When people look down at their wrists these days, they often aren’t just checking the time. They’re reading text messages, glancing at emails, and monitoring steps or other biometrics.

The exploding wearable technology market – think FitBit activity trackers, smartwatches, and other technology-enabled devices – was valued at more than $30 billion in 2016, with sales expected to exceed $150 billion by 2026, according to IDTechEx.

One San Antonio company is not only offering products that transcend what’s currently on the market, it is also helping grow the local tech scene by mentoring talent and housing a small incubator for innovative startups.

Wisewear’s water-resistant bracelets track steps, distances, and calorie intake, and send data to a paired smartphone via Bluetooth. The bracelet can be set to vibrate when the synced phone receives a call, text, or email.

Its novel technology and look differentiates Wisewear from its competitors. While other activity trackers rely on plastic, rubber, or non-solid outer metal shells to let Bluetooth signals pass through, Wisewear founder and CEO Jerry Wilmink constructed internet-connected metal bracelets that double as aesthetically pleasing jewelry.

The advanced technology enables longer battery life, higher-fidelity biometric data tracking, combined functions, and more flexible design options.

Jerry Wilmink stands in Wisewear's radio frequency (RF) anechoic chamber, which is a specially designed room used for Bluetooth signal testing.
Dr. Jerry Wilmink stands in Wisewear’s radio frequency (RF) anechoic chamber, which is a specially designed room used for Bluetooth signal testing. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

From Research Scientist to CEO

Originally from Cleveland, Wilmink came to San Antonio to work on a Department of Defense project in which he set up the first terahertz spectroscopy and medical device biosensing lab at the Tri-Services Research Lab at Fort Sam Houston.

In 2011, Wilmink’s grandfather got up in the middle of the night to drink a glass of water, fell, and broke his hip. Unable to call to his wife upstairs for help, his injuries led to fatal complications.

His grandfather’s death spurred Wilmink to find ways to prevent a similar fate for other seniors. He launched Wisewear in his garage in 2013, originally to create a hearing aid that could measure when its owner’s gait was unsteady. Predictive motion algorithms enabled the hearing aid to warn its wearer of an impending fall with a vocal prompt that told the person to sit down.

“I was halfway through the MBA program at UT-Austin,” Wilmink, who later earned a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, told the Rivard Report. “In my new venture creations class I wrote the proposal for the prototypes of my family of medical and safety tracking devices and won the Texas Venture Labs investment competition in Austin [in 2013].”

Wilmink cashed in retirement accounts to move his endeavor from his garage to a space on Geekdom’s 7th floor. With just under $6 million in private investment and federal funds from the National Science Foundation, Wisewear was born.

The hearing aid has not yet made it onto the market, but in the course of developing it, Wilmink created a patented antenna system that transmits Bluetooth signals through metal.

In 2014, Wilmink bought Sense Technologies, the company that made OnGuard, the precursor to OnStar. In the process, Wilmink acquired Sense’s space, equipment, and some of its engineers, who helped with the antenna technology development that would allow for increased functionality and sleeker designs.

“In the beginning with the ‘proof of concept’ phase, you had black bands on activity trackers,” Wilmink said. “The next phase was the ‘gift wrap era,’ with companies like Tory Burch coming out with the same band except covered with some decorative [but not solid] metal outer casing.

“In the current phase of development, the tech disappears, because we can now make any metal device smart with a fusion of design and tech, using more accurate sensors, [artificial intelligence], and predictive algorithms.”

Wisewear’s smart sensing technology is embedded in an array of artistically designed metal jewelry. The bangles caught the attention of fashion icon Iris Apfel, who agreed to promote the brand and design several new pieces for future Wisewear collections.

The antenna technology replaces the notification screen, and without a LED display draining the battery, Wisewear bracelets boast a five-day battery life.

Added alert functions make the Wisewear bracelets into personal security devices: Distress messaging, or tapping the front of the bracelet in a customized touch pattern, will send the wearer’s location and a text message to a list of emergency contacts.

“Most of our customers buy our product to stay safe and to be able to call for help in a discreet manner,” Wilmink said.

Each bracelet has two pieces. The operating core has a Bluetooth radio, a battery, the machine learning computer chip, and the touch panel. The decorative half can be swapped for other pieces to change the look of the bracelet. Available in either gold or silver, the Wisewear bracelets cost more than typical activity trackers, with prices starting around $300.

Tinkerer, Incubator, Mentor, Ally

Wilmink was the startup business consultant for venture capital firms and program manager for the Department of Defense’s $3 billion Small Business Innovation Research program. He serves as a mentor at several TechStars locations and for a handful of startups.

By renting out its specialized equipment and RF test chamber to small startups, Wisewear is able to house a small incubator. When the Rivard Report toured Wisewear, Reckon Point was on location, testing technology being developed for precision mapping of interior spaces.

Often GPS apps can’t pick up signals inside buildings because their receivers are unable to lock onto least three satellite signals that allow for a location’s triangulation.

Reckon Point is developing a robot that can survey interior spaces to create detailed maps of electromagnetic signals. “Our vision is to become the Google Maps for indoor mapping and navigation,” CEO and founder Gabe Garza explained. “From helping sight-impaired people navigate to aiding robotic navigation in manufacturing and supply chain operations, the applications are endless.”

As principal investigator of a National Science Foundation study on a nonintrusive sensor for the elderly, Wilmink completed his original work of developing a sensing platform that measures biometric predictors of senior health to help prevent falls in December 2016.

“This novel combination of more accurate sensors and intelligent algorithms will enable elderly wearers to lead happy, healthy, and secure lives,” Wilmink said.

With new developments coming later this year, Wisewear prototypes will continue to advance the field of smart wearables.

“Connected hardware is hard, but we’re focused on the connectivity, firmware, and how it all fits together in an expertly designed package,” Wilmink said.

Iris Gonzalez

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science, and veteran affairs. She won the Texas Veterans Commission Media Excellence Awards for her 2016 Veterans Day story "Life as a Veteran: What Veterans...