Steven LeBoeuf, Ph.D., is the President at Valencell, Inc. As co-founder and President of Valencell, Inc., LeBoeuf has developed ongoing strategic partnerships between Valencell and leaders in industry and academia. He has raised more than $10M in funding for Valencell and is the inventor/co-inventor of more than 50 granted patents, including dozens of foundational patents in the field of accurate wearable sensors. Prior to Valencell, LeBoeuf led the optoelectronic biosensor program at GE Global Research, where he managed the development and productization of biosensor systems and developed cutting-edge nanosensor technology. Before joining GE, LeBoeuf developed optoelectronic solid-state materials and devices while researching at North Carolina State University. LeBoeuf holds a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from N.C. State and a B.S. in Mathematics and Electrical Engineering from Louisiana Tech University.
Vishal Sapru (VS), Research Manager for Energy & Power Systems Group had an opportunity to conduct a Movers & Shakers interview with Steven LeBoeuf, Ph.D. (SL), Co-Founder & President with Valencell, Inc.
VS: Can you start by providing our readers a brief overview of Valencell including the vision behind its formation and its current role in the market?
SL: We started Valencell in 2006, well before the wearable biometric device market existed, with a vision of enabling biometric insights from devices that people already used – earbuds, watches, fitness bands, jewelry, etc. Today, Valencell has fulfilled that vision by developing performance biometric sensor technology and licensing this patent-protected technology to consumer electronics manufacturers, mobile device and accessory makers, sports and fitness brands and gaming companies for integration into their products.
VS: Please describe your product/technology for our readers?
SL: Valencell’s technology that we call PerformTek gives wearable and hearable devices the ability to continuously and accurately measure weak blood flow signals even during extreme physical activity. PerformTek achieves this with a state-of-the-art technology integrated into an ultra-miniaturized optomechanical sensor module small enough to fit within an audio earbud, smartwatch, or other wearable device. The sensor technology includes an optical emitter, an optical detector, specialized optomechanics, an accelerometer, and advanced biometric digital signal processing known as Active Biophysical Characterization.
VS: What is Valencell’s greatest challenge and what strategy is in place to overcome it?
SL: Valencell’s greatest challenge is the inherent difficulty in making technology work on the human body across a broad and diverse population. I like to say ‘chemistry is instantaneous, but biology take time’. While creating a sensor that can occasionally senses biometrics from someone’s body may be trivial today, but creating highly accurate, truly wearable biometric sensor technology takes a great deal of time, testing, and validation on a large number of people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and fitness levels. Biometrics in wearables are a classic “garbage in, garbage out” scenario, so you have to be able to trust the data you are getting from these devices or their value decreases significantly. Fortunately, the DNA of the founders of Valencell is in research and development, so we knew early on we needed to set up a world-class testing lab to validate our technology and the prototype products that our customers were building on an ongoing basis. The Valencell Biometrics lab now conducts over 24,000 different device tests and analyzes more than 500 million biometric data points every year.
VS: What is the unique value proposition of Valencell and what are your key competitive differentiators?
SL: The cornerstone of Valencell is our ability to accurately measure biometrics during virtually any physical activity and environment. It’s relatively straightforward for engineers to create a sensor that can accurately detect heart rate measurements while at rest, but achieving sufficient accuracy during daily life activity (simply moving, working, exercising, etc) is tremendously challenging. Valencell uses a technique called Active Biophysical Characterization, which is the process of actively removing motion and environmental noise from optical signals in the context of physiological models. This results in unprecedented accuracy and is the foundation of Valencell’s intellectual property portfolio, which has been documented to be the most highly cited patent portfolio in optical biometrics in wearables.
VS: What is your strategy in regards to offering best value to customer for the price, compared to similar offerings from competitors? if any?
SL: Because Valencell focuses on accuracy in biometric wearables, and accuracy is very difficult to accomplish at scale, Valencell’s strategy is to offer the best technology and customer experience at a reasonable price. There are many heart rate sensor vendors in this market that will sell incomplete solutions that simply don’t work on many people and use cases. Valencell is not interested in that business. We are in the business of making our licensees as successful as possible by enabling them to support a wide range of compelling use cases that exceed consumer expectations, satisfy important fitness and health use cases, and drive meaningful revenue.
VS: Continued innovation is the key to success in this growing industry. How is the process of innovation managed at Valencell?
SL: As an R&D and licensing company, our team comprises multidisciplinary scientists and engineers who thrive on pushing the envelope of innovation in biometric wearable technology. We understand that this market is growing very quickly, but that growth is highly dependent on providing consumers accurate, personalized biometric data and insights that improve their lives in some way. At Valencell, this process is driven by a combination of customer requests and scientific insights, market data and opportunities, and overcoming fundamental scientific challenges that still remain when trying to make complex technology work on many different kinds of human beings.
VS: What do you want the company to accomplish in the next couple of years and how would you define success for Valencell?
SL: The most important use cases for wearable biometric sensor technology are those which will satisfy critical public health needs, improving prospects for longer, healthier lives at lower costs. We want Valencell to continue to raise the bar for accuracy in biometric wearables in the next couple years so that this full slate of use cases can be realized. We will be successful in that mission if we’ve been able to help our licensees and their consumers connect the dots between biometrics derived from their activities and relevant personal health insights that improve their lives.
VS: What is your key value proposition that provides your firm a major competitive advantage over other players in the industry?
SL: In addition to the focus on accuracy and the strong track record of innovation and invention (discussed in question 4), Valencell powers more biometrics wearables today than any other company in the world – 12 products in the market now, with many more coming to market soon. This demonstrates Valencell’s experience, not only in innovative technology, but also in helping our licensees bring successful products to market. We have an ecosystem of manufacturing, supply chain, and distribution partners that support our licensees throughout the product development cycle. Companies who take a close look at Valencell are consistently blown away by the combination of technology, testing & validation, and breadth and depth of expertise that Valencell brings to a licensee.
VS: Could you elaborate on the acceptance or adoption of your technology in the marketplace and are there any positive client testimonials that can be shared with us?
SL: Valencell powers more biometric wearables in the market today than any other company in the world. We power 12 biometric wearable products in the market today with many more in the pipeline. You can see the current publicly announced licensees here: http://www.valencell.com/customers.
VS: Do you foresee the acceptance of your technology in the marketplace to have an influence on the direction of the overall market going forward?
SL: This has already been happening with increasing momentum. Valencell has been discussing the importance of accuracy in wearables since our founding in 2006. Major brands are making substantial investments to improve the accuracy of their biometric wearables and the consumer market is starting to place a higher value on accurate wearables. You can see this in the more advanced products that are now coming to market, which can provide insights far beyond simple step counts or activity levels. By introducing biometrics into wearables, consumers now have the ability to see how their body actually reacts to the activities they undertake.
VS: As a general conclusion, what do you think the future holds for such technology and, more specifically, what role can we expect Valencell to play in shaping the future of the industry?
SL: The future of wearables will focus on 2 primary areas:
- Personalized insights with the ability to accurately guide consumers to meaningful outcomes, whether that means losing weight, improving their physical fitness, improving and managing personal health, or pushing themselves to new personal best times in a race. Regardless of the desired outcome, you have to have accurate data to make accurate recommendations.
- Wearables will “disappear” and the sensors in wearables today (biometrics, gyroscopes, accelerometers, etc.) will be embedded into products we want to wear every day – watches, jewelry, headphones and more. The sensors will get much smaller and more energy efficient without sacrificing accuracy, enabling compelling user experiences from things that people already wear.
Valencell is already shaping this future in working with a wide variety of licensees from many different industry sectors to incorporate our technology into their devices.
VS: What are your company’s marketing and product positioning strategies? Do you plan to form any strategic alliances with other client companies?
SL: Valencell’s marketing and product positioning strategies incorporate the best practices of ingredient branding, similar to companies such as Intel, Dolby, Corning Gorilla Glass, and many more. Our positioning and the value our customers derive from Valencell will continue to remain at the highest levels in our market. As for partnerships, we will continue to partner with our customers, silicon vendors, research institutions and others who can help us shape the future of biometric wearables.
VS: What kind of customer feedback mechanism do you have in place to ensure that the product development and innovation matches market and customer needs?
SL: As a licensing and R&D company we work closely with customers on current products and their future roadmaps to ensure our products and services meet not only today’s needs, but future customer and market needs as well.
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