In some ways, Birmingham-based medical technology company AerBetic is attempting to imitate one of the most sensitive detection devices in nature: a dog’s nose.
“The idea came from diabetic alert dogs,” said AerBetic co-founder Eric Housh, referring to canines trained to alert diabetic owners when their blood sugar is too low, something they can smell on their owners’ breath. While those dogs are effective, Housh said, they can be prohibitively expensive. “Plus, there’s a long wait time to get one, and you can’t really take the dog everywhere, right?” he added.
His proposed solution is a “non-invasive diabetes alert device that uses your exhaled breath to infer your diabetic status.” It’s a product that’s been in development in Birmingham for two years, with assistance from the city’s medical and technical research community. A limited-run beta model is slated to be completed this year, and the company expects to have a consumer-ready version of the device next year.
“When we came up with this idea, we knew we wanted to found the company here, to grow the company here,” said Housh, who co-founded the company with current CEO Arnar Thors. “It’s always been our mission to bring this sort of advanced product to market and do it from right here in Birmingham.”
AerBetic works through tiny gas sensors that can detect down to the parts-per-billion level. Those sensors, once programmed to detect “the same exhaled volatile organic compounds that the dog looks for,” will be attached to wearable devices, which in turn are connected to a mobile app.
The process of creating these detection devices has been aided, Housh said, by Birmingham’s tech community. Last November, AerBetic won a $50,000 concept prize from Alabama Launchpad, a Birmingham-based startup competition run by the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama. A grant from Southern Research, a not-for-profit scientific organization in downtown Birmingham, also helped fund prototype development; Housh also points to a Southern Research-hosted MedTech symposium as essential to “nurturing the environment” of technological innovation in Birmingham.
“There’s a push now in the city for medical devices like what we’re doing,” Housh said. “There’s a vector of innovation, if you will… We’ve had a number of conversations with people wanting to see us succeed, wanting to help out and connect us with people who can help us along.”
AerBetic is a member of Hardware Park, a new cooperative workspace focusing on technology design and manufacturing, as well as on bolstering Birmingham’s tech workforce. That site opened in Birmingham’s Smithfield neighborhood earlier this year.
“If you can imagine what Innovation Depot is in the software space, Hardware Park is kind of an advanced manufacturing space,” Housh said. “It’s not only helping companies like AerBetic that will produce a physical product, but also incorporating an educational component as well, so that as the workforce needs to evolve and change, we’ve got a center right here in Birmingham where we can train those people … . We’re not going to have an issue finding good people when it’s time (to grow).”
A pair of boxing gloves hangs from Housh’s computer monitor. A friend gave the gloves – used during a sparring session by Muhammad Ali – to the entrepreneur as a reminder of his recreational time in the ring while a student at Birmingham-Southern College.
They also serve notice of the fight that comes with starting a small business.
“The boxing gloves were like a visual representation to keep going, to keep fighting, to keep pushing,” the Talladega native said. “I know it’s not going to be an easy task to do what we’re doing with AerBetic. But when you talk to people personally impacted by diabetes, the purpose of the struggle is real.
“Grit’s important there – to deal with situations that might not be ideal, find solutions and keep moving forward,” Housh continued. “A lot of times it can be painful but you’ve got to have your eyes on the prize.”
Solomon Crenshaw contributed to this story.