Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Manon van Thorenburg is a biomedical / mechanical engineer working to bring innovative health, medical and wellness products to all levels of society. Manon believes in the importance of well being and how much of an impact it can have on a person’s life, and is particularly passionate about making such products accessible to those living in less developed countries. Manon has worked at world-class supplier of medical device development, Cambridge Consultants Ltd., and is currently Lead Mechanical Engineer for Kokoon Technology, developing smart, brain-monitoring headphones to help people sleep and relax better. She holds a Master’s degree in Engineering for the Life Sciences from Cambridge University, and is currently based in London, just close enough to her home country of Belgium for the occasional trip to fulfil waffle cravings.
How did you get into this industry?
I graduated as a Biomedical Engineer in 2013 and worked as a mechanical engineer in a medical device company for a few years. It was an extremely interesting job, but there was a huge focus on documentation and regulation as we were designing medical products such as injection devices, implants, and diagnostic instruments, and I felt that the strict regulation, although obviously critical for this particular industry, detracted somewhat from the innovation and design, which is what interests me most. (Note that there is still a lot of incredible innovation in this field, albeit at a slower pace.) When a colleague left to create a start up in wearables and needed a mechanical engineer to help him and his co-founder launch the product, I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve now been working with Kokoon for over two years, and being in the wearable tech industry has been hugely interesting.
What does your current job role entail?
I am currently the lead mechanical engineer of Kokoon Technology so am basically in charge of the design of our actual physical product. We’re creating brain-monitoring headphones that help people sleep and relax better, so this has entailed significant development work in the EEG (brain monitoring) system and comfort design, user testing, and now taking the design through mass production out in China.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
At Kokoon we’re creating smart headphones to help improve sleep and relaxation. This is a particularly interesting space as there is so much that is unknown about sleep, and this product will turn a very complex, time-consuming system (which consists of gluing electrodes onto someone’s scalp!) to a very comfortable consumer product, as well as actively help people improve their sleep and relaxation by learning how audio helps users and using this to personalize the user’s experience.
How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges?
My career has progressed from the very interesting yet regulated, structured space of medical devices to the fast-moving, innovative space of wearables. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to jump into the wearable tech industry without too many challenges. That said, if you keep your eyes open, there are so many opportunities in this growing field…if the opportunity isn’t there, create it! It always feels risky leaving a secure, 9-5 job in a big company to join a startup, but it definitely leads to very exciting days..
How long did it take you to be where you are now? What was the biggest obstacle? What are your biggest achievements to date?
It has taken me five years since graduating to get to where I am now. There have of course been a lot of obstacles along the way, but I’d say the biggest one has been deciding what it is that I want to do and being confident enough to pursue it. To be honest, I am still deciding, and still reaching…
What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you? What are the challenges of being a woman in wearable tech and digital health?
The #WomenInTech movement means a huge amount to me – as it should to everyone. When I studied engineering, I was part of the 27% of the female class, and, still today, people are often surprised when I tell them I am an engineer. Promoting women in tech and engineering is critical to ensuring the industry develops as effectively and innovatively as possible, and alongside this is the importance of ensuring women in the industry are treated with as much respect and belief as their male peers. I have been lucky enough to work alongside and for male colleagues who don’t treat me any differently based on my gender; however, I have seen how subconscious biases can affect situations and place women in less favourable positions. Empowering women to take more action and feel confident in their jobs in the tech industry will make a huge difference to the field and beyond.
In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the wearable tech and digital health industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
Wearable tech is a hugely fascinating industry because it has so much potential - every object is becoming ‘smart’ - smart clothes, smart headphones, smart mattresses… People are constantly asking for more feedback from their activities, and wearable tech meets these needs but also sparks more interest in the users - it’s a growing cycle of interest, innovation, interest, innovation. I think the most exciting thing is that soon everything will be connected - our smart headphones will be linked to our smart mattresses which will be linked to our smartphones… This will mean that not only will we be able to get feedback, but we’ll also be able to get active improvements from our devices: for example, our smart headphones may realise we aren’t sleeping well, and will be able to identify why. Our smart mattress or smart home system will in turn be able to modify our environment to better suit our sleep, and our smart phone may suggest ways of us relaxing more at certain times of the day. This is just in the sleep and relaxation space, but there is this sort of connected potential throughout the wearables industry.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech and digital health?
Sheryl Sandberg (I guess she’s slightly outside the wearable tech industry, but I’d say Facebook encompasses these industries somewhat, and her strive to reduce the gender gap throughout businesses and industries is inspiring, as are her recommendations to individuals on how to feel more confident and make more of a change as a woman in the industry.)
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.