Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Peter Astbury is a designer and entrepreneur in London, England. Peter’s expertise are in User Experience and Product Design, holding a degree in Industrial Design and Technology from Loughborough University. With a keen interest in business and tech, he created Grace - a wearable that helps to fend off menopausal hot flushes. Having been named a National Runner Up in the James Dyson Award 2017, Peter is currently looking for funding to continue research and take Grace one step closer to market.
What is the idea behind Grace and how did you come up with it? When did all start and do you have other members in your team?
Grace is a bracelet designed to be worn day and night, detecting hot flushes and using intense cooling to fend them off. There is a large market, with an estimated 10 million women experiencing flushes in the UK alone. Grace could help in solving one of the most common menopausal symptoms without needing intervention from prescribed drugs.
During my time at Loughborough Design School, I looked up to graduates that managed to create products that had a positive impact on people. As final year approached, it became my mission to do the same.
Inspiration to design for menopause came from a conversation I had with my Head of Department whilst on my year in industry. We discussed areas of design that had not received much attention and menopause was one of them. In the weeks that followed, I considered all sorts of niches but kept circling back to menopause.
Contrary to what most believe my inspiration to be, my Mum never experienced any menopausal symptoms. When I started researching the subject, I started to realise just how lucky she was. I took a leap of faith and Grace became my major project during my final year at Loughborough.
The idea behind tackling hot flushes with localised cooling came from an early interview I conducted with a research participant. She told me how she would go to a bathroom at the onset of a hot flush and run her wrists under cold water. This inspired the first concept for Grace. From there, it was a lot of research, prototyping and late nights.
Using a specific array of sensors within the bracelet, hot flushes are automatically detected around 60 seconds before a woman becomes aware of it. At that point, the cooling is activated which sends a signal to the brain. The body reacts in a way directly opposite to the hot flush with a high chance of fully countering it. The automated nature of Grace means that it can be used throughout the night, allowing women to finally get a decent night’s sleep.
I'm exploring a number of collaborations at the moment from medical research with universities to co-development of the product with innovation partners. Hopefully I can bring you some exciting news about them soon!
In terms of individual team members, I have a good network of mentors and experts around me and am currently on the lookout for a good electrical engineer (please get in touch!).
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
I spent one academic year of development on Grace during my final year studying Industrial Design & Technology at Loughborough University. Since graduating in the summer of last year I have continued pursuing Grace by applying for funding, entering competitions and generally having a load of fun learning how to get it off the ground.
What was the biggest obstacle?
It's been an interesting year starting out as a 23 year-old guy developing something for the opposite gender of a different generation. As much as it could be seen as an obstacle, it's actually been very positive - not only opening my eyes on a personal level but also helping to develop a better overall product. Not having any personal experience of hot flushes kept me from falling into the trap of assuming what the end-user wanted/needed. This meant that every decision that went into making Grace was as a result of research. I really had to get inside womens' heads to understand how to address user needs effectively.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
I was absolutely delighted to be named as a UK Runner Up in the James Dyson Award 2017. That kick-started some great coverage in articles from the likes of Dezeen, Yanko Design and PSFK.
Most recently, Grace was a shortlisted entry for the Morgan Innovation & Technology Prize 2018.
The BBC also got in touch and invited me to appear on BBC Radio Leicester's Breakfast Show.
As a result of all this publicity, I have been contacted by women from all over to the world, many desperate to get their hands on the product as soon as possible. This is undoubtedly my biggest motivation to continue developing the product.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in?
One thing I hadn't foreseen when applying for funding was the lack of understanding around menopause.
Some recent feedback I received from potential investors was that menopause was not "commercially sexy". That was really disappointing to hear. There are hundreds of millions of women worldwide who are experiencing hot flushes and I'm finding you have to fight hard to break through the preconceptions some investors have.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all founders and entrepreneurs in health tech?
Given the early point in my career there’s not too much I can say yet! However, finding a good mentor has been tremendously helpful. The main thing is to find someone who has experienced the highs and lows of starting a business first-hand. There are so many decisions to make with no obvious answer. Knowing you have a point of contact who can help highlight the pros and cons of each possible outcome is so incredibly valuable.
What will be the key trends in the health tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
Breaking the industry down into a few categories, I can see menopause becoming something that's talked about far more openly. We're already starting to see this happen - JWT Intelligence just published a trend report with the headline 'Menopause goes mainstream' which is great. That, in combination with the trend of personal healthcare systems will lead to a rise in products that tackle menopausal symptoms head on without being considered a taboo subject.
Looking at wearable health tech in general, the market feels very saturated. And as people are becoming accustomed to the 'quantified self', these products have to demonstrate real value to the user besides just collecting/displaying data. Wearable tech will have to become increasingly useful whilst at the same time blending into everyday garments and accessories that themselves could be seen as standalone fashion items.
The role of data will have a seismic effect on the industry as a whole from the way it’s used to the way it’s viewed by consumers. As machine learning and AI matures, more companies will get involved with processing the big data they're collecting. However, bear in mind how consumers are increasingly calling out companies on social media etc, making them more accountable for their actions and ultimately more transparent. The debate around data ownership and privacy concerns will continue to grow and become more relevant.
Who are your 3 inspirational people in health tech?
Ida Tin - CEO & Co-founder of Clue. From the start of development I always looked up to her. She created an app to track periods, now with tens of millions of active users. When you look at how hard she fought to make Clue a reality, it’s an amazing demonstration of persistence and grit. She is one of the real pioneers of the FemTech revolution.
James Roberts - Co-founder of MOM Incubators. Also a Loughborough University graduate and entrepreneur. He has become a mentor figure to me having started development on his products a few years before me.
Andy Puddicombe - Co-founder of Headspace. They have overcome so many obstacles and have really started a cultural shift in the western world, managing to build mental health-maintenance into peoples' everyday routines. Through perseverance they've successfully brought mediation to the masses. That's one hell of an achievement.
LinkedIn: Peter Astbury
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.