‘Batman’ tech: UW spins out new startup that uses sonar to detect opioid overdoses

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Sound Life Sciences co-founders Nick Mark, Jacob Sunshine and Shyam Gollakota. (Sound Life Sciences photo)

An app that uses sonar to detect opioid overdoses is making the leap from research to startup mode with the formation of a new company called Sound Life Sciences. The Second Chance app, announced last month, is the product of University of Washington researchers who set out to turn a smartphone’s microphone and speaker into a lifesaving device.

The team behind the app recently won a $10,000 National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Challenge Award and is working on a seed funding round. They plan to submit the app for FDA approval in 2019 for commercialization in 2020.

The Second Chance app. (Mark Stone/University of Washington)

The app emits inaudible sound waves from a smartphone and uses the microphone to measure how they bounce back. A clever algorithm takes that data and detects critically low breathing rates with 90 percent accuracy.

Movie fans, take note: the technology behind the app isn’t all that different from the cell phone surveillance system Batman uses in the 2008 film, The Dark Night. “That’s basically what we developed here because we transformed the phone into an active sonar system,” Professor Shyam Gollakota, CEO and CTO of Sound Life Sciences, told GeekWire in an interview.

Gallakota co-founded the company alongside chief operating officer Nick Mark, MD, and chief medical officer Jacob Sunshine, MD.

The team said the app is intended both for injection users and patients who are prescribed high-dose opioids or are at high risk for other reasons. The startup will pursue partnerships with governments, insurers and the makers of opioid antidote Naloxone.

While getting the app ready for regulators will take some work, Sound’s product benefits from real-world research and testing with opioid users at Insight, a supervised injection site in Vancouver, B.C. One challenge will be integrating the app with local emergency service systems so that help can be called when an overdose is detected.

Sound Life Sciences joins a growing number of companies using software to augment medication and in-person treatment. In December, Pear Therapeutics launched a “digital therapeutic” called reSET-O, an app that assists other treatments for opioid use disorder with cognitive behavioral therapy.

The Second Chance app is focused on reducing the staggering death toll from opioids, which are involved in one in five deaths among young Americans. While it’s not currently paired with a treatment program, the team said that keeping users alive long enough to get treatment is a critical need.

“Most people with opioid use disorder get clean over time,” said Mark. “We believe that people deserve the opportunity to access treatment and we’re going to try to keep them safe until they’re ready.”



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