Embr Labs: Wearables For Personalized Heating and CoolingBy Richard Park
Embr Labs develops technology for personalized temperature regulation. Their first commercial product, Embr Wave, is a wearable thermostat that alters your perception of temperature. I caught up with co-founder Sam Shames to talk about their unique vision for thermal wellness.
Taking off your jacket in the lunchroom only to put it back on in the office. Feeling betrayed when the thermostat isn’t left the way you set it. Bickering with your housemates on whether the house is too hot or cold. Being told to embrace the cold and put on a sweater. Telling others to embrace the cold and put on a sweater. These are relatable stories we’re all too familiar with. Do things really have to be this way? Why do single temperatures have to cater for everyone?
Embr Labs is turning this precedent on its head by heating and cooling individuals directly. Their first product, Embr Wave, is a stylish thermoelectric (a material that gets hotter or colder when electricity runs through it) wristband that changes its temperature in a way that exploits our brain’s method of temperature perception. In the same way we actually feel cooler when running your hands through a cold faucet, or warmer when holding a hot cup of coffee (even if our core temperature hasn’t changed all that much), Embr Wave is a technology that exploits the fact that perception is all that matters.
“We view our market as thermal wellness, which in the United States is around 80 million customers. That’s a subset of the subset of the global wellness market which is 4.2 trillion USD. We’ve also seen a lot of traction with people who deal with stress, anxiety, and sleep problems, all of which are billion-dollar markets worldwide.”
– Cofounder Sam Shames
The “Aha!” moment for Embr Wave came along in Summer 2013 when MIT Materials Science students Matt Smith, Sam Shames, David Cohen-Tanugi, and Mike Gibson realized that they needed sweaters to stay warm whilst working in the laboratory.
Inspired by this realization, Embr Wave’s first working prototype was completed in 2014 in time to enter MADMEC, the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering’s annual product design competition. The Embr Wave prototype placed first, and traction to form a company followed soon after, with the team receiving countless emails from across the world asking when their product would be ready for purchase.
“We were in an air-conditioned lab where we were too cold in June and August, and had to put on sweatshirts to stay comfortable. And that was really the kind of the “Aha!” moment. This just doesn’t make sense – why can’t we just heat and cool ourselves directly? That would help us be more comfortable, and the buildings would save energy.”
– Cofounder Sam Shames
After a market analysis, the team quickly realized that saving energy is one part, but the real value would come from helping people who are thermally uncomfortable. The “thermally underserved population” in the United States is estimated to be around 80 million customers, with this figure reaching the hundreds of millions worldwide. Factoring in the possibility that regulating temperature could also address anxiety and sleep problems, Embr Wave had the potential to enter the $25 billion wearable devices market.
Despite the buzz and excitement, Embr Labs still had to address the issue that they were a team of scientists not knowing how to start a company. Showing that the technology worked was one thing – but demonstrating customer demand and establishing a supply chain was another. Fortunately, the team received extensive support from across the Institute via the MIT Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship, MIT’s Summer Incubator DeltaV, alongside $100K in Seed Funding from Intel Capital in 2014.
Path to a Unique Product
The first key challenge that Embr Labs overcame on their way to turning their product into a commercial reality was managing the relatively large amounts of energy required for thermoelectric heating and cooling within a small device. Customers did not want to carry around something big. After an extensive period of research and development, Embr Labs realized that the skin on our wrists (as opposed to core) is especially influential in our perception of temperature. Furthermore, they found that a wave-like warming and cooling (around 5 degrees) prevents acclimatization, sustaining the feeling that one gets when first stepping into a hot shower. With this information in hand, Embr Labs succeeded in creating an elegant wearable wristband that maximizes cooling and warming sensations with minimal energy expenditure through unique algorithms for perioding heating and cooling. At present, Embr Labs has established a global supply chain for their product, with final assembly being performed in Shenzhen, China.
“The technology that we developed is around this idea of energy efficient heating and cooling through a focus on the sensation of temperature as opposed to, say, core temperature in absolute number of degrees. And what we found over time is that helping buildings save energy is one thing, but the real value is helping people who are uncomfortable.”
– Cofounder Sam Shames
Although there is no other such wristband on the market today, Embr Labs is aware of the competition they face from more archaic forms of personal heating and cooling, such as space heaters and other wearables including hand warmers, sweaters, and neck warmers. To add to the challenge, Embr Wave is a wearable that also competes against watches, fitness trackers, and other forms of clothing accessories.
The team has been pleasantly surprised to find that there is a real customer demand for addressing personal problems with temperature. Many people are willing to trade away their watches to address the discomfort that arises in constantly changing working environments and manage stress and anxiety through self-heating and cooling.
Today, Embr Labs is a team of 11 full-time engineers and product designers with a working commercial product and customers from 87 countries. The team raised an additional $225k from the NSF SBIR Program, and over $600K on Kickstarter in 2016, while their first commercial devices became available and had their effectiveness verified by UC Berkeley in 2018. The team is currently focused on increasing consumer sales over the holiday season and listening carefully to customers to identify future avenues of product development.