Valencell sues Apple, Fitbit over heart rate patents

By Jonah Comstock
11:20 am

Raleigh, North Carolina-based heart rate sensor company Valencell is suing both Apple and Fitbit over alleged patent infringement, and is accusing Apple of additional deceit as well.

A lawsuit filed in North Carolina yesterday alleges that Apple stole the technology that powers the heart rate sensor in the Apple Watch from Valencell, obtaining said technology through insincere partnership overtures and whitepapers downloaded under fake names. Apple Insider first spotted the news. 

Valencell makes the PerformTek heartrate sensing technology, which it licenses to a number of partners including Sony, Jabra, LG, iRiver, and Atlas Wearables.

“Rather than manufacture its own wearables, Valencell has repeatedly chosen to partner with existing consumer electronics companies and manufacturers while continuing to focus our R&D on creating the future in biometric wearables,” Dr. Steven LeBoeuf, president of Valencell, said in a statement. “As more and more wearable products powered by Valencell’s award-winning PerformTek sensor technology are now available in the marketplace, and the market has begun to value the importance of highly accurate biometric wearables, we’ve seen some companies choose to use our patented inventions without pursuing a patent license. We will defend our intellectual property to ensure our current and future licensees get the full value of licensing our inventions, as we continue to innovate around our foundational dream of seamless, personalized mobile health and fitness.” 

The Fitbit suit is fairly straightforward, and seeks damages for the infringement of four Valencell patents. It also mentions that Valencell reached out to Fitbit on multiple occasions about partnering as early as 2009 and that Fitbit Chief Revenue Officer Woody Scal "expressed great interest in the application of Valencell’s patented technology, including its wrist sensor modules" at CES 2014, nearly a year prior to the launch of the Fitbit Charge HR.

"As the pioneer and leader in the connected health and fitness market, Fitbit has independently developed and delivered innovative product offerings to empower its customers to lead healthier, more active lives," a Fitbit spokesperson said in an email. "Since its inception, Fitbit has more than 200 issued patents and patent applications in this area. Fitbit plans to vigorously defend itself against these allegations.”

Valencell is suing Apple for patent infringement of four patents, breach of contract, and unfair and deceptive trade practices. The suit alleges that Apple reached out to Valencell to request a meeting with LeBoeuf and others to discuss Apple licensing the technology. The meeting took place in June 2013. In the course of the negotiations that followed, Valancell gave Apple access to sample technology for testing and analysis.

Additionally, the suit alleges, at least seven Apple employees — all of whom were involved with the Apple Watch — downloaded Valencell whitepapers from the company’s website, but provided fake names and company information when they did so. Valencell says this constitutes a breach of contract.

Since both companies consider the details of their heart rate monitoring technology a trade secret, it’s hard to say from the outside if Apple’s tech is a copy of Valencell’s. They both use the same basic technological approach, photoplethysmography, to track heart rate at the wrist.

Digital health has had more than its share of patent battles over the years, including Bodymedia suing Basis Science in 2012 and Robert Bosch Healthcare suing three different competitors that same year. Two high-profile companies that IPO’d in 2015 are also duking it out with their biggest competitor over patents: Fitbit and Jawbone have both sued each other for patent infringement, while Teladoc is still embroiled in a suit by American Well over telemedicine patents.

In the latest case, Valencell’s attorneys even went as far as to evoke the late Steve Jobs in the language of the lawsuit.

“Apple did not have an intention of licensing Valencell’s PerformTek Technology,” the suit concludes. “Instead, Apple’s interaction with Valencell was fueled by a business decision that the benefits of infringing upon Valencell’s patented technology outweigh the risk of being caught and ultimately forced to pay damages. This practice is consistent with the statement by Apple CEO Steve Jobs that Apple has ‘always been shameless about stealing great ideas.’”

Apple declined to comment on the pending litigation.


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