Conor Heneghan and his wife of 27 years, Sian Ferguson, are what’s known as “Sakura sweethearts” – students who met and fell in love while living in New York’s International House student residence which faces on to Sakura Park in Manhattan.
Heneghan was doing his PhD in electrical engineering at Columbia University at the time. His wife to be was studying dance history at City College and this sojourn in the States was the first of several extended periods of time the couple spent there culminating in a full-time move to the west coast in 2013.
Heneghan, a former associate professor at UCD, is now a senior staff research scientist working for Fitbit. If you want to know what clever things your fitness watch or tracker will be able to do in five years’ time, he’s your man. That said, he’s not giving much away about potential new features when we talk, although likely developments may include a bigger focus on areas such as identifying and managing stress.
The couple live in the San Jose suburb of Campbell, and Heneghan commutes to the company’s offices in Mountain View and San Francisco three days a week. His direct team of 12, which is primarily made up of doctoral graduates, has members based in California, Boston and Seattle. That means Heneghan is well used to long-distance collaboration, so it was pretty much business as usual during the pandemic.
One of the things he likes about his job is that what starts out as research ends up as a feature in a product that improves people’s quality of life. For example, he’s proud of the Fitbit feature that can spot the signs of atrial fibrillation.
I might be biased, but the art of good conversation is still strong in Ireland and it’s always good to catch up when I get home
It was this drive to create tangible outcomes from research that saw Dr Heneghan step out of his academic comfort zone in 2003 to co-found UCD spin-out BiancaMed, a tech start-up focused on innovative cardiorespiratory analysis. The company subsequently developed SleepMinder, a contactless, non-invasive device that measured sleep and breathing. Heneghan was the company’s chief scientific officer from 2003-11 while continuing to teach part-time at the university.
In 2011, BiancaMed was acquired by US company ResMed and, as part of the deal – which Heneghan says didn’t make him rich, but helped when it came to buying a house – he moved to San Diego as chief engineer for strategy and ventures at ResMed in 2013. Two years later he joined Fitbit as a director of research. Fitbit was acquired by Google in 2021.
Heneghan is now completely immersed in the commercial world and, as a long-time academic, he admits to sometimes missing the teaching. “I enjoyed watching students learn and seeing them mature from kids at 18 when they came into the university to young adults by the time they were graduating,” he says.
“Technology has moved on so much since I did my undergraduate degree that I often think it would be great to be able to go back and redo one’s education. Looking back now, I’d advise anyone currently in education to make the most of it while you’re there. It’s an opportunity to dig deep into things that you really don’t get to the same extent later on.
“I originally went to the US because I wanted to work on a postgraduate degree in research and knew that there were lots of good opportunities there. In Ireland in 1990, PhD options were more restricted and there was relatively little funding for scientific research available.
“At Columbia University, they had the scale to be able to offer both course work and a research thesis project and I got a really rounded postgraduate education. More generally, it was my first time to leave home so that was a great learning curve too.”
These days, outside work, he plays soccer, runs, cycles and swims to stay fit and keep up with his wife who teaches contemporary dance and ballet and is also a dance notator – the process by which dance movement is represented and recorded.
I think the gap has closed significantly and Ireland is now an attractive place to do research and pursue ideas
Heneghan has also gone back to playing the piano, having first learned to play as a youngster, and he’s taken up the acoustic guitar. “Unfortunately, I’m not blessed with great musical talent, but I find it an enjoyable challenge,” he says.
He says the differences between Ireland and the US in terms of the confidence to try new ideas and the availability of funding for new businesses and research are much less marked now than when he was starting his career. “I think the gap has closed significantly and Ireland is now an attractive place to do research and pursue ideas. However, we will always be somewhat hampered by being a small country and not always having the scale to take on new markets or projects.”
The couple have two children, a son about to finish high school and a daughter studying for a master’s in theatre practice at UCD.
“Neither my wife nor I have any family living nearby, so missing my family and Irish friends is the biggest drawback of living abroad,” he says. “I might be biased, but the art of good conversation is still strong in Ireland and it’s always good to catch up when I get home.
“The political news in the US over the last few years has also been a bit depressing. There are lots of issues where there needs to be a healthy tension between left and right views, but when people start arguing about counting the votes, that’s a bad sign . . .”