The Age of the Measured Self

Plantiga’s wearable tech platform is a new frontier in remote health monitoring for professional athletes and average fitness participants alike

By Breanna Mroczek

When more than half of Canadians typically resolve to improve their physical wellbeing every year, you might be heading into 2021 with a health or fitness-related resolution. Perhaps you’re outfitted with new gear and wearable tech to help streamline your workouts and track your goals. Perhaps you’re enjoying solo runs and walks, virtual fitness classes, or remote check-ins with a trainer. With the pandemic still forcing gym closures and in-person support in some regions, remote health and wellness offerings will continue to be in demand for the foreseeable future.

Entrepreneur Quin Sandler has been intrigued by the possibilities and benefits of remote health monitoring for more than 10 years. One day while visiting his father, Norman McKay—who had experience with biomechanics and product design—Sandler tossed around the idea of a shoe insole and a sensor that could monitor and provide data from anywhere in the world for applications in healthcare, athletics, and physical rehabilitation.

“We were interested in what remote health could provide, and this idea of data collection for proactive, preventative health and wellness,” Sandler says. “Even when we started 10 years ago, it was understood that wearables will eventually be monitoring our health and performance.” Sandler estimates that the majority of wearables today are worn on the wrist (think of your Fitbits and your Apple watches) and saw an untapped opportunity in footwear-based wearables. “The way that we move and the way that we walk is a health bio-marker that hasn’t really been developed or deployed at scale,” Sandler says.

The two approached Matt Jordan, a human performance consultant based in Calgary, Alberta. At the time, Jordan was conducting research on athletes who return to sport after an injury. “20 to 40% of the athletes that we see in some sports eventually go on to suffer a reinjury,” Jordan says. But why? Jordan saw a knowledge gap that could benefit the Canadian sports system and athlete health and safety, and was intrigued by Sandler and McKay’s idea for a system that would provide better data and more continuous monitoring.

Sandler and McKay pursued the idea as a side project, and in 2016 made a prototype of a sensor insole that could measure jumping, running, walking, and direction change. They called the platform Plantiga in reference to plantigrade: a mammal that walks on the soles of their feet. Sandler had the opportunity to demo the prototype in Los Angeles for Tim DiFrancesco who, at the time, was the head strength and conditioning coach for the LA Lakers. At the end of the demo, the team was keen to buy and use the technology.

“That made me realize that there was a market in athletics and professional sports teams, and that the changing world of wanting that type of data was there,” Sandler says.

Sadly, McKay passed away soon after Sandler raised his initial investment and started to secure Plantiga’s first customers. “It is bittersweet but beautiful that he sits on all of our patents,” Sandler says, and notes that Norman is also the name of the platform’s AI. “He’s very much a part of kind of what we do.”

Innovation in Wearable Tech and Deep Learning

As CEO of Plantiga, Sandler currently oversees a team of about 20 computer scientists, engineers, and data scientists, most of whom are based in Vancouver. Jordan formally joined the team as a sports scientist to guide product development through research and work with professional athletes returning to sport from an injury. 

The Plantiga platform consists of a robust analytics platform and wearable sensor insoles that, so far, perform two main functions: First, thanks to machine learning and training, Plantiga’s sensor can detect many things related to movement including the type of activity the wearer is doing, and determine speed, stride length, jump height, asymmetries, and direction. Second, the Movement Quality Index determines the quality of the movement from the limb. For instance, the sensor can determine whether a patient is ahead, behind, or on track with typical post-surgery recovery. 

“We have so much sensor data coming from how the limbs move that it really is like a magnifying glass or like an MRI,” Sandler says. “One of the things that I think really differentiates us is that we built a platform that basically gives you lab grade data that anybody can collect themselves. The problem with current wearables, and why they’re not used a lot in healthcare, is because they’re not clinical grade and their accuracy is not that good. We have built a very accurate system that also has these AI-driven insights, and it’s really easy to use.”

Plantiga uses a form of machine learning called deep learning, which trains the AI to mimic the knowledge base of a specialized healthcare professional. For instance, when you see a physiotherapist they observe your measurements and measure it against their knowledge and experience to arrive at a diagnosis or hypothesis. Plantiga has the ability to use data from a large number and demographic of individuals and train predictive machine learning and deep learning models to look at the health of those limbs. 

“Plantiga is a data science company,” Jordan says. “It’s not so much that you can get the sensor and you have a cool dashboard, it’s these data sets that are getting built out on humans, in all kinds of sectors: elite athletes, injured athletes, older individuals, younger individuals, military personnel. We have collected data on hundreds of patients that have injuries. We are building these sets of human movement intelligence for predictive analysis.”

Data collection is core to Plantiga’s business model, but Sandler is adamant that individuals continue to own their data. “What we have access to is just anonymized data to further develop our predictive models and our ability to kind of drive insights based on age, gender, and sport, and countless other variables.”

Remote Health Monitoring and Professional Use

Currently, Plantiga is focused on serving its enterprise business; teams from the NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL, and MLS are all clients, and sports medicine clinics, physical therapy clinics, orthopedic surgeon groups, and hospitals—mostly located in British Columbia—all currently use the program. By using the product with professionals first, Plantiga will grow its data set for the machine learning and data science teams to have quality control when supplying it to average individual consumers. Athletes and physical therapy patients work out or perform tests with the sensor, and a professional is able to review the data and determine appropriate training or recovery programs. Notably, Sandler’s team has been doing remote monitoring and data collection with Canadian sprinter and 2016 Olympic medalist Andre De Grasse, who has also become Plantiga’s brand ambassador.

“Plantiga helps with my load management, my asymmetry, my stride, my balance, you name it,” De Grasse says. “It helps me prepare at a high level, so when I go into competition, I’ll be ready.”

“It’s becoming more and more commonplace to have this type of remote monitoring embedded in the world of sport,” Jordan says. One of the barriers to remote monitoring for athletes was finding a sensor that would not interfere with, or be interfered by, gameplay and strenuous activity. Plantigia’s insole sensor solves that problem. “Plantiga’s sensor is protected, it’s not going to move around, it’s not going to get knocked off by the defensive lineman on the other team,” Jordan says.

Remote monitoring for athletes has only become more important in the COVID-19 era. Jordan was not able to see many of his athlete clients in-person, but by using Plantiga he has been able to continue to meet with clients, track their progress, and make decisions about their training and recovery.

“In the world of COVID-19, professional sports teams are wanting to send their players home with the Plantiga platform so that even when they’re not with their players, their players can be collecting their health and performance data, and then sharing it with the team,” Sandler says. “COVID-19 opened up people’s minds to remote health monitoring. We have some clients who are offering our system to ACL-rehabbing patients who don’t want to are aren’t able to come in [because of the pandemic], but still want to be monitored at home throughout their therapy as part of a return-to-work or return-to-health process. The pandemic has actually kind of highlighted how valuable our technology really is.”

Personal Health and Fitness

The next phase for Plantiga is to scale product development move their platform into the consumer market so that individuals can use it as part of their own personalized health and fitness routines. 

“We are absolutely in the age of the measured self,” Jordan says. “We are in that era where people are interested in being able to collect data ubiquitously from the world to be able to optimize health and performance.”

“The future of Plantiga is that you’re going to be able to go for a run or go for a walk with our sensor, and the platform is going to use the deep learning methodology to be able to extract insights to make a prediction about your health,” Sandler says. “It can tell whether your movement patterns look like a healthy person, or an injured person; whether your movement patterns indicate that you have a concussion, or that you may have some sort of neurological impairment; whether the orthotic that you just spent hundreds of dollars on is actually working; whether you’ve been pushing a little bit too hard when you’ve been going out for runs in January as you start a new year’s resolution. This is where your technology will be able to alert you to say, ‘Hey, I think, I think you’ve been pushing a little too hard here. Your movement patterns have changed.’” Plantiga will give individuals the information they need to make adjustments to their fitness routines to optimize their own health and performance. 

“People need to be empowered to collect that data and get those insights, whether it’s pain or disease progression, or how their injury is rehabbing, and then share that data with their health practitioners to make informed decisions.” Sandler says. “This is a generation of self-monitoring, which is what my dad and I were thinking about ten years ago.”

The Future of Remote Health Monitoring

Beyond the explicit need for remote health monitoring during the pandemic, Sandler thinks remote health monitoring will remain valuable and practical for healthcare practitioners, organizations, and individuals. In 2021, Plantiga will continue to grow their enterprise business where groups, teams, and organizations use the platform to manage the health of their population. Sandler says they are already in discussion with a number of healthcare-related organizations. And, he is keen to grow their direct-to-consumer business this year.

“In the future, I know we’re either going to partner with footwear manufacturers or we’re going to build our own shoe, Sandler says. “Embedding our system and our analytics into footwear is kind of that last frontier that just hasn’t really been executed in the world properly. A lot of people have tried to build smart shoes, and almost all of them are failing. I can’t point to one example that’s been successful so far. Which to me is very exciting, because it means it’s right for us to do it.”

 “If it was easy, Nike and Adidas would have done it a decade ago,” Jordan says. “The most impressive thing about Plantiga is that it’s a data science company that’s driving insights around your health and performance using artificial intelligence. The hardware is just a conduit to be able to really improve how we move and improve how we engage with the world. It’s easy to kind of overlook, but the hardware itself is just this conduit to this much bigger picture.”

Quotes for Mateja:

“We are absolutely in the age of the measured self. We’re in that era now where people and organizations and teams are interested in being able to collect data ubiquitously from the world to be able to optimize health and performance.”

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