Kiwi pins hope on smart bandages

SENSITIVE FABRIC: Kiwi expat Simon McMaster, left, tests the tensile strength of fabric on an Instron machine.
SENSITIVE FABRIC: Kiwi expat Simon McMaster, left, tests the tensile strength of fabric on an Instron machine.

Sometimes, endless possibilities can be overwhelming.

Almost a decade ago, Christchurch-born Simon McMaster came up with a fabric that can monitor heartbeats and other stresses inherently, with no need for wires or other sensors.

The fabric is the sensor. It works through the electrical connectivity of the fibres that make up the fabric. The fabric needs to be connected to a small power source, slightly smaller than a watch battery.

Such a technology could be used for measuring heart rates, strain and pressure on everything from high- performance yachts, to high performance athletes as well as the infirm, McMaster said.

"There are so many applications . . . the biggest thing is getting the first one out there and working. Then you'll have everyone queuing up to say 'Hey, can we do this, can we do that?' It makes it easier."

It is a relatively simple technology, he said from Britain. The complicated bit is in adapting it to specific uses.

His company, Footfalls and Heartbeats, was set up in 2010 to develop the technology to make some cash and it is still in startup mode. It is based in Christchurch, although it does not have a physical presence and McMaster is living in Britain for the next few years.

Being a scientist, he can get hung up on all the possibilities without focusing on one use and nutting it out, he said.

So he picked a plan to design a compression bandage that can measure its own tightness and relate it to nurses by a colour change, noise or another kind of alert.

The bandage would be specifically for diabetic ulcers caused by poor circulation.

The ulcers are treated with compression bandages to encourage blood flow, but it was a delicate job for medical staff to ensure bandages were not too tight or too loose.

Footfalls and Heartbeats had partnered with a United States company in the bandage trade to develop a mock- up design and he cautiously hoped the alliance would bear fruit within a year.

"I would love to think we could have something that's commercially viable by the end of next year."

Masters has lived mostly in different places overseas since he was 21, but visits New Zealand regularly. When he returns these days he always tries to drop in on his friend and adviser Stewart Collie, of AgResearch Lincoln, an "extraordinary talent".

If he got the project off the ground, he wanted to set up the research and development arm of Footfalls and Heartbeats in Christchurch, or least New Zealand, McMaster said.

A Kiwi designer dreamed up an ingenious possible use for the fabric, coming second- equal in an international technology competition set up billionaire British industrial designer Sir James Dyson.

Wellington university graduate James McNab used the fabric as part of his theoretical freediving suit that would automatically inflate and bring the user to the surface for resuscitation if it sensed changes because of blacking out or drowning.

The Press