As a female engineering student, Alicia Chong Rodriguez, SM ’18, was used to being one of the few women in any room full of engineers. But three years ago, she was shocked to learn that women are also woefully underrepresented in research on heart disease—even though it’s the leading cause of death in women worldwide.
As she would later find out, a significant percentage of women with heart disease don’t experience the “classic” symptom of chest pain—and some don’t exhibit any symptoms at all. Many women (and many of their doctors) don’t know that pain in the jaw, upper abdomen, or back can also be signs. As a result, women’s symptoms are often missed or ignored. Making matters worse, women make up only about a third of participants in research trials for heart drugs. Even in animal studies, the mice are virtually all male.
Upon learning about this research gap, at Singularity University’s Global Solutions Program in 2015, Chong Rodriguez and a few peers decided to come up with a way to close it.
They found that the electrocardiogram devices frequently used to track heart abnormalities are awkward and provide only scattered or intermittent data. What if they could continuously track a woman’s heart function—and provide an early alert if troubles developed?
Chong Rodriguez and Singularity classmate Monica Abarca came up with the idea of using a bra as a tracking device, and they founded a company to bring the idea to market. They named their startup after Amelia Bloomer, a women’s rights activist in the mid-1800s who crusaded against restrictive corsets and encouraged women to wear loose-fitting pants, which became known as bloomers.
Now, three years after the concept was hatched, the Bloomer bra is about to begin clinical testing. And Chong Rodriguez, Abarca, and their third partner, Aceil Halaby, SM ’17, hope to begin selling their first product, a black bra with a bright teal lining, later this year.
“We’re connecting the dots to a big problem,” Chong Rodriguez says. And Bloomer Tech sees combining fashion, health, and technology as the best way to solve it.
At first, the idea of capturing heart data with a bra seemed too obvious—and perhaps too good to be true, Chong Rodriguez says. But building and testing rough prototypes, delving into the complexities of bra manufacturing, and sketching out the technical requirements convinced them that the undergarment was the best tool for the job. “It’s in the right place on a woman’s body—around the core and heart,” she says. “And the diversity of bras allows us to fit each woman perfectly and mold our technology around the curvature of her body. It’s not a one-size-fits-all device.”
Because sensors are embedded in the washable, stretchable fabric used to make the bra, there’s no fussing or worrying about positioning, just putting on an item of clothing that virtually every woman wears daily. “More people have bras than wristbands,” says Halaby, the company’s chief operating officer.
“You never forget to wear it,” adds Chong Rodriguez, speaking with her teammates in the conference room at MIT’s Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, where she is a fellow.
Materials, of course, are a key innovation in the Bloomer bra. While fabric with embedded sensors isn’t new, the Bloomer Tech team had to test and analyze multiple types of fabric to find one that was comfortable enough for everyday use, could capture the data they needed, and could still be thrown in the washing machine. They also assembled modular sensors to combine the comfort of dry electrodes with the medical-grade sensing ability of the wet ones used in traditional ECG machines and monitors. Then they designed and manufactured several versions of the bra using fabrics with embedded circuits that can be used to sense such things as heart rhythm, heart rate variability, and the presence of damage. At an MIT demo day they got advice on materials and manufacturing from Martin Trust, for whom the Center for MIT Entrepreneurship is named, and who began his business career in the apparel industry.
One of their biggest technical challenges, Chong Rodriguez says, has been collecting a medical-grade signal from the bra while limiting extraneous noise. After struggling for some time with their techniques for monitoring and filtering data, they finally succeeded about a year ago. Then they repeated the trial and it worked again. And again. They tried it a different way, and the signal was stable. “That’s when we really got excited,” she says.
The team tested the bra on patient simulators and consulted with cardiologists about such things as which health indicators were most important to collect. Then they developed algorithms that integrate the collected data and built a Bluetooth-enabled app that ports it to the user’s smartphone. Through the app, users can get activity reports and health insights—including early detection of abnormalities that can be precursors to arrhythmias, myocardial infarctions, and stroke—and they can share the information with their doctors. Bloomer Tech has filed for a patent on the process that converts sensor readings into a continuous stream of encrypted medical-grade data while maintaining the device’s washability and comfort.
After talking with potential customers, the team then focused on making the garment look less like a medical device and more like something a woman would actually want to put on. Taking a page from the design and fashion industry, the Bloomer Tech team wanted to help create a new generation of health-care devices that are both user friendly and beautiful, says Halaby, who has an undergraduate degree in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design. So while other “smart” garments typically require external devices in plastic cases that snap onto the clothes, the circuits in the Bloomer Tech bra are woven or molded directly into the fabric. “It looks and feels like any regular piece of clothing,” says Chong Rodriguez. And that matters, she adds, because it “doesn’t change regular everyday habits, and it’s easy to integrate in the bra manufacturing process.”
Electrocardiograms measure the size and position of the heart’s chambers, the presence of heart damage, and the effects of drugs or devices. They can be used to detect heart attacks, arrhythmias, and atrial fibrillation. But existing portable ECG monitors track patients for only a few days, or a month at most, says Nandita Scott, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, who has been an unpaid advisor to Bloomer Tech.
The ECG technology embedded in Bloomer Tech’s bra will allow continuous monitoring, Scott says, which will be particularly useful for women with atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that can lead to blood clots, stroke, or other heart problems. Rising rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea have led to an epidemic of atrial fibrillation in this country, she says, but it’s often missed when it causes no symptoms.
“If you have a device on, you can detect atrial fibrillation before it becomes a problem,” says Scott, who also co-directs the Corrigan Women’s Heart Health Program at Mass. General.
The accompanying Bluetooth-enabled app will give the wearer direct access to her data on her phone and allow her to share it with her doctor via e-mail or the cloud. Getting the data regularly will help her see what’s normal for her and identify any changes that might indicate a problem—or show whether medications and lifestyle fixes are making a difference. And Bloomer Tech plans to aggregate the data collected from willing users and make it available to researchers, which should help accelerate research focused on heart disease in women.
“It’s using technology in a smart way to reduce the incidence of disease,” says Scott, adding that she would use Bloomer Tech’s bra herself if she were at risk for atrial fibrillation.
Bloomer Tech’s first clinical trial, which involves getting readings from a variety of women wearing the Bloomer bra, began this spring at the Institute for Medical Engineering and Sciences Clinical Research Center at MIT. As the trials progress, strategic advisor Ben Linville-Engler, SM ’18, the sole bearded member of the Bloomer Tech team, is helping guide the company through the regulatory process: the US Food and Drug Administration must approve the bra as a medical device.
Meanwhile, Chong Rodriguez stays motivated by thinking about all the women Bloomer Tech might help—like one she met while waiting for a flight in the Mexico City airport. When Chong Rodriguez told her about the company, the woman confessed that she’d had a heart attack a few months earlier and was terrified to fly, even though her cardiologist had okayed the trip.
Chong Rodriguez realized that the Bloomer bra could show the woman—and her cardiologist—how travel affects her heart. If her heart rhythm showed up as normal, she could relax; if it indicated a problem, she could send the reading directly to her doctor.
“It’s much better than just explaining in words what she’s feeling,” Chong Rodriguez says. “When you own your health, you can understand better what to do and what not to do.”