A Canaria in the coal mine: The cutting edge Brisbane tech taking safety to the next level

Brisbane-based medtech pioneers Canaria Technologies are predicting and preventing problems before they arise, with innovative devices that are saving lives in the most extreme conditions and environments on Earth. 

Led by founders Alex Sorina Moss and Dr Rob Finean, who met when they teamed up to win the NASA International Space Apps Challenge in 2016, Canaria Technologies have been based in Brisbane since 2017.  

They’ve doubled in size every year since then, and have made a splash in the resources sector with a market-leading predictive biometrics system that is setting new standards for safety. 

Worn comfortably behind the ear, the surprisingly stylish Canaria-V is a non-invasive industrial PPE device, powered by proprietary algorithms, that predicts and prevents potentially fatal events before they occur. 

It does this by using transmissive pulse plethysmography (PPG) technology, which emits multiple light spectrums into a person’s skin and measures the amount of absorption to identify activity within their circulatory system. 

Canaria earpiece

The cutting-edge device detects and monitors a range of core metrics – including heart rate, heart rate variability, blood oxygen level, temperature, head position and movement, respiratory rate, ambient temperature and barometric pressure – to predict and analyse heat stress and cognitive fatigue with pinpoint accuracy, and deliver alerts to the wearer in real time. 

Currently in the midst of a five-year deal with global mining giant Rio Tinto, and with more international projects set to be announced next year, Canaria Technologies are pushing medical technologies to their absolute limit.

We sat down with Sharon Dargaville, Head of Marketing at Canaria Technologies, to discuss three lessons from Canaria’s rapid rise that any business looking to emulate their success can apply to their journey. 

You’ll use everything you’ve ever learned 

No matter what field you’re in, drawing on your own unique life experiences can help to set you apart from your competition. That’s certainly been the case for Canaria Co-Founder & Chair  Alex Sorina Moss, whose background isn’t exactly typical for a tech entrepreneur. 

“Alex’s background is in fashion and art,” Sharon says, “and that really informed the design of the Canaria-V Earpiece.” 

Alex had worked as a model and an art dealer before entering NASA’s global hackathon, the International Space Apps Challenge, in 2016. It was here that she met electronics engineer Dr Rob Finean, the eventual co-founder of Canaria. 

The pair clicked instantly, and teamed up to create a device that solved the problems NASA had identified – finding a more comfortable way to log astronauts’ vital medical data without impeding their work, and identifying hazardous pockets of CO2 that build up within spacecraft.

Their invention – an earpiece that could monitor vital signs and carbon dioxide levels – beat out 1,200 other projects presented at the Challenge to win the award for Best Use of Hardware. 

While Rob’s knowledge of electronics was essential to the device’s success, the design of the earpiece took its inspiration from an unlikely source – ear cuffs from Alexander McQueen’s Autumn-Winter 2006 collection. Alex remembered wearing the cuffs and marvelling at how comfortable they were, and realised it was because there are no nerve endings around the cartilage behind the concha of the ear.  

Not only was it a comfortable position for the wearer, but it was also free of the noise artifacts that would affect the signal you’d get from a device on the wrist, which would naturally shake around in the course of wearing it. 

Unsurprisingly, none of the other coders and scientists taking part in the Challenge had thought to look towards high fashion for their solution. This shaped Canaria’s modus operandi – to look outside medtech and absorb esoteric influences from fashion, art history and avant-garde design.

“Alex brings a dynamic perspective when it comes to wearable devices,” Sharon says. “When you’re wearing a medical device, you shouldn’t even feel like it’s on. And with her background in fashion and design, Alex and the engineering team are able to figure out ways of designing wearables to fit the body that other people in this field would never think of.”  

Since that first prototype, the Canaria team has expanded to include a diverse group of data scientists, mathematicians, and electronics and mechanical engineers who have worked for the likes of Cochlear and Boeing. Each of them have brought their own unique background, perspectives and skill sets to Canaria, culminating in the development of the Canaria-V earpiece that leads the market today. 

Know your market 

While the earpiece was originally designed to help NASA track the vital signs of astronauts, Alex and Rob soon realised the limits of this approach. 

“With NASA, it was kind of a tough market, because they would only ever need enough earpieces for a handful of astronauts at a time,” Sharon says. “That was the limit, if they focused on space. So the next step was to figure out how to use this technology to save the most people.” 

Alex and Rob knew they had a great product, but they weren’t pitching it at the right market. So they went back to the drawing board and found the sector that was most affected by the problems they had found a solution for. 

“The earpiece was able to detect the early warning signs of cognitive fatigue and heat stress, and those are some of the biggest issues the resource sector faces, with workers exposed to extreme conditions for long stretches,” Sharon says. 

In 2019 alone, cognitive fatigue was the cause of 144 fatalities in the resources industry in Australia. Two thirds of all major incidents were attributed to cognitive fatigue, with each incident costing the companies involved up to $20 million. More than 30 per cent of the affected workers were machinery operators and drivers, greatly increasing the risk of collateral damage. 

In that same period, there were 8,000 reported heat stress incidents in the Australian resources sector, costing companies up to $6,000 per day for each affected worker. 

It was a sector with real problems, a willingness to address those problems, and a track record of adopting new technologies quickly. 

“Alex and Rob pitched the device to a couple of companies in the resources sector in Australia, and two weeks later they were on a plane to Brisbane,” Sharon says. 

“They started the company here because the resources sector is in Brisbane’s backyard. That’s also true of Perth, but Brisbane has the added benefit of a technology sector that’s quite underrated, and a government that’s very supportive of technology companies. There are a lot of exciting tech companies coming out of this city. So they tapped into a couple of great networks and built the company out from there.”  

Network, network, network

Sharon says the ability to network with companies in the medtech and resources sectors was definitely a factor in the decision to base Canaria in Brisbane. 

“Although Brisbane is quite large, it’s also a place where everyone knows everyone,” she says. “That’s been fantastic for Canaria, in terms of making those connections. And the potential for the medtech sector here is absolutely huge – we just partnered with a local company called Elexon Electronics, for instance, who are a leader in manufacturing medical devices. It’s great to have their support, to help push us in the right direction and give us great advice about where we need to go.” 

Canaria’s 16 employees – who include business development and marketing professionals, as well as the aforementioned data scientists, engineers and mathematicians – have all become regular faces at the Brisbane Business Hub, the home for Brisbane’s business community in the heart of the CBD. 

A joint initiative of Brisbane City Council and Brisbane Economic Development Agency, the Hub offers free workshops, events and one-on-one mentoring with industry leaders, as well as centrally located co-working spaces. 

“The Brisbane Business Hub has been absolutely incredible for us,” Sharon says. “We were invited to check out the space by Miriam Kent, who encouraged us to use the space for meetings. We’ve done a lot of networking at the Hub, and been to a lot of events – it’s a great place to meet likeminded people. 

“We’ve been doing some work with ShapeLabs, who are based out of the Hub, so we’re there quite often. It’s also a great place for mentorshipTheodora Le Souquet, our Managing Director, is one of the mentors there. She’s made herself available for free sessions with small businesses, to teach them what she knows about growing and scaling a company.” 

Though it can seem daunting, Sharon says it’s important for start-ups and small businesses to make connections and create opportunities for themselves. 

“Don’t be afraid to throw yourself out there,” she says. “We’ve had a lot of yeses, but we’ve also had a lot of nos. But for us, it’s about showcasing our technology to as many companies in the resources sector as we can, and using our technology to save as many lives as possible.” 

To learn more about Canaria, visit canariatechnologies.com

To book your free mentoring session with Canaria Technologies Managing Director Theodora Le Souquet, visit businessinbrisbane.com.au/mentoring

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