University of Michigan (U-M) startup Kinetica Labs is revolutionizing the workplace safety market with a trio of motion capture applications launched in July 2020. The combination of a high-value technology platform and stringing together the right local resources and networks positioned the company for success.
Kinetica Labs develops motion capture software that translates videos into posture data without requiring a sensor on the body. That posture data can then be used to determine the risk of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). Organizations can then proactively modify equipment, workplace layout and processes in order to reduce the chance that a worker is injured.
The technology is the brainchild of Kinetica Labs Founder and Chief Technology Officer SangHyun Lee, who is also a professor and associate department chair of research in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Michigan.
Historically, human movement mapping required manual measurements and physical sensors attached to the body which made the process time-consuming and cost-prohibitive to conduct on a large scale, explained Dave Gregorka. Gregorka is a mentor-in-residence at U-M Office of Technology Transfer (OTT) who worked with Kinetica Labs and serves as a strategic advisor for the startup.
“The front end really had never been computerized until this invention,” Gregorka said. Lee’s technology makes it possible to analyze more movements from more workers to help employers keep their employees safe.
Lee launched Kinetica Labs in 2016 to bring the technology to market, and the startup penned a distribution deal in 2018 with Ann Arbor-based and nationally recognized ergonomic software company Humantech. Kinetica Labs’s motion capture capabilities have become a significant competitive advantage for Humantech’s product offerings.
“About a week after we signed the agreement, Humantech was acquired by VelocityEHS and our opportunity to reach more potential industrial organizations was increased nearly 100-fold,” said Brenda Jones, CEO of Kinetica Labs. VelocityEHS is a giant in the environmental health and safety (EHS) field, with over 19,000 customers.
VelocityEHS became the distribution partner for Kinetica Labs’s initial technology, and in July 2020, Kinetica Labs launched its own trio of web, iPhone and Android apps.
Kinetica Labs’ journey from academic innovation to commercial business is a textbook example of leveraging all the resources available to academic founders both nationally and particularly in the Ann Arbor area. In 2017, Lee began working with U-M OTT to protect his technology, and navigate the distribution deal with Humantech. Gregorka and other members of the OTT team also helped Kinetica Labs develop their business model and secure important non-dilutive funding and human resources. Ann Arbor SPARK provided critical early stage funding through its Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s (MEDC) funded Business Accelerator Fund (BAF) and provided other critical support during the early stages of Kinetica Labs.
Prior to Kinetica Labs’s formation, Lee also secured the MEDC Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization (MTRAC) Advanced Transportation Innovation Hub funding and National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Partnership for Innovation (PFI) funding. Lee’s team also participated in both the regional and national I-Corps programs to develop the technical and business aspects of his body movement software.
Through customer discovery involving over 120 interviews via the NSF’s I-Corps, Lee pivoted the initial focus of his technology from construction to industrial settings like manufacturing and distribution. “It turned out the value proposition wasn’t strong enough in construction,” Jones explained.
With the focus on industrial applications, Lee was able to attract Humantech as a partner. After initially meeting with Humantech in 2016, the teams remained in contact until the timing was right to move forward with a partnership that has continued to grow.
After leveraging MTRAC, NSF and Ann Arbor SPARK funds to develop the motion capture software both in the lab and in the early days of the startup, Jones turned to the local ecosystem to find funds that would help Kinetica Labs integrate its technology with Humantech’s platform and develop its own commercializable iPhone app. Jones highlighted the Ann Arbor SPARK Business Accelerator Fund, the Economic Growth Institute’s First Customer Program and Michigan Women Forward business plan competition as being crucial to supporting both activities.
Another way the ecosystem supported Lee was with talent including introducing him to his current CEO Brenda Jones. “I knew Dave Gregorka through the entrepreneurial ecosystem and heard he was looking for a startup founder for one of the companies he mentored. Dave introduced me to [Lee],” Jones said. She met Lee at the The James and Anne Duderstadt Center on U-M’s campus, listened to his founder’s journey and saw the application he had created, at which point Jones was sold and began helping navigate the Humantech and Kinetica Labs agreements with the support of OTT.
Because Jones had been an active participant in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem through events and mentorship programs; she knew about all the resources available to support startups and how to access them.
Ultimately, Kinetica Labs was able to launch web, iPhone and Android motion capture applications in July 2020, informed by feedback from Kinetica Labs’s early clients of a pilot iPhone application released in April 2019.
“We want to tell people that there is help out there. If you string things together in the proper order, you can transform an initial idea into a commercial product that can impact the world,” said Jones.
To learn more about Kinetica Labs please go to their website at https://kineticalabs.com/.