After staff shuffle, Quanttus will unveil wrist-worn health monitor this month

Former Quanttus CEO Shahid Azim, who remains on the company's board. (Photo by Scott Kirsner / BetaBoston.)
Former Quanttus CEO Shahid Azim, who remains on the company's board. (Photo by Scott Kirsner / BetaBoston.)

Amid all the hype about the Apple Watch, expected to start shipping later this week, a Cambridge startup working on a smartwatch of its own has stayed very quiet. But that will change on Friday, when Quanttus unveils the design of its first product on Friday at the Wired Health conference in London. Quanttus became the best-funded local startup working on wearable devices after it raised $19 million last February, which brought its total funding to about $22 million — but there have recently been a few high-profile departures at the company.

Quanttus has been around since 2012, and its founders have solid entrepreneurial track records. Richard Bijjani came from the baggage-scanning startup Reveal Imaging (acquired by SAIC in 2010); Shahid Azim had been a founder and CEO at Lantos Technologies, which makes a device that can create 3-D models of the ear for custom hearing aids; and David He was a newly minted PhD from MIT whose thesis on new ways to monitor vital signs became the foundation for Quanttus.

But while his PhD thesis looked at tracking vital signs with a device worn on the ear, what Quanttus will unveil later this week looks like a classic wristwatch, and it keeps tabs on your blood pressure. “Cuff-less, non-invasive blood pressure monitoring has been a holy grail,” Azim said. “And hypertension affects one-third of the population.”

The company has been conducting clinical studies at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham & Women’s using “several hundred” prototype devices, Azim said, and comparing the data they produce to the gold standard for measuring blood pressure: the manually-inflated bicep cuff.

“We’re building something that will be clinically relevant” for tracking blood pressure data, Azim said, “but the form factor looks like and feels like a high-quality consumer device.” Quanttus’s wearable was designed in collaboration with the Cambridge office of IDEO, and former IDEO exec Scott Mackie joined the startup in 2013 as its vice president of experience design.

But in February and March, several key employees left the company voluntarily; Azim says there were no layoffs. They included Bo Vargas, who had been Quanttus’s chief software architect, along with user research lead Catherine Winfield and Jordan Rice, the company’s vice president of product development. Rice was one of Quanttus’s highest-profile execs, having joined the company in mid-2013 after working on Nike’s FuelBand product. Rice says he left for family reasons, and has since returned to Nike in Portland, Ore. Quanttus, he said, “is a very impressive team, and they are poised to do great things.” The company’s principal data scientist also departed in February.

My biggest question about Quanttus’s product is whether the Food and Drug Administration will have to approve it before it goes on sale. Azim says that the company believes it can sell a wearable that “shows trends and gives guidance” on whether your blood pressure has been stable or rising, but that if it were to spit out “absolute numbers that would inform your care,” a 510(k) clearance from the FDA would be necessary. With the results from the clinical trials that Quanttus has been conducting, Azim says that “we can take the results and file [for the 510(k) approval] if we choose to.” Other startups creating new kinds of monitoring devices, like Scanadu, have been navigating the same murky regulatory waters.

Azim says that the company plans to start shipping its product “toward the end of this year,” and that Quanttus is “in fundraising mode for the next round.” When new money comes in, he says the company will likely begin adding more staff and set up an office in the Bay Area, where several employees are already based.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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