Are Smart Shirts the future of Healthcare? With Pierre-Alexandre Fournier, CEO of Hexoskin.

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Hexoskin is a Montreal-based company specialized in biometric shirts that can monitor your health vitals such as cardiac, pulmonary activity, or sleep data. Created in 2006, Hexoskin is a leader and a pioneer in the smart clothing industry and advanced body-worn sensing technologies. They sent smart shirts to space and are currently working closely with governments and health systems in the US, UK, and Canada to support the fight against Covid-19.

Hexoskin’s mission has always been to make the precise health data collected by its body-worn sensors accessible and useful for everyone. So, we sat down with Pierre-Alexandre Fournier, one of Hexoskin’s co-founders, to talk about the future of smart clothing.

Interview with Pierre Alexandre Fournier, CEO of Hexoskin, smart shirts' leader
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SC: What led you to create Hexoskin?

PA.F: Hexoskin was born from the desire of helping our society better care for a population that is steadily growing. Fifteen years ago, it was clear that the existing (Canadian) health system was not ready for what was coming. That’s why we wanted to find a solution that could potentially prevent diseases and reduce the hospitalization rate. 

At that time, most solutions required the person to keep a health journal and enter his or her data into a system. However, not only don’t they result in objective and quantitative data that could be used for predictive analysis but they also demand a lot of effort from the patient. 

We believe that for a system to be viable in the long run, it needs to be seamlessly integrated into the daily life of people. Hence, we thought a lot about systems that could be placed in one’s home. But to collect data and effectively monitor human health vitals, you need to place captors on the torso area. So, we quickly realized the best way to go was to integrate the systems into an object that everyone is already used to: a t-shirt.

SC: Data collection is quite a hot topic at the moment. Is it also an issue for smart clothing & smart shirts?

PA.F: Smart t-shirts collect data. So, it is indeed a sensitive topic for us as well. However, our information system is well secured and only the user can access the collected data. 

Besides, we only collect human health data (heartbeat, respiratory rate…) Who could benefit from such data aside from the patient itself or the doctors? In countries where there is universal health coverage, stealing that kind of information would be pointless.

The personal data collected via smart shirts should only be used for the user’s health, or medical research if the person gave his/ her consent beforehand. It should never be used against you. 

SC: What do you think of the smart clothing market and how do you see it evolving in the next few years?

PA.F: I don’t see any economic opportunities for smart clothing in the fashion segment. I feel most needs are more easily covered with wearable techs, like the Apple Watch for instance. This being said, individuals could purchase a smart t-shirt. We intentionally drove the price down so that people who want to invest in themselves and their health could afford it if they want to. 

What I notice though is that there is a growing demand for smart clothing in the healthcare and public sector. Among our clients, we have medical researchers, healthcare and governmental organizations, first responders (firefighters, policemen, or military) as well as aerospace companies. 

There are true benefits in investing in health-related programs that can help people stay independent and healthy longer. Smart clothing can help improve the lives of elders or people with specific conditions. Right now, we are mainly focusing on heart and respiratory diseases. But smart clothing could also help monitor and prevent other types of diseases. I foresee a future when it will be normal for people to be equipped with smart clothing to keep themselves healthier.

On top of that, prevention is better than cure. It is less costly to invest a few thousand dollars in health-related programs than sending people to the hospital. 

SC: What are currently the main challenges in the smart clothing industry?

PA.F: On the one hand, the smart clothing industry is faced with the same challenges as the IoT industry. In other words, companies are still looking for the right business models. Besides, medical information systems are not as advanced as what you can find in other industries and lag about 20 years behind. 

Until the pandemic highlighted the benefits of teleconsultation, the technological advances were slow.

On the other hand, the smart clothing industry still needs to define and standardize industrial processes. Unlike the automotive or the aeronautical industry, you can’t just walk to a manufacturer with a list of specifications to develop a prototype. 

Creating smart clothing requires many skill sets and a wide range of know-how. A smart clothing project involves people from the clothing, textiles, industrial design, electronics, biomedical engineering, and software industry. You can’t find all these skills in one single factory. Besides, the tools and techniques that can currently be used are limited. 

That’s why we created our production chain. That way, we can control the cost and the quality of our t-shirts.

SC: Do you feel being in Montreal helped in regards to that matter?

PA.F: It sure helped. Until the 2000s, Montreal was considered one of the most important cities for fashion in North America. Everything we needed for the project was right there.

SC : Can smart clothing be sustainable ?

PA.F : We are doing a lot of Research and Development on the subject.  It’s possible. Our main challenge is that we must use stretch fabric to embrace the body forms and keep the monitoring sensors in place. So far, synthetic fabrics like spandex offer the best value for money.

This being said, with the right materials and fabrics, smart clothing can last 30 up to 100 washes.

Is smart clothing the future of healthcare ? Pierre-Alexandre seems to think so. Many thanks to Pierre-Alexandre for answering our questions. If you’re interested in learning more about Hexoskin or if you’d like to buy yourself a smart t-shirt, feel free to visit hexoskin.com .

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