?
A great example of how we’ve disrupted our industry is our foetal monitoring device. If you look at that space, it’s largely catered for by very cold, arm's-length medical device companies that are selling items like home doppler ultrasound devices on websites that look like they were made in the '90s and are very clinical. Having a child is an incredibly emotional thing, and we wanted to give a great experience and provide safeguards to pregnant women using our devices.
How do you guard against disruption yourselves?
In terms of guarding against disruption, I’ve seen time and time again that sport tech companies believe the obvious next step is to go into the medical sector. However, even if your technology is accurate and there’s enough data to go through regulatory processes, if you haven't had the documentation of how you've developed that technology throughout, then certification is out of reach and you’ll need to redevelop the lot to get the documentation for it. We set our standards high for our tech to be a medical technology, ensuring it’s good enough for sports and for other applications, such as space or defence.
This was particularly helpful for our ECG shirts. While they're not out there in the general population doing the predictive side, we are getting uptake from them being used in research studies and by other corporate clients needing a reliable, versatile method of collecting that data. With it being a garment-based product, it's very versatile, which is an added benefit over wires for ECG monitoring and more. We were able to traverse all types of use because of our gold standards for production.
E-textiles is still an emerging space. We sit on a board here in Europe, and we contribute to a lesser amount to the one in the US. We help to form the standards that need to be established to regulate the e-textiles market. Obviously for normal medical devices or electronics manufacturers, there are already standards set, but when you combine the textiles industry with the electronics… “Wild West” is not the apt description, but it is a new and emerging space!
Having the regulation and the standardisation processes for this industry actually make it easier for new entrants, rather than harder. Other businesses that aim to follow us would have to build upon our work and the standards we’ve helped to set in place.
Going back to the challenges of growth, that’s another one that can cause a problem; when you are a first mover, sometimes there aren't examples for you to build upon.
What would you do differently, and what advice would you give to someone else looking to follow your lead?
If I were to change anything, it would have been to have a co-founder, because it was incredibly lonely in the first few years! Even after that, when we were building the early team, it was still very much a weight on my shoulders, which became quite burdensome at times. Maybe it's not for everybody but, I personally would recommend having a co-founder.
Beyond that, I would recommend learning by experience. I do see a lot of would-be entrepreneurs spending 12 months reading books about being an entrepreneur, rather than actually just getting on and doing something. Ultimately, the company is not going to move forward if you never put yourself out there and start trying.
Similarly, you can fill an awards cabinet full to the brim with well-written applications, but the company needs to move forward to actually make those awards mean anything. You need to make sure that you understand where your priorities as a business lie. For us it's quite obvious - helping people, and developing technologies that will enable more people to be helped by our products. That is our ultimate focus.
I think you always need to have what I’d call blind faith in your work, because ultimately - especially as the founder or CEO - if you don't believe in what you're doing, then people aren't going to follow you. It’s especially important when it comes to things that are completely intangible and difficult to communicate.
Why do you do what you do?
Though it has its testing times, no doubt, I want to enjoy my entire career. For me, the best way to do that is to develop technologies that are genuinely going to help people.