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

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 is the development of a ruggedized RFID tag that can withstand sterilization temperatures of 275 degrees F in a steam autoclave as well as liquid sterilization methods used in hospitals. Perkins would not discuss what advances make the new sterilizable RFID tag possible—the company says it has filed for IP coverage of the concept—but he says a hospital’s highest-value assets are usually found in its operating rooms. The tags can be attached to a surgical instrument tray, such as a hip set used in orthopedic surgery. Keeping track of those trays is important; the instruments are expensive, says Perkins, who believes Awarepoint is the only company on the market with autoclavable RFID tags.

Awarepoint CEO Jason Howe told me the company has installed its technology for 30 customers at 45 sites since 2005. That includes a system for the Jackson Health System in Miami, FL, that tracks more than 12,000 assets throughout 17 buildings totaling more than 4 million square feet.

CEO Jason Howe

CEO Jason Howe

Howe says Awarepoint also has the benefit of once having tried to develop its sensor network using Wi-Fi devices, which is the technology used by such rivals as Aeroscout of Redwood City, CA, and Radianse of Andover, MA. After installing a system based on Wi-Fi’s 802.11 frequency standard at the Naval Medical Center San Diego, Howe says, “We learned the hard way that 802.11 was not going to work for real-time location.” The sensor network was not sufficiently accurate, Howe says, but more importantly, it interfered with the Naval hospital’s “mission critical” wireless computer network.

The company, which was incorporated in 2002, raised $13.3 million in November through a Series D round of venture funding, which was led by Cardinal Partners and joined by Venrock and Avalon Ventures. Howe says the company raised another $4 million at that time from Silicon Valley Bank, along with $7 million in vendor financing.

Awarepoint is now generating revenue and Howe says he expects the company’s operations will break even by mid-2010. He refers to Awarepoint’s technology as “a ubiquitous sensor network,” and the way he talks, he expects that it will soon be everywhere.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at 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…

  • Muata

    Can employees be tracked for time, or where abouts?