Personal chemical monitors: 5 lessons for a new tech market waiting to take off

Lindsay McCormick

Emerging technology could one day make it easy for soldiers, pregnant women, flight attendants, nail salon workers, people living near industrial sites – anyone who encounters pollutants in their daily lives – to personally monitor their exposure.

Environmental pollution kills at least 9 million people annually, underscoring our need to gain a clearer understanding of our exposure to harmful chemicals, air pollution and other contaminants.

To get there, however, we must first identify barriers and opportunities for a broad uptake of this exciting new technology.

1. Huge demand for data can spur investment

First up: There are clear signals that a market exists. Today, the military, healthcare sector, business community and consumers are all demanding new data that can help them better understand how chemical exposure affects individuals. Each have their unique technology, performance and cost preferences.

To drive innovation, we must translate this demand into increased public and private investment as well as a broad adoption of novel technologies.

2. We need to rethink funding sources

Traditional public research funding for environmental health studies usually don't support the development of exposure monitoring tools. Moreover, when such funding is made available, it generally targets development of tools that address a narrow research question that focuses on a small subset of chemicals.

It creates little incentive for the development of technologies that can measure a wider spectrum of chemical substances.

Diverse funding sources –  such as crowd-funding, pre-buying agreements, lending libraries, challenge programs and venture capital  –  can spur technology development and uptake. Forward-looking entrepreneurs and investors could get the ball rolling.

3. It requires incremental progress and risk-taking

A single technology that fulfills the demands of all users still doesn't exist and might never. Incremental advancements will likely be more successful than trying to develop the perfect device from the get-go.

At the same time, intelligence programs like IARPA  –  which invests in high-risk and high-payoff research programs  –  teach us the importance of investors tolerating a high failure rate in technology development to be able to achieve success.

To that end, identifying and funding a specific use-case of a near-market ready technology, and showing movement towards solving an important problem in six to 24 months, may be the best balance between feasibility and risk-taking.

4. NFL challenge showed value of "test beds"

Studies designed to validate  or prove the efficacy of  new exposure monitoring technologies are key to building confidence in these tools in the research community. Unfortunately, the pace of such studies has been slow, largely due to lack of funding.

This dynamic can present a catch-22  since  slow uptake of promising new technologies due to performance concerns can stymie their development and improvement. One way to accelerate the market is through "test beds," or a standardized set of performance tests, to allow users to compare results across different technologies.

A $100-million technology challenge by the National Football League, General Electrics and Under Armour to create a football helmet that reduces concussions is an example of such an approach. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, an NFL partner, developed a test bed to evaluate and compare prototype helmet submissions for the challenge.

5. Chemical exposure data can overwhelm

Effective exposure monitoring tools must be coupled with meaningful communication about chemical exposures that is accessible and digestible. Without this step, people can become overwhelmed by such information and fail to take meaningful action to change their personal behavior or advocate for change.

So where are we with personal chemical monitoring?

Our team is working to quantify the demand for these technologies in a study due out by this spring. Our goal: to spur greater investment in new chemical monitoring technologies that will inform evidence-based policies and practices that can help all of us reduce our exposure to harmful substances.

Get innovation updates

We'll send regular updates about developments in technology, science and the environment.