Kemisola Bolarinwa, inventor of cancer-detecting bra speaks on wearable technology

Kemisola Bolarinwa, inventor of SmartBra and CEO of Nextwear Technology
Kemisola Bolarinwa, inventor of SmartBra and CEO of Nextwear Technology

As a young girl, Kemisola Bolarinwa already had dreams of becoming an innovator. Her favourite subjects in secondary school were Maths, Physics and Chemistry. Her interests in STEM spurred her to join the Junior Engineers, Technicians and Scientists (JETS) club in her school, St. Helen’s Unity Secondary School, Ondo.

JETS club was created to introduce students to the STEM field and help them get practical experience. As a club member, she represented her school in different competitions, one of which she remembers with pride. In 2006, Kemisola, alongside another student representing their school, built a radio transmitter and receiver, which won 3rd place at a national JETS club competition in Jos, Nigeria.

“The club deepened my interest in stem because I was able to get hands-on experience from what we were taught in school. Going out as a young girl and meeting my counterparts to test my knowledge deepened my interest in STEM.”

In pursuit of her dreams, she studied Electrical and Electronics Engineering at the University of Ado-Ekiti. This course of study can be described as the launchpad for all her dreams that are now set to come through.

Kemsiola is now the CEO of Nextwear Technology, Nigeria’s first wearable tech startup.

Nextwear Tech designs and develops technology worn close to the body by embedding programmable electronics and sensors on clothing to solve societal issues such as health and communications.

STEM Gender Gap

In an exclusive interview with Technext, Kemsiola reveals a pattern she observed. For most women, it is all too well known and that is the gender gap. The CEO’s department in the engineering faculty, electrical and electronics engineering had only 11 girls as freshers. By the third year, some left to other departments and only 7 graduated.

Kemisola is an advocate for girls, as she is trying to bridge the gender gap and encouraging girls and women to seek careers in STEM.

It is a global challenge especially when it comes to engineering. That’s why I came up with the Stem Gender Gap where I advocate for this issue.

Kemisola.Bolarinwa, CEO Nextwear Technology

On education, she mentioned that the current educational system was not supportive of the practical system of learning. She attributed this to overpopulated schools with limited or archaic resources.

“It is impossible to forget hands-on learning. Hopefully, the government will review the curriculum to encourage more hands-on learning. I believe that seeing real-life applications catches your interest more than paperwork, like what happened to me. I use myself as a model because hands-on opened my mind and interest to tech.”

Speaking of education, Kemisola is a self-taught robotics engineer. After graduating as an Electrical & Electronics engineer, she discovered that her career choices were limited by the environment she found herself. Another discovery she made was that she was not equipped with the skills necessary for the new wave of technology.

I graduated in 2010 and the new age skills essential for this 4th industrial revolution like Robotics and IoT wasn’t taught then. The university gave me fundamental knowledge but not what I actually needed.

Kemisola describes the next step in her journey as a life-changing one and the bedrock of her career. This next step was joining Baun Robotics where she started her journey into the world of computing language and programming, all thanks to the support of her incredible boss.

‘My boss gave all of us the room to use his resources, money and internet to learn as this form of education was not readily available in the country. He was really supportive. I was able to learn the programming language C++ used in robotics which I had no idea of before. I was able to learn at my own pace using videos and texts’, she says.

She has further gone ahead to get certificates in order to validate the knowledge she learned.

Nextwear Technology innovations

SmartBra prototype

Interestingly, Kemisola’s boss did not just give her the room to grow, he also exposed her to different areas of emerging technologies like wearable technology which she now operates in.

Researching is Kemisola’s hobby, so, when she knew about wearable technology, she deep-dived into it. Tragically, she lost her aunt to breast cancer and the idea of finding a solution took root in her mind.

In 2020, there were 2.3 million women diagnosed with breast cancer and 685 000 deaths globally. As of the end of 2020, there were 7.8 million women alive who were diagnosed with breast cancer in the past 5 years, making it the world’s most prevalent cancer.

Breast cancer is a threat to women globally regardless of status. I took it as a challenge. When I gained knowledge in wearable technology, I worked on it.

The best way to beat cancer is through early detection. So, Kemisola, alongside her team of five worked on a product that could detect cancer in the breasts simply by wearing it on the body for about five minutes. This product was named Smart Bra. An oncologist and a cancer researcher are on the team as they help to give insight on the medical aspect of ensuring product efficiency.

The team in 2021 came up with a working prototype and have conducted a local trial or “troubleshooting”, as Kemisola refers to it. They recorded 87% accuracy and are now working on getting it to to the Minimum Viable Product stage (MVP) so they can do a clinical trial.

Nextwear Technology has an existing product in the market; a necklace that doubles as a tracking device. With the mobile app, a guardian can follow the journey of the wearer of the necklace. This product was created in response to the state of insecurity in the nation. Since launching it last year, Nextwear Tech, has sold over 300 units. The mother of one says this is due to the fact that the startup has not done much marketing but that is about to change.

This change is due to the fact that the SmartBra innovation has brought them some publicity, so, people’s doubts about Nigerian made products are allayed.

‘The publicity from the smart bra has helped as now they don’t have the usual doubt of “Naija made ” products. The smart bra has shown that we are capable of making excellent products.’

All these brilliant innovations have come at a cost. When asked about the funding process, Kemisola says “I can tell you that I am exhausted”. The self-funded startup has spent about ₦4 million on SmartBra alone, a cost that arises from purchasing the hardware needed and visiting different teaching hospitals to meet with oncologists.

Hardware development is capital intensive and requires a lot of time. It takes time to get it right. Funding has to be there because you have to come up with prototypes as you can’t get it on the first try.

Nextwear Technology is looking to raise some funds in a pre-seed round but is holding on until it has come up with a product that is ready for mass production. Kemisola was a recipient of a $10,000 grant in the Standard Chartered Women in Technology Incubator Programme (SC-WITI) in Nigeria.

Kemisola Bolarinwa receiving an award. Picture credit: Business post

Kemisola is looking to get more grants and angel investors to support the work as it hopes to have an international clinical trial and a mobile app for wearers of the bra to see their results.

Kemisola has gained recognition for her work from the Federal Government of Nigeria, after meeting with the Minister of Science and Technology for State, Abdullahi Mohammed.

She also mentions global recognition as people from all over the world express their interest in the work.

“We’ve been getting responses from all over the world as people are interested. The market is there, people are waiting for us and we cannot disappoint them. We are working on accuracy.”

The process of building the product has been slow as the parts needed are not available in Nigeria. Orders have to be made and then the delivery takes weeks or sometimes months to get to them which is a challenge for the team.

It is evident while talking to Kemisola that she is confident in her abilities. When asked about other challenges she faces, she says gender stereotyping used to be one of it but that she has conquered it by speaking up and believing in herself.

I don’t take gender stereotyping as a challenge anymore but it was there in the beginning. I was able to beat down that challenge because I speak. You can’t look down on me or lessen my potential.

This is also her advice to young ladies.

“The first thing is to believe in yourself, ability and potential. Without that, you might get discouraged. “

She encourages other women to get into the tech space, regardless of age or educational qualifications.

It is not too late to venture into tech. No matter your background or discipline, I would advise you to have basic knowledge in tech so you don’t get lost.

The innovator is excited about the future. Kemisola mentions that Nextwear Technology is set to launch more wearable technology products in communication and fashion.

“We also have products coming in communication and fashion. We want to come up with a runway show at GT Fashion week with our tech meets fashion wears. People should look out for us.”

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