Wearable technology has come a long way from the calculator wristwatches of the 1980s. Today’s tech can augment reality, close your garage door, ensure you get your 10,000 steps and even train you to beat stress. Raleigh-based company Valencell is a leader in the field—the company develops biometric sensor systems to improve health and fitness.
Exercise physiologist Chris Eschbach, Ph.D., is director of Valencell’s Biometrics lab, which tests over 400 products annually to help get its clients’ wearable products on the market. He is responsible for a team that conducts more than 36,000 tests per year on human subjects as they walk, run, row, swim, bike and lift, to measure accuracy and identify areas of improvement.
Originally from Rochester, Ind., the retired triathlete, who got engaged at the finish line of an Ironman, is on a lifelong quest to help people achieve optimal health. Before joining Valencell, he founded the Human Performance Lab, LLC, which provided physiological consulting for sports and wellness. In addition to his doctoral degree, Eschbach holds a master’s degree in Human Performance from the University of Southern Mississippi and a bachelor’s degree in Zoology from Western Illinois University. He served as an associate professor at both North Carolina Wesleyan College and Meredith College, where he was a chair of the Department of Nutrition, Health and Human Performance.
We asked Eschbach, 45, to give us a peek behind the scenes of his job helming the lab at a cutting-edge research company.
What does Valencell do, exactly?
Valencell produces the most accurate wearable biometric sensor systems in the world and provides this patent-protected technology to consumer electronics manufacturers, mobile device and accessory makers, medical device makers, sports and fitness brands and gaming companies for integration into their products. Valencell’s customers include LG, Sony, Jabra, Bose, Suunto and many more.
We’re passionate about enabling people to live healthier lives. Accuracy in all conditions is at the heart of what we do, for anyone, anywhere, doing anything, wearing any device. We are a trailblazer in the field, inventing many of the foundational patents that are moving biometric wearables forward. And we like to have fun doing it.
Walk us through a typical day.
A typical day involves a lot of organization. My lab team consists of six exercise scientists, and each week we have between 40 and 80 individuals participating in research projects. All the data from these sessions is examined, organized and presented. The amount of scheduling and data handling that has to take place each day to keep everything running smoothly takes a lot of communication.
For me personally, a day starts by going over last-minute research and development requests and touching base with my lab team. Each day, I have meetings to discuss validation results and plan for upcoming needs. I also review support documents that come from the data my lab produces.
What skills/traits are required to succeed in this field?
Within my team, I look for individuals that have a commonsense ability to communicate but still take individual ownership of their responsibilities. I like to think my lab runs like an assembly line with each person responsible for a specific piece of the process. While there are specific pieces to the team, there is enough crossover that if someone is gone for a time, anyone can step in and the job still gets accomplished.
What are your favorite parts of the job?
The best part of my job is the environment. I work in an awesome lab surrounded by a lot of activity, including physical activity. Everyone at Valencell is pretty laid back but knows how to get their job done.
We have some great stories of individuals participating in some of our research projects that involved training them for 10 weeks and really making positive changes to their fitness. It’s always great to see people achieve their goals.
It’s also awesome to see Valencell sensors in commercial devices. I see products with Valencell tech all over the world and remember all the work that went into making it happen. It’s very satisfying.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
An optometrist. My grandfather was an optometrist, and I always thought what he did was cool. Without knowing it, I was attracted by the process of the whole thing—determining the best way for someone to see properly. I studied to become a dentist in undergrad, but as a college athlete, was drawn to physiology. After meeting a professor late in my undergrad years, I discovered exercise physiology and was hooked. That professor changed my trajectory pretty severely, and I went to grad school for human performance and exercise physiology.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I don’t think anyone in my lab, including me, could have ever imagined doing what we do for work. I get questions from students about what jobs they should look for and I simply answer “all of them.” There are so many unique opportunities out there. The key is setting yourself apart with interesting ideas and skills to get noticed for them.