Engineering for Smart Health

When Emil Jovanov moved to the warm Alabama climate, he learned “the hard way” that some health issues, such as fatigue or unexplained headaches, can be caused by dehydration. An associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), Jovanov was inspired to create a solution for his personal challenge to stay hydrated. His resulting invention, a “smart” water bottle that can be programmed for each user’s needs and keep track of liquid intake, led to his being named the Alabama Launchpad Inventor of the Year in 2014. 

The case for an innovation

“Our bodies are 60 percent water, and our brain and heart are almost 75 percent water, so even a small change in that balance can have significant consequences for health and wellbeing, ” Jovanov says. “That is why proper hydration is so important.”

While people are commonly advised to drink at least eight glasses, or almost two liters, of water each day, the best solution varies depending on the person. “For some, eight glasses a day is not enough; for others, it is too much, ” Jovanov says. “For instance, kidney and heart patients must closely monitor their liquid intake, which is commonly limited to no more than 1.5 liters per day.” 

Keeping track of his liquid intake was difficult, Jovanov says. Even purchasing a smartphone app didn’t help, as “it was impossible to start the application every time you take a sip, ” he says. 

That’s when the light bulb hit. 

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Jovanov decided he could easily solve the problem by creating an automated system that could monitor liquid intake and provide personalized advice for each user. 

He talked to medical professionals about his idea and learned that an intelligent water bottle monitoring daily liquid intake, with notifications and reminders based on individualized settings, could be quite helpful. For instance, more than half of emergency room visits by elderly patients are triggered by dehydration, and dehydration is the number one preventable cause of hospitalization. 

“An integrated system with automatic, accurate and real-time data collection facilitates a whole range of opportunities to improve the health and well-being of users that we didn’t even imagine when we started, ” Jovanov says. “We can provide personalized advice for proper pacing throughout the day, encouraging some users to drink more and some to drink less, ” he says. “Advanced sensors allow caregivers to check whether the liquid was consumed or simply spilled from the bottle.” 

From invention to market

After receiving positive feedback from the medical community, Jovanov formed a team and created a prototype system. With partners Cathleen Asch and Robert Gold, Jovanov established euHydrate, a Huntsville-based company that developed a working prototype of a smart water bottle. The bottle can precisely monitor the amount of liquid and liquid intake and communicate that information to a smartphone, computer or a remote server. 

When the working prototype was completed, UAH’s Charger Innovation Fund chose to provide financial backing that’s now being used to improve the sensing technology, software architecture, application and user interface for the bottle’s automated hydration monitoring system. 

When the second generation of the smart water bottle is developed, Jovanov and his team plan user studies in nursing homes and hospitals and also with in-home subjects. The results will drive enhancements to prepare the product for market — by summer 2016, Jovanov hopes.

Building on a legacy 

While Jovanov’s smart water bottle has drawn attention, it’s not his first foray into invention. He first published in 2000 about how intelligent sensors on and in the human body could revolutionize health care. Two years later, his group created the first distributed system for monitoring the stress of users during training and daily activities for Naval Aerospace Medical Research Lab in Pensacola. And in 2005, Jovanov and UAH colleague Aleksandar Milenkovic demonstrated the first low-power network of body area sensors for cardiac rehabilitation in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic. 

That sensor research created a revolution called mHealth, or mobile health, in which smartphones “create a synergy of information generated from smart wired and wireless sensors that provides a profoundly richer view than the simple sum of information from individual sensors, ” Jovanov says. “That vision and its practical implementations inspired an avalanche of new applications.” 

For instance, Jovanov and his team developed a smart pill bottle for monitoring drug compliance. UAH filed a patent for the bottle, and AdhereTech, a startup company in New York, has licensed the patent to commercialize the concept. Two years ago, the smart pill bottle concept and AdhereTech won the Healthcare Innovation World Cup. 

“Patients with chronic conditions typically take multiple medications at different times of day and keeping track of the schedule of all medications can be a nightmare, ” Jovanov says. “Technology such as the smart pill bottle can provide personalized proactive help, and accelerate development of new drugs by supporting clinical studies and documenting adherence of participants. Continuous monitoring allows customizable alerts and interventions such as phone calls, text messages and emails, thus improving compliance and reducing costs.”

Looking ahead 

The new generation of the Internet, known as Internet of Things (IoT), will leverage billions of always-on, connected sensors to create smart factories, smart homes, smart automobiles, smart hospitals and smart cities. Jovanov is committed to capitalizing on the potential of the IoT to help improve people’s health. 

“Methods for massive data mining of information collected from environmental and physiological sensors will allow us to detect health changes even before we experience any symptoms of disease, ” Jovanov says. “That will change health care as we know it, and significantly change the quality of our lives. Transforming our health care system from responding to sickness to supporting and encouraging health and wellness to avoid sickness will provide enormous personal benefits and cost savings.” 

Nancy Mann Jackson is a Huntsville freelancer for Business Alabama

Text by Nancy Mann Jackson

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