Defond-FIGUR8 partnership makes state-of-the-art MSK health a reality for everyone

Known as a top global supplier of switches, electronic modules, and sensors, Defond is now the core partner for FIGUR8, an MIT spinoff that combines hardware, software, and biomechanics artificial intelligence to analyze musculoskeletal (MSK) health.

By: Daniel de Wolff

Their collaboration has paved the way for a 2022 rollout of FIGUR8’s first-ever medical device—a revolutionary solution in the form of a wearable technology that standardizes the evaluation of MSK health and enables objective clinical decision-making to help workers, athletes, and patients to train correctly, heal optimally, and live healthier, injury-free lives.

Deep tech startups, no matter how brilliant the tech, can and do fail, but a strong partnership can make all the difference. In 2019, FIGUR8’s founder and CEO, Nan-Wei Gong, had prototypes at the ready. She knew what she wanted to build, but she was having trouble finding a capable manufacturer to invest the time, effort, and resources necessary to translate a brand-new technology package into a mass-produced product for one of the most heavily regulated sectors in the world.

Doing what they do best, MIT Industrial Liaison Program (ILP) and MIT Startup Exchange stepped in to facilitate a highly vetted, targeted introduction between decision-makers.

Gong recalls MIT ILP suggesting she meet with one of its member companies, an integrated solution provider with strong design capabilities, solid research and development, and a resilient supply chain. Most surprising to Gong was its characterization as an international enterprise intent on developing an organization-wide culture of entrepreneurship with an emphasis on innovation.

The introduction to Defond was pinpoint accurate; it helped forge an essential partnership that shaped the direction of our company.

Intrigued, she agreed to the meeting. “We had made great connections with potential customers through ILP and MIT Startup Exchange in the past,” she says. “The introduction to Defond was pinpoint accurate; it helped forge an essential partnership that shaped the direction of our company.”

As for Defond, its chairman, Mr. Chu, rarely misses an opportunity to meet with MIT-connected startups when MIT ILP and MIT Startup Exchange are involved. “MIT ILP consistently curates targeted introductions that allow us to stay abreast of next-level technology trends,” he says.

To wit, an ILP-orchestrated introduction set the wheels in motion for Defond to become an early adopter of the solutions offered by Tulip Interfaces, another groundbreaking MIT spinoff. Their collaboration boosted efficiency on Defond’s factory floor while allowing Tulip to fine-tune its nascent product with the support of an industry giant.

This time around, Mr. Chu arrived on the MIT campus with his business development manager Daniel Wong. Their conversation with Gong suggested the potential for a mutually beneficial relationship. Defond would be able to expand its capabilities and break into new markets. FIGUR8 would realize its goals with the support of a forward-thinking manufacturer with a keen understanding of market demand and the acumen to minimize the risk associated with commercializing a startup’s first product.

Expectations aligned, Gong toured one of Defond’s factories. The sheer size of the facility was impressive; populated by 8,000 workers, it functioned with absolute precision. But to successfully manufacture FIGUR8 's proposed medical device or any medical device, for that matter, Defond would have to register with the FDA and attain ISO 13485 compliance. Mr. Chu was undeterred. Defond completed the lengthy certification process and successfully registered with the FDA, leading to the official launch of the Defond-FIGUR8 manufacturing project in 2021.

Large manufacturers are typically unwilling to deviate from their rigid processes. But Defond breaks the mold. It is an industry leader with a reputation for product quality and reliability that still manages to be flexible and open-minded. According to Gong, Defond’s chairman deserves much of the credit. “Mr. Chu is ahead of the curve in terms of how he thinks about facilitating innovation. I’ve never seen a manufacturer that operates like Defond—they approached the project with a startup mindset,” she says.

No clearly defined manufacturing process in place, no problem. Defond leaned on prior processes as reference points rather than strict guidelines, paving the way for a collaborative effort and the mass production of a novel technology that just might change the world for the better. And, while other organizations suffered through supply chain setbacks in 2021, Defond demonstrated brand strength, flexing its purchasing power to source components and maintain forward trajectory.

“We have developed a strong partnership based on trust and powerful synergies,” says Mr. Chu. “Our joint accomplishment would not have been possible without the foresight of MIT ILP and MIT Startup Exchange. Entering the medical device sector is a significant milestone for Defond and FIGUR8, and this is just the beginning.”