Rockley Photonics Technology Puts a “Clinic on a Wrist”

Article By : Nitin Dahad

Rockley Photonics is developing advanced health monitoring features for smartwatches including for Apple.

Rockley Photonics, which recently announced a $1.2 billion listing on the New York Stock Exchange via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), is thought to be developing advanced health monitoring features for smartwatches including for Apple.

Apple began purchasing products from Rockley in 2017; it is now Rockley’s largest customer with $70 million of NRE commitment to date.

The company plans to go public through the SPAC, and via a merger with NYSE-listed SC Health Corp. In an SEC filing last month supporting the maneuver, Rockley said that Apple is the largest of six customers with which it has entered into contracts with or engaged with, developing health and wellness devices. These companies are developing smartwatches and medical devices that measure advanced biomarker detection for chronic diseases, including the holy grail of wearables, continuous glucose monitoring.

To date, Rockley’s two largest customers accounted for 100% of its revenue in 2020, and 99.6% of its revenue in 2019; the company said it expects that for the foreseeable future it will continue to be dependent on revenue attributable to a few large customers.

In an interview with EE Times earlier this year, Andrew Rickman, founder, chairman and CEO of Rockley Photonics, said, “Silicon Photonics is at a tipping point. It’d been a long journey, there’s been a great deal of promise, but you wouldn’t be able to say today that there’s vast volume out there. There are now millions of units being produced a year, but not tens of millions.”

That was when the company announced a $65 million funding round back in January 2021. Rickman told us at the time that the investment would enable it to drive the development of chips for its key target market, health and wellness, enabling continuous, non-invasive monitoring of multi-modal biomarkers such as lactate, glucose, hydration, blood pressure, and core body temperature.

The company then announced in March its plans to go public at a $1.2 billion valuation, expected to complete at the end of this quarter. This is when Rickman explained the significance of its offering for healthcare biomarkers, which effectively puts a “clinic on a wrist” using its silicon photonics technology. He told investors on the call, “This is more ground-breaking than the first touchscreen or voice recognition in your smartphone and will change the way we monitor our health going forward. Our module compresses the sensing capabilities of a tabletop clinical spectrometer into a wearable chip that could be carried on your wrist. This enables continuous monitoring of numerous biomarkers, some of which are life critical such as hydration, blood pressure, core body temperature, lactate, and glucose levels for the first time ever.”

Rockley Photonics clinic on chip
Rockley’s Rickman said the company has shrunk a laboratory spectrometer onto a chip, creating a “clinic on a wrist”. (Source: Rockley Photonics)

He said Rockley’s technology is up to a million times more accurate than existing LEDs in high-end smartwatches today. “Smartwatches have LEDs that shine light into your skin, monitoring the scattered light that comes back to measure your pulse and, in the high-end versions, your blood oxygen. With this market taking off, it created a new opportunity for us to exploit an idea we had many years back to create a much more powerful optical sensing chip for non-invasive biomarker monitoring. The aim of Rockley was to develop a third-generation silicon photonics process that overcame the remaining hyperscale manufacturing issues and provided a wider breadth of performance capabilities compared to current processes.”

Rickman added, “We’ve shrunk a laboratory spectrometer onto a chip, creating a “clinic on a wrist.” Traditionally, when you shrink an optical instrument, the performance generally gets worse as you get less light into the device. But in this particular case, the innovative architecture we’ve designed allows our device to actually have two orders of magnitude improvement over the benchtop instrument. This is not an average spectrometer, this is a highly advanced spectrometer.”

He told EE Times about the importance of establishing a manufacturing ecosystem to support this. “The photonics chip process technology needs to be optimized for photonics, not electronics. We offer a full stack of technology capabilities to our OEM customers, ranging from the silicon and III-V photonics and electronics design, the co-packaging technology to put electronics and photonics together, the firmware / software to run the chips, and importantly, the biosensing algorithms and cloud analytics to measure and read individual biomarkers.” He said the company’s manufacturing ecosystem has been seeded with its own wholly owned proprietary manufacturing processes that can be rapidly scaled.

Rockley’s technology solution is comprised of a unique spectroscopy chip made up of numerous infrared lasers and a second LED based element which is already being used today in wearables to detect pulse and blood oxygen. Rickman added, “We’re also designing the electronics and ASIC controller on the back of our module.”

Advanced biomarker detection

Rockley Photonics healthcare biomarkers
Rockley’s basic module and advanced module target detection of various biomarkers more accurately using silicon photonics than current systems. In future, this could evolve to continuous glucose monitoring, considered the holy grail of health monitoring wearables. (Source: Rockley Photonics).

Rockley said it has developed two products for smartwatches: a basic module and an advanced module. The basic module contains what is already seen today in a high-end smartwatch, which is blood oxygen, heart rate, and breath rate, but adds to that biomarkers that are in great demand including hydration, core body temperature, and blood pressure. Adding onto that in the advanced module, which has roughly double the number of lasers as the basic module, it has extended the infrared spectroscopy range and uses more advanced algorithms to detect alcohol, carbon monoxide, glucose indicator, and lactate.

It hopes this will set the scene for enabling continuous glucose monitoring, which it said is the holy grail of consumer wellness wearables. Other biomarkers it will be investigating in this device include albumin, urea, and creatinine, which through continuous monitoring can produce health trends and alerts for disease detection and management.

Rockley Photonics top customers
Rockley Photonics is engaged with six key customers: Company A (thought to be Apple), strong basis for 2023 and 2024 revenue in terms of achievable price and volumes; Company B, a major Chinese consumer electronics manufacturer with strong smartphone channel; Company C is a leading producer globally of consumer wearables with a strong Asia channel; Company D is a strong smartphone provider with an emerging wearables capability; Company E, a pioneer in the medtech space, one of the largest medical device manufacturers globally, negotiations on to co-develop programs to address the clinical market; Company F, a leading platform of wireless biosensing. (Source: Rockley Photonics)

As published in its SEC filings, Rockley said its products are being designed for utilization in medical devices, including blood pressure, body temperature, blood glucose, and alcohol monitoring devices, pulse oximetry, and near infra-red (“NIR”) spectrometers; and consumer wearables and mobile devices, including smartwatches, smart earbuds, fitness bands, and mobile phones.

It adds, “To date, we have been engaged in developing customer-specific designs of our silicon photonics chipsets for incorporation into our customers’ end products and currently we do not have any of our own end products in commercial production. We expect that our immediate focus over the next two years will be on developing and commercializing our products for incorporation in consumer wearables and mobile applications, followed by medical devices in the healthcare space, and subsequently on developing our AI analytics cloud platform. In respect of consumer wearables and mobile applications, we plan to start delivering final samples to customers in the first half of 2022 with production ramp of these products commencing in in the second half of 2022.”

This article was originally published on EE Times.

Nitin Dahad is a correspondent for EE Times, EE Times Europe and also Editor-in-Chief of embedded.com. With 35 years in the electronics industry, he’s had many different roles: from engineer to journalist, and from entrepreneur to startup mentor and government advisor. He was part of the startup team that launched 32-bit microprocessor company ARC International in the US in the late 1990s and took it public, and co-founder of The Chilli, which influenced much of the tech startup scene in the early 2000s. He’s also worked with many of the big names – including National Semiconductor, GEC Plessey Semiconductors, Dialog Semiconductor and Marconi Instruments.

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