CEO Series

From T-Shirts To Belt Buckles, This S'pore Startup Wants To Make Everything You Wear 'Smart'

Technology is in the palm of our hands, and also worn around our wrists.

Humans have found ways to level up in handling life’s daily tasks thanks to a little help from valued assistants like smart watches.

Benefits like keeping on top of messages and emails, and performing tasks like reminders and navigation at a glance may seem dispensable to those who haven’t experienced it—but those who have often hail it a new way of life.

Most of all, many use wearable technology to step ahead in their health and fitness goals with functions like heart rate monitoring, and tracking workout durations and distances.

Based here in Singapore, one company called KaHa has been working on technologies that power these gadgets, but for them, smart watches are just the tip of the iceberg.

They’ve explored other ways to weave tech into our lives, and some of the results so far are smart t-shirts, smart wallets, smart belt buckles and even smart skipping ropes too.

kaha lifeflow smart skipping rope
Image Credit: KaHa

Behind these creations, KaHa’s founder and CEO Pawan Gandhi has had his eye on Internet of Things (IoT) technology since around seven years ago.

Noticing how internet connectivity was becoming ubiquitous, while cloud technology was rising and sensor technology was also “evolving to produce even smaller [sensors]”, he believed IoT would be the next big thing that can help people “lead healthier, happier and more informed lives”.

His Main Mission: Safety First

Born in Delhi, Pawan moved to Singapore in 2005 when he was hired to work for Nokia here.

Together with his previous work at international satellite radio network WorldSpace, he amassed 15 years of global experience in leadership positions before breaking out to form his own company.

kaha wearable tech iot founder singapore pawan gandhi
Image Credit: KaHa

The turning point came after a “horrific and highly publicised assault case in India in 2012”, he told The Business Times, which likely alludes to the gang-rape in Delhi in which six men violently raped a student on a public bus, who later died from her injuries.

Shaken by the disturbing incident, Pawan felt a strong and personal sense of “emotional calling”.

That was how he knew “this was [his] path and the primary driver was safety”.

After spending over a year researching the conditions of vulnerable women in India, Philippines and Nepal with industry experts, he established KaHa in 2015, inspired by the Maori word that means to “be empowered” and “stay strong”.

The first product they brought into the world was a smart watch that keeps people connected to their chosen guardians, and can readily send out SOS messages with the wearer’s location in an emergency.

smart watch sos message women safety
See where your closest ‘guardian’ is, and who can reach you fastest in an emergency / Image Credit: KaHa

Prove It Before Getting Others’ Support

Once he had his proof of concept “and there was significant visibility on developing this further”, Pawan reached out to a friend from his Nokia days, Justin Tang, as well as Sudheendra Shantharam who had been his consultant on the project for six months, and they joined him as co-founders.

Their ship was anchored to the most basic human need for safety first and foremost. Then, they navigated through other key issues they could solve with their technology.

At the beginning of KaHa’s journey, we identified the key pillars [to focus on]: safety for children, seniors and women, fitness and sports, health and wellness, and digital payments.

kaha singapore iot wearable tech startup
KaHa’s Singapore team / Image Credit: KaHa

While he doesn’t reveal the amount of investment, Pawan shares that he started up with his “personal savings and loans from friends and family”.

“It was important that I validated the business strategy and proof of concept before seeking external funding,” he says.

Only after two years in operation did KaHa raise US$4.5 million in its first round of funding in 2017.

Following that, they most recently clinched another US$6.2 million in May 2019, in a Series B round led by a Singapore-based deep-tech venture capital fund, ICT Fund.

Familiar Brands, Different Technology

KaHa operates on a B2B2C (business-to-business-to-consumer) model. Rather than retailing their own products directly, they license their technology to other firms under the brand name COVE, who then sell it to customers.

For lifestyle brands like watch makers who want to launch smart products, they can avoid “prohibitive financial costs and speed up their go-to-market time” by tapping on KaHa’s technology.

kaha singapore office
Image Credit: KaHa

“We wanted to create a tech platform that lends itself to brands so that consumers can still get a product from their favourite, trusted brands with the same quality and design elements they prefer, but with added smart functions supported by our platform,” Pawan explains.

“In the process, we have created several innovations and filed over 25 patents,” he adds.

Right now, KaHa has offices in Singapore, Bengaluru, Geneva and Shenzhen.

Pawan says they’re working with about 15 brands using KaHa’s tech, including Australia’s Curtis, India’s Titan, and Hong Kong’s Bridgestone as some notable watch brands on board.

Most of their watches retain the classic analogue style, but can perform functions like calendar reminders, sleep tracking, fitness tracking, emergency SOS, and phone finder, through connecting to a mobile app.

titan connected smart watch kaha
Image Credit: KaHa

If smart watches are too mainstream for you, they’ve also turned belt buckles into wearable fitness trackers for Swiss company Boucledor, and enabled skipping ropes to log your exercise movements and patterns.

Even The Running Shirt You Wear Can Turn Into Tech

While their products mainly served overseas markets for some time, KaHa has recently been more active in Singapore.

In 2018, they announced plans to open an innovation and research lab in one-north, where they can work under one roof with their partners to “streamline development”.

kaha wearable tech singapore startup
Image Credit: KaHa

That same year, they teamed up with A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) and textile company Tex Line to create a prototype smart t-shirt that can conduct live ECG reading, on top of the usual fitness tracking measures.

The smart t-shirt monitors live ECG, live heart rate, heart rate variance, V02 Max (maximum oxygen uptake) and other health parameters.

Unlike most smart devices that have some form of hardware, designing a smart t-shirt was a different kind of challenge as the sensors that pick up vital signs had to be incorporated into fabric.

They did this by giving the shirt a tightly-fitting inner layer made with carbon electrodes that work as sensors, hidden underneath what looks like completely normal exercise tee.

Passers by would be none the wiser that you’re secretly working out like Tony Stark.

kaha a*star singapore smart t-shirt running exercise ecg reading
Image Credit: A*STAR

The smart t-shirt was first trialled by 100 runners at a one-north Run event in December 2018, and an improved second-generation version followed six months later.

Aside from sports and exercise, it can also be useful in healthcare for keeping track of patients’ heart health.

“We are targeting [its] commercial release in Singapore within the year,” says Pawan.

kaha smart t-shirt wearable tech singapore
Image Credit: Deccan Chronicle

Beyond the smart t-shirt, Singapore can also finally experience more of KaHa soon as they plan for “a portfolio of products” to launch here in the last quarter of 2019.

Pawan adds that they’re also “focused on expanding in Southeast Asia and partnering with some of the best-known brands and operators in the region”.

With their global work in IoT, KaHa is contributing to what’s projected to be a US$120 billion industry by 2022.

  • Find out more about KaHa’s wearable technology here, and follow them on Facebook here.

Featured Image Credit: KaHa / Forbes India

 

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