U of O PhD student’s smartwatch a timely innovation in COVID fight

VitalTracer founders
VitalTracer founders

Azadeh Dastmalchi’s search for a user-friendly blood pressure test triggered a decade-long research effort that ultimately spawned a groundbreaking wearable device and led the University of Ottawa PhD candidate to launch her own company.

On Wednesday, the biomedical engineering student and budding entrepreneur earned some well-deserved time in the spotlight. Dastmalchi received the Mitacs Social Entrepreneur Award in a virtual ceremony for her state-of-the-art smartwatch that tracks key vital signs and monitors cardiac signals. 

Mitacs ​– a not-for-profit, government-funded organization that connects private-sector companies with post-secondary institutions across Canada in an effort to solve business problems ​– hailed Dastmalchi and the four other entrepreneur award winners for their “creativity and ingenuity” in finding innovative ways to help combat health crises such as COVID-19.

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“Not only will their inventions ultimately help Canada to recover from this crisis, but with continued investment in talent, research and development, they will ensure we keep our spot in the global innovation economy,” the organization said.

Dastmalchi, who was born in Iran, grew up in Dubai and moved to Canada in 2008, says she’s now seeking approval from Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to have her high-tech watch registered as a medical device in the hope of selling it to hospitals and senior care homes.

“It’s like an Apple Watch, but we do more,” she says. “Our target market is very different.”

While popular wearable tech such as the Apple Watch and Fitbit keep track of a user’s heart rate, Dastmalchi’s device goes much further. In addition to taking a wearer’s pulse, it uses biosensors and machine-learning algorithms to measure blood pressure, respiratory rate, blood oxygen levels, body temperature and the heart’s electrical signals. 

She says such bio-signals can help detect symptoms of illnesses such as COVID-19 earlier and ensure patients in high-risk facilities such as retirement residences can be isolated more quickly.

“Due to the pandemic, seniors in long-term care facilities are suffering, and to stay safe, they need to monitor their vital signs daily, which is a very difficult and time-consuming task,” explains Dastmalchi, who started a company called VitalTracer to produce the smartwatch two years ago. “Our device is tailor-made to help.”  

The 34-year-old says she came up with the idea after her father was diagnosed with hypertension 10 years ago and was told to take his blood pressure three times a day. But after finding the traditional cuffs that wrap around the upper arm too uncomfortable, he stopped monitoring himself.

Artificial intelligence

Dastmalchi, who was helping take care of her father, tried to find another way to easily and reliably measure blood pressure and was disappointed when her search came up empty. Then a master’s student at U of O, she decided to create her own solution.

“We originally came up with the idea to combine biosensors and artificial intelligence to monitor blood pressure from the wrist, but we quickly discovered that our approach lent itself well to measuring other vital signs as well,” she says.

Now living in Montreal, where her husband is a PhD student at McGill University, Dastmalchi is continuing her pursuit of her doctorate at U of O remotely and has received more than $1 million in grants for her company to continue developing its wearable technology. The device is being tested in two Montreal hospitals, and she’s hoping it gets cleared for widespread medical use by next fall.

She and her fellow researchers at VitalTracer and the University of Ottawa are also seeking funding from the Quebec government to test the watch in seniors’ homes. Dastmalchi says she likely won’t start looking for private venture capital until the product gets the green light from regulators.

In the meantime, life as a PhD candidate, CEO of a six-person startup and the mother of a two-year-old daughter is keeping Dastmalchi plenty busy.

“I’m just trying to pretend that I’m supermom,” she says with a chuckle.

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