Using Zigbee Mesh Networks, Awarepoint Ready to Catch Wave of Healthcare Innovation

4/17/09Follow @bvbigelow

Stephen Tomlin has a succinct way of explaining the significance of the technology that San Diego-based Awarepoint has developed over the past five years.

Hospitals are just always looking for their stuff, says Tomlin, who is a managing member of San Diego’s Avalon Ventures and a member of Awarepoint’s board of directors. Sometimes medical equipment walks out the door. Sometimes hospital caregivers keep equipment in secretive places, so they’ll know where to find that IV infusion pump when they need one. It wasn’t an issue when times were fat, Tomlin says, because if a hospital couldn’t find the infusion pump, it could always go rent another one.

But as Tomlin puts it, the times aren’t fat anymore, and it’s becoming increasingly important these days for a sprawling medical center to know exactly where all its stuff is. Awarepoint’s technology can provide the answer—even when the stuff consists of thousands of medical items in facilities as big as Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. and the UC San Diego Medical Center, which are both Awarepoint customers.

RFID tag

RFID tag

Awarepoint’s technology appeared promising enough in 2005 for Tomlin to make a modest early-stage investment in the startup from Avalon’s seventh venture fund. At that time, Awarepoint was still refining its Real Time Location System, which uses Zigbee-based devices that plug into ordinary power outlets to create a wireless mesh sensor network that encompasses the entire medical center. The Zigbee network is capable of accurately tracking the location of thousands of items, each equipped with a battery-powered RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tag. Signals emitted regularly by each tag can be received by 15 to 20 sensors, which collectively pinpoint its location and transmit the information to a data storage system. Awarepoint holds six patents covering its technology, and is only targeting the healthcare market.

“The networks are self-assembling and if they break, they are self-healing,” says Matt Perkins, Awarepoint’s chief technology officer. “When you deploy them in a hospital, you just plug in something that looks like a Glade air freshener in a wall socket.”

Perkins views Zigbee as an ideal technology for healthcare because it is so easy to deploy—or as Awarepoint likes to put it—hospital installations are “minimally invasive.” But as Xconomy’s Wade Roush reminds me, Zigbee also is the technology of choice at Ember, a Boston startup that has focused their chipsets on industrial and energy applications.

The company’s most-recent innovation … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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  • Scott LaFee

    I am not involved in the medical industry, but have an interest, both as an observer and (hopefully no time soon) as a patient. I found this story quite interesting and informative. Kudos to Mr. Bigelow.

  • Randy Ladd

    Too bad it doesn’t work that well. At best it is about 50% to 70% accurate in telling you what room something is in. So-so for tracking equipment and unacceptable for tracking people. Remember, Zigbee is just another frequency of radio waves, like Wi-Fi.

  • jay g

    In my experience with RFID tracking of documents, and the failure rate is too high when considering the value proposition of the technology (read: the price is too high for something that can fail 25% of the time). Especially considering that some of these items we’re talking about in Materiel Management are worth thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s also a passive process, so there’s no deterrent factor when considering theft or mismanagement. The Balboa Hospital experiement in San Diego is a good example of how not to roll out such a plan. UCSD may be doing a better job with their soft start over the past few years. What about not using cell phones in hospitals? …this is related technology…