An Interview with Alan Macy

This interview, written by Tiff Thompson, originally appeared in California Biofeedback, Fall 2014

There is a building in Goleta California that is all steel, three stories, 16,000 square feet. In the year 1984, a group of four guys in the mid 20s— friends from Cal Poly and UCSB -- began renting a small room there in quest of a pas- sion. With no agenda, no timeframe, and no real funding, Marc Wester, Rick Nakazawa, William McMullen, and Alan Macy began a mutual pursuit: the simplification and stream- lining of an electrocardiogram machine at the behest of a frustrated physician from Goleta Valley hospital.

Today, they are the founders of BIOPAC Systems, In- corporated, an international company specializing in life science hardware and software for research and education. BIOPAC now owns that building, which stands complete with assembly production, test production, software quality assurance, programming, hardware engineering, marketing, sales, shipping and receiving, stock room, and administrative offices. And this is only their Goleta branch. BIOPAC Systems, Incorporated, has offices in Canada, as well as in Europe, and representative offices in 31 countries.

The following is the story of the company’s development from the perspective of one of the four: Alan Macy. Part engineer-inventor, part mad scientist, and part innovative artist, Macy sees physiology everywhere. He sees the future as enabling the connectivity between the operational environment and all of its sources. Through the course of his career, he has seen the evolution of BIOPAC’s physiological equipment from chart recorders to computer-aided digital and now to wireless.

And so the story goes:

Four young men sitting on a picnic table in clothing styles from the 80's.
The four founders of BIOPAC: Alan Macy, William McMullen, Rick Nakazawa, Mark Wester.

In 1983, Alan Macy was fresh out of a Master’s in Elec- trical Engineering, working at Applied Magnetics. A local physician, Dr. Vogel from Goleta Valley Hospital, had an enormous, unwieldy machine that would play back tapes of electrocardiogram data taken from chest straps. Vogel was disappointed in the shortcomings of the machine and requested Alan’s friend from Cal Poly, William McMullen, to help in making data acquisition and processing more friendly.

McMullen asked Macy, Wester and Nakazawa, to help with the project. They decided they could gather the ECG recordings straight to high density memory arrays. Their cal- culations suggested they could store up to 24 hours of data onto a dynamic memory chip, which had just been invented by the demands of the personal computer industry. Familiar with embedded systems, the guys began the initial wave of smart instrumentation. Making printed circuit boards, they trained themselves and worked on the project from early 1983 until late 1984.

They were in the middle of building their own computer to process the data when Apple’s Macintosh PC came out. On the Macintosh, text was beautiful to look at and raw data began to look visually appealing—especially physiological data, which had before been under pen and paper chart recordings. The PC enabled them to produce digital data that presented the same way as visual permanent records would show, except now the data could be stored on a floppy drive and all measurements could now be done on a computer.

At this time, that they had a prototype Electrocardiogram recording belt, but they needed to take the project to the next level. Realizing they would need funds for injection molding, FDA certification, and more, they began to grok how very expensive this would be, and decided to change directions. They turned the Electrocardiogram recording belt into a box called the “MacPacq”, a general-purpose data acquisition unit for the Apple Macintosh. They borrowed funds from their parents. Approximately $30,000 afforded them the continuation of the project, the procurement of parts, and the purchase of advertising space. All they could afford for advertising, however, was a tiny ad tucked in the classified section of the MacWorld magazine, consisting of three lines of text.

That ad pulled in their first phone call and first order; the year was 1986. And they began to sell the units. Not only that, they began to sell well. The people who were buying these were life science researchers who began to ask for more hardware: amplifiers, modular add-ons, et cetera.

They grew exponentially from 1986 to 1990. By 1991, they had all quit their jobs, had incorporated the company, and were beginning to hire more people. Macy noted:

“We were lucky to be doing that work at the beginning of a revolution, the metaphor of catching the wave, when you are swept up in currents that are really big. There was a fair amount of money in life science research at that time. It was driven by academia because there were a lot of new kids coming in who were teachers and wanted the laboratories computerized. This was an advantage to research because the information was portable and the data was shareable. The first modem systems would allow you to collaborate with someone in Europe.”

And of course, this was hugely enabling for researchers because it allowed for the sharing of data, with greatly increased orders of magnitude. The company would struggle over the challenges associated with software and the Cambrian explosion, in terms of getting their hardware and software to interface with all the different operating systems. A Macintosh programmer named Edward Peterlin encouraged BIOPAC to adopt Qt, a kind of a meta-level software development system-across-platform application framework. Because of this decision, BIOPAC today is platform agnostic.

As the company continued growing, they became aware of different demands to the market: they were soon pulled into the life sciences, and people began to use their equipment for teaching applications. BIOPAC began to enter curriculum development. The trappings of the curricular model was hugely successful. An entire wing of the company became the BIOPAC educational systems. The company bifurcated and branched into education and research-focused products.

Today, BIOPAC is looking to the future with a wide angle lens; physiology is everywhere. The story is captivating, as is Macy. He will be discuss- ing his thoughts on this and more, in his talk at the BSC conference: Beauty and the Origins of Electrophysiology, Telecommunications and the Global Theater, November 8th at 3pm.