Vanderbilt engineering PhD disrupts wearables market with biosensing through metal


Fashion icon Iris Apfel, left, and Vanderbilt Engineering PhD and WiseWear founder Jerry Wilmink. (Photos courtesy of WiseWear)

Put Wisewear on your wrist, and other women likely will think it’s simply a fabulous piece of jewelry.

For now.

After wowing 2016 Consumer Electronics Show visitors and appearing in a slew of tech news articles, WiseWear soon will be recognized for what it is: a fitness monitoring, security alert and business management system encased in a piece of art.

Jerry Wilmink, who earned his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees in biomedical engineering from Vanderbilt University School of Engineering, designed the unique technology that allows sensing information to be transmitted through metal, allowing for a stylish bracelet. Without it, you have the Fitbit, styled as a sports watch and gaining attention for potential skin irritations.

Wilmink (PhD’07) didn’t set out to make jewelry, but once he’d discovered the underlying technology in the lab, it made a lot of sense to pursue WiseWear, he said.

And he gained a sad, deeply personal inspiration for his research.

“My grandfather died the day after Christmas 2010 due to a fall,” said Wilmink, who lives and works in San Antonio, Texas, with offices in New York. “After that happened, I started developing solution for that — a hearing aid device with biosensors built in. If a senior was about to fall, it would tell them based on changes in gait, balance and hydration. The National Science Foundation funded that device, and we called it WiseAid.

“That’s how WiseWear started, by placing sensing tech inside everyday items.”

Wearables have been gaining popularity at CES for years, but WiseWear’s appearance and security component set it apart with reviewers at the January event.

“Wearable technology isn’t always pretty. Now trying to change the game is WiseWear,” Today Show tech expert Katie Linendoll told a Jan. 12 audience. “What’s really cool about it is it looks like a piece of jewelry, and it will actually track your heart rate, track your distance, track your calories. What’s neat is that you can tap it three times, and it will go into distress mode and contact all of your set contacts if you’re having any issues.”

The emergency text includes the wearer’s exact location.

Another feature allows wearers to receive tiny vibration alerts for calls, texts – any notifications they choose. The bracelet pairs with either Android or iOS, where users will get all their information. There are no screens on the jewelry itself.

Wilmink, who also holds an MBA from the University of Texas-Austin, said he noticed a lot of people bought Fitbits but stopped wearing those after a few months. To find a solution, he gathered a team he described as “nerds meet Devil-Wears-Prada fashion designers.”

The iconic Iris Apfel, 94, whose personal, jewelry-heavy style has inspired generations of women, became interested in the brand after losing her husband last year and learning about its ability to help people. She agreed to be the face of WiseWear and design future pieces.

Wilmink credits Vanderbilt for giving him the foundation it took to invent the tech and become an entrepreneur. It was an education that almost didn’t happen – Wilmink was accepted to Emory University and had already made plans to room with a friend there when he visited Vanderbilt.

“It was so much fun, I decided that’s where I’d go,” he said. “The engineering school was going up and up, getting better every year. I loved it so much, I didn’t want to leave for grad school, even though I had good offers from other schools.”

His PhD adviser was Duco Jansen, professor of biomedical engineering and associate dean for graduate education. Jansen said he remembers Wilmink as a student who frequently challenged traditional approaches to engineering.

“Jerry was always an ideas guy, meticulous in the lab but always questioning the generally accepted paradigms,” Jansen said. “He was an incredible teacher as well and spent a lot of time bringing science to middle and high school classrooms in disadvantaged parts of Nashville. At one point, he even had set up a webcam so he could show the kids in those classrooms the experiments he was doing.”

After earning his doctorate, Wilmink joined the Air Force Research Labs in San Antonio, where he set up a facility to study the biological effects of Terahertz radiation — an extension of his PhD work applied to a new problem.

“Jerry and I have kept in touch over the years, and it has been great to see him follow his passion and make his dream a reality,” Jansen said. “I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to see our students go on to do great things and know that you may have played a tiny role in that.”

There’s more WiseWear to come. The Titan Collection, men’s belt buckles with the same features as WiseWear, are on the way, along with three other devices Wilmink said he can’t discuss publicly yet.

The bracelet devices retail for $395, are available online or at Bloomingdale’s and come in gold, rose gold or palladium.


Heidi Hall (615) 689-8419
On Twitter @VUEngineering