Biotech Maker Cipher Skin Is Taking Wearable Computing To Accessible New Levels For All


Philip Bogdanovich is founder and chief executive officer of Denver-based biotech company Cipher Skin. A Naval vet, Bogdanovich was serving in Baghdad during the Iraq War when he sustained what he described in an interview with me in early November as a “life-altering injury” after a bomb exploded near him. Injuries to his hip, spine, and leg led doctors to hypothesize Bogdanovich would spend the rest of his life using a wheelchair. It turned out that prognosis would be the wrong one.

Fast forward to 2015 and Bogdanovich made a full recovery. Cipher Skin’s origins can be traced back to Bogdanovich, sitting on his couch, reading what he called an “obscure” paper on the mucosal conductivity of earthworms that was forwarded to him by James Heathers, who now serves as Cipher Skin’s chief scientific officer. He was engrossed in reading when his wife, Emily, walked into the kitchen with grocery bags. One of the items was a bottle of wine. Watching her remove the protective mesh from the bottle led Bogdanovich to an epiphany.

“I watched it [the protective mesh] expand and contract to its original shape when it moved kind of around the body,” he said. “That was the ‘aha’ moment. It was very quick, I realized that if we applied the principles in this paper to a conductive mesh that could then be embedded in stuff that we could monitor motion and vital signs and transmit that in real time anywhere in the world.”

Cipher Skin was founded in 2017, with Bogdanovich telling me the technology powering the mesh is in the “general proximity of fusion sensing… using really bleeding-edge sensors” such as those which measure blood oxygen saturation and heart rate. All the technological infrastructure exists to collect motion data, which Bogdanovich explained is different than what is used to make sports video games, for example. With Ciper Skin, you can visualize far more than just the starting and ending points and peak angles typical of how motion data is classically captured.

Cipher Skin has a short video demonstrating their technology posted on YouTube.

“[If] I put a Cipher Skin sleeve on my arm and I was looking at the Cipher Skin avatar, I would be able to see the limb moving in space; it would look like it looks like a video game. I’d be able to see it moving in space, and then I can see the vital signs,” Bogdanovich said. “That’s really incredible, because a big part of recovery, it turns out, is [not only] seeing yourself improve but seeing how you’re moving. It’s this really incredible thing where people don’t understand—they have this internal reference of how they’re moving. But it’s not a realistic, most often, it’s not a realistic impression of what’s happening in the real world. If you ask someone to put their arm at 90 degrees or hold their arm, straight up over their head, their idea of straight up over their head is not the same thing. When they can see that in an avatar, and they can see the numbers, they can see themselves in proving they can self-adjust [and] that information can be transmitted. And so all of that is made possible by this flexible infrastructure using bleeding edge tech.”

Bogdanovich was keen to emphasize Cipher Skin, despite its reliance on sensors, is not a sensor company—their mission is not to build them; in fact, he describes Cipher Skin as being “sensor agnostic.” The innovation in sensor design is happening elsewhere, but available to Bogdanovich and team to use.

In terms of accessibility, Bogdanovich believes Cipher Skin can prove beneficial to patients in recuperative and therapeutic contexts. Everyone’s pathway to recovery is different; outlooks will vary based on various factors—including whether someone has a disability of some sort. It’s also true logistics play a role as well: the ability for someone to get care depends a lot on their living situation, financial standing, and so on. The promise of Cipher Skin, Bogdanovich told me, is that it’s always available, whether on a phone, tablet, or laptop. It can be a resource, a lifeline of sorts, for people to monitor their prognosis from home (or anywhere else, really) when an in-office visit perhaps is infeasible. Bogdanovich stressed that Cipher Skin is available for clinical use too, but it makes sense to want to push the boundaries of how traditional medical care works in America.

“[The self-monitoring is] novel, and it’s really important,” Bogdanovich said. “It fundamentally removes distance as a variable in the quality of outcomes, which until now is a major thing. When you think about an aging population or a rural population, there are so many groups of people [who] are affected by their physical proximity to their care providers. They have to rely on telehealth and the effectiveness of telehealth is often negatively impacted by the availability of high quality tools. We’re making that [via Cipher Skin] available to remote patients.”

Bogdanovich’s sentiments are echoed by patients, who tell him Cipher Skin’s technology has helped them in their recovery for all the reasons he cited. It truly is helpful for people who have limited-to-no access to face-to-face care for myriad reasons. Patients who can and do use clinical care report liking to use the Cipher Skin because, Bogdanovich said, “they try to beat previous scores” as though it were a video game. Cipher Skin even has so-called customer success advocates, trained to help people get the most from their product. Bogdanovich shared an anecdote of one such agent spending three hours at a person’s house, fixing their computer so they could use Cipher Skin.

Trite though it sounds, the truth is Cipher Skin’s long-term plans are to keep moving forward and keep getting better at what they do. Bogdanovich explained he believes the United States will ever fully move in the direction of telehealth in a way than supplants the traditional model of in-person care. There will always be a place for that, but Bogdanovich believes the country (and society writ large) has shifted to more of a hybridized model where digital-first care remains increasingly en vogue. To that end, he hopes Cipher Skin will continue building its brand awareness to eventually become a leader in this space. Moreover, he’s excited about the advancements in technology that should allow their tech to embedded into articles of clothing like socks or t-shirts. The healthcare industry is rife for change, Bogdanovich told me, and he sees a lot of potential for not only the industry as a whole, but for his company as well.

With all the untapped opportunities, the future is bright for Cipher Skin.

“We need to remain accessible, regardless of how the industry changes.” Bogdanovich said. “We need to be, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, we need to be the rock that patients can lean on and know that no matter what’s going to happen inside of the healthcare infrastructure that, if they need help with their musculoskeletal recovery or their mobility, that Cipher Skin will always set a standard in terms of quality of care and accessibility. I think maintaining that trajectory in that vision is is tantamount to who we are.”

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