Health tech enthusiasts have been recently gushing over the promise of the Basis watch, a sensor-filled arm band that’ll keep an eye on your pulse, your caloric burn, your movement, the degree in which you’re sweating, and then upload these data via Bluetooth to your computer and the Basis web service.
A lot of companies selling consumer-centered connected health devices and services have popped up in the last few years (Ftibit, Direct Life, Zeo, Withings, BodyTrace, Jawbone, BodyMedia) but Basis is different in two key ways: 1. It’s the first watch product in this category of companies, and 2. It’s the first device that has the ability to tie pulse, caloric burn, sweat, and movement together. This capability has some potentially interesting consequences, making Basis both a product and company to keep an eye on.
Imagine, for example, that when you go cycling, you might leave behind a data fingerprint different than say, when you play tennis. This could allow your Basis watch to tag your activity accordingly, creating a sort of Mint.com portal that catalogs your health activities. This sort of information, tied up with sleep data, might lend itself to unique and holistic insights about one’s behavior, information not possible with current devices.
We recently stopped in at the brand new Basis office in San Francisco to sit down with their new CEO Jef Holove. We chatted both about their upcoming product (hopefully for sale this year) and the consumer health device space in general. We left with the feeling that if they’re able to pull off their vision and can make as functional and sexy of a device as their industrial designers have rendered, they’re in for quite a ride.
The full interview, transcribed below is a must-read for anyone interested in consumer health gadgets.
Medgadget: You’re new to Basis, Jeff, right? It’s been what, a few months?
Jef Holove: I’ve been here since April, officially. And I’ve been involved with the organization on a progressive basis since last September of last year. I first met Nadeem, the founder and Bharat, our Chief Operating Officer who came from EA. And then I just started meeting more and more of the team as I started to get closer. I first met them as an introduction from our Venture Capitalist because I was running a company that was a device connected to a web service and so there was some feeling like, “Well, maybe I’ve learned a thing or two about that that might be useful to the Basis guys,” and then I just fell in love with what they were doing. It’s a very different thing to get up every day and go into the office, loving the team and the product, but also feeling like what you’re doing is much more important than just the individual business and the individual product.
And I was looking at the space already, because wellness is this epic problem. And I started to, in my mind, put together this analogy in comparing the wellness issue to the environmental issue, the Green Tech movement, and the Clean Tech movement. This is a problem that has been around for a while and is going to be around for a very, very long time.
It’s something that’s not usually solved with one silver bullet. It’s a lot of things. It is behavior change. And like recycling bins outside your home, like driving a Prius had become symbols of you doing your part for the environmental movement, I think there will be symbols of people doing their part for this movement, for this cause, for this issue.
Medgadget: And do you think the Basis Watch will become a symbol of this movement?
Jef Holove: I think devices like the Basis device can become those symbols. And I think it will be important. I think the system is not getting better, the system is getting worse in terms of how well it can support individual patients and individual consumers of healthcare system. And I think what that does is pushes more responsibility down to the individual to start taking more accountability. But for the average consumer who doesn’t have a lot of background, they need taking that accountability to be easy. They need the tools and they need the context to really get involved in any means. And so my hope is at the big level Basis is one of those tools. This is one of those tools where it is on you all the time, it’s passively collecting, and you don’t have to enter data.
Medgadget: I’d love to talk more about this space of health technology in general, but first, could you just give an overview of, I guess two things: One, the core sensor technology in Basis, and two, how that’s all tied together into the web service you’re building.
Jef Holove: Sure. So I sort of think of the magic of what we’re doing is at three layers. The first layer is the obvious one, and when you’re talking to consumers it’s the one that’s sort of top of mind for them, which is, “I’m wearing this device, it’s got these sensors in it.” At that level, the core sensor technology is basically four types of sensors inside the device or underneath the device. The one that I think is most prominent, because it’s one of the most instrumental pieces of data that we’re collecting, is the optical sensor that detects heart rate. So what we’re doing is, in layman’s terms, shining light through your skin, measuring the reflection of that light back into the device and through that we’re detecting the blood flow to your capillaries and from that we can extract heart rate. There’s also temperature sensors in the device, measuring skin temperature and ambient temperature. There’s also three accelerometers for measuring activity in all three dimensions. And then lastly, there’s a galvanic skin response sensor which can be used over time for a lot of things, but one of the core things we’re using it for is sweat detection.
Medgadget: What will the sweat detection be used for?
Jef Holove: Great question. So each of these sensors detects discrete things, which might be valuable to us individually but I think what’s much more important is sort of the next layer of magic which is the algorithms they are running inside the device to interpret and to correlate data coming from multiple sensors? So if we see heart rate is up but the accelerometers are not showing a lot of activity that might mean something different to us than heart rate is way up and the accelerometers is going crazy and sweat levels are very, very high, right? So you can start looking at data across multiple sensors.
Medgadget: So are the algorithms to interpret the data your core proprietary technology?
Jef Holove: Definitely. That’s one layer of it. We’ve got the question, can you just build the device that manages the power and the form factor and everything, that’s the first layer. Second layer, in my view anyway, is the algorithms, the intelligence running inside the device that interprets the data coming off those sensors. And then third layer is what we call the cloud layer, right? So it’s getting the content up to the cloud, a lot of our heavy processing, heavy lifting is done at the server layer. The richer our database gets, the more and more user data is covering more and more sort of user scenarios. The richer that database gets, the richer the algorithms can be, and the richer the insights that those algorithms are gathering can be. So populating the database with all that data is mutually valuable to every individual user. The more data that is there, the more insightful we can be.
Medgadget: One thing that’s interesting to me with that combination sensor part, is that I can imagine a situation where someone, at one point, records an activity spike on their Basis profile as cycling, right? And then now, you have the fingerprint for what that individual data pattern of cycling tends to look like for that individual and can auto tag it next time.
Jef Holove: Exactly. And then you multiply that by a thousand or ten thousand, the more data points you get like that, the smarter the system can be at figuring out what this data means. So absolutely. Now, it takes time. You start off with certain number of users, and the more users you have, the richer the data is, and the smarter you can get.
Medgadget: I mean, it’s never going to be perfect but might get close enough to be useful.
Jef Holove: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. But the more data points like that, the smarter we can be, the smarter the system can be at figuring out what this pattern looks like and what it means. Now the important thing is, okay, getting a lot of data is really interesting. Having that data be accurate and rich is really interesting, but if you can’t translate that into something that a regular mainstream consumer can understand and can figure out how to act on, then you’ve only gone half-way there, right? So the last piece then at the sort of cloud layer is not just analyzing all this data but now rendering it, summing it up, for regular mainstream users.
Medgadget: Sure, sure. One of the complications, I would imagine, is finding out which data is meaningful to each specific user. If I had a Basis, I think the thing that I would care most about is resting heart rate because it’s such a wonderful proxy for cardiovascular fitness. And there’s not a lot of good ways to collect that with minimal effort. I would personally want to use that as a baseline and see how I compare to other people in my age range. But other users might be very interested in different things. So how do you avoid this feeling where you dump all these data on a user and ask them to interpret it?
Jef Holove: Yeah. It’s a great question and it’s actually something that our product team has experimented with a lot. We’ve gone through a bunch of regular consumer users and experimented with how much data can you put in front of them? How much of that is interesting and where, and at what point is it overwhelming? And how can you simplify it? And then, at the other end of the spectrum, when does simplification become over-simplification and now it’s sort of seems to dumb down so much that it doesn’t seem valuable, doesn’t seem credible.
Yeah. So where we are on that right now is, there are some people who, I would say, are very similar to your take and they want to see their heart rate, they want to see their beats per minute. They’re going to use that as some sort of baseline. I would say, there’s a bunch of people who, actually, wouldn’t know where to begin. It’s like, “What does my beats per minute really mean? Is it good? Is it bad? So we’ll offer you that data. And different people will key in on different things. If I’ve got sleep issues, my sleep metric might be the thing that I’m paying most attention to. And then, showing that score on a daily basis is important. That can be just the 30-second daily interaction you have with us. It doesn’t have to be a deep interaction everyday. If we get you to interact with us at a bite-size level on a regular basis, then we’ve done what we’re looking for. But in addition to that basic score board, we’re going to help you. We’re going to highlight things that are relevant to your wellness… messages like “Hey, most calories burned to date yesterday,” or “Hey, last night reflected was a great amount of sleep.” And if you’re the kind of person who feeds off of your social networking, wants that sort of social support, either for bragging or for support reasons, it’ll be possible for you to share that stuff out. If it’s really for you just about you getting better and you’re not the sort of the sharing type of person, that’s fine by us, too.
Medgadget: Sure. And at a high level, why the watch as a form factor?
Jef Holove: I think it’s the sort of most convenient place in some ways. It is, I should note also a very, very challenging technical problem. So from an engineering standpoint there’s lots of issues you have to deal with using this particular location that maybe you don’t have to deal with in other ways. But I think there’s been enough sort of commentary out there about public devices and their form factors, and whether they’re convenient to wear under certain kinds of clothing or whether they’re easy to use, or you know, all of those things, I think… I think this is a form factor that people are very, very used to. And for the people who want to show the world they’re doing their part, for people who are looking at this as sort of a statement about themselves and what they’re interested in, this is a visible place that you can do that without it being too intrusive.
Medgadget: And maybe it’s not a one size fits all users answer. I mean you have a broad category of the devices in this space. There’s the watch model. Then there’s Body Media’s arm band. And there’s like things like the Direct Life, which you as a necklace. Or there’s the clip model, like Fitbit.
Jef Holove: Yeah. I think there’s a couple of advantages that a device like ours offers. One of them is that we have a display, right? And so by wearing it here, it’s got a display on it. It’s someplace that you’re used to looking at. It’s someplace that’s very easy for you to engage with. So I think that versus some tiers that don’t have a display or a display that doesn’t show you very much, information is an advantage. But yeah, I think there’s other devices out there that have a different take on it. I personally think this is the right balance of visibility and convenience.
Medgadget: I would imagine that by having the sensors on your wrist, all the data is pretty clean except the accelerometer data. I’d bet it’s super messy just from arm movements and trying to like figure out if these movements are exercise. And you’ve already alluded to this a little bit in that you can use the other pieces of information coming in to help understand that a bit better.
Jef Holove: Yeah. There’s two things you can do. You can use data from the other sensors to help you sort of compensate or fill in or help your guessing. But also, as you already pointed out, the more data that we study the more we can go, “Oh, that pattern probably means this,” right? So I don’t know if you were in here earlier when we had people on the treadmill doing other stuff. But that’s the kind of work that we’re doing, is studying what does movement look like here versus what does movement look like here and how does it sort of model the algorithms on the device to account for that.
Medgadget: And in five years, do you imagine that you’ll just have lots of iterations of the watch, or will you expand to other pieces of hardware? Are you going to be like Withings where you start with one device, move to another, or…
Jef Holove: I won’t say anything too specific, partly because we’re not ready to, and partly because I think we’re going to learn an awful lot in our first few months that’s going to shape what we might do long term. But I guess I would say, as we think about what we’re trying to do, we think of ourselves as an ongoing wellness service for you. And that service is most valuable if it’s got a lot of rich data in it. And making devices is sort of a means to an end. It’s not that we’re making a watch per se because it’s sort of like a source of pride to make a device that people buy. It’s the best way to get the data that we need to actually help you with your wellness and to present anything very insightful for you. And I think we can do an awful lot with this device, but other devices will be relevant to us as well.
Medgadget: One of the criticisms I often hear about companies in this space is that the hardware in five years will be a commodity. And there’ll be ten companies with cool gadgets that monitor things using basic sensors that are available. How do you avoid that happening to Basis?
Jef Holove: Well, I guess I’ll start with this. I worked at Logitech for many, many years. That company is in categories that sort of externally you could easily say, “Well it’s all going to get commoditized.” You know what I mean?
Medgadget: Sure, sure.
Jef Holove: A mouse is a mouse is a mouse, right? They have a point. And yet, every year Logitech innovates something new in this space that keeps their price points at three times sort of what they have to be. And they’re the biggest player and sort of the healthiest company in that space, despite the fact that you can argue, it’s all commodity.
So, I think good product innovation, good understanding of the user experience always leaves a room to de-commoditize or to ensure that a category doesn’t get commoditized. Will there be commodities in this space? Absolutely. I think if you look at what’s happening right now, there you’re going to see a plethora of accelerometer-based, pedometer-type of devices out there and all kinds of different form factors.
Jef Holove: I think even within that space, somebody will figure out how to make that experience more engaging and de-commoditize it. But our point of view right now, is we’re starting off with a much richer set of data than what has been commoditized.
Medgadget: Yeah. So does it excite you when you see companies like Jawbone, you know, with their Up bracelet released and I’m sure others to follow?
Jef Holove: I mean it certainly does. It does for a few reasons. You know, speaking truly from the perspective of a CEO running a small start-up company…
Medgadget: It’s market validation.
Jef Holove: It’s validation of the marketplace, and having run a company before with really no competition, on the surface of it that seems fantastic, right? You’ve got a device with no competition. It’s neat. It’s interesting. It gets tons of press coverage. There’s nobody forcing you to make pricing decisions other than your best guess at what the market wants. But on the other hand, that means that all of the weight of creating that market is on your shoulders. And as a start-up you don’t have unlimited budgets, as you might guess, in fact maybe your living. So I think having a lot of energy, having a lot of interesting innovation happening in this space, having several of us working together to create the category is far more valuable than worrying about market share or how much our product is better than their product and what their pricing might be.
Jef Holove: And I think it just helps create awareness from the consumer’s perspectives, about what this category can do for them. And if all that happens with four or five of us in this category driving the consumer end, and now we’re looking at their options. I’m very comfortable being in that position with what we’re doing.
Medgadget: So back to the product for a second, how does the data currently get off the watch into the system?
Jef Holove: It’s connected in two ways. it’s got a USB plug in, so you can plug it into your laptop and have it upload. But it also have Bluetooth in it. So, if you’re the kind of user who knows how to connect the Bluetooth device, which is pretty common these days, then you’ll be able to upload the data wirelessly, either directly to your laptop or over time to more mobile platforms.
Medgadget: And how often you need to charge the watch?
Jef Holove: I can give you very specific answer when we get closer to launch, but right now it can go over four to seven days. So, less often than you have to charge your iPhone.
Medgadget: Cool. And from the company side, you just recently closed a Series A, right?
Jef Holove: We did, yeah.
Medgadget: With who?
Jef Holove: The company has raised money throughout its history through private investment, angel investment, but the Series A was led by Norwest and by DCM. Tim Chang at Norwest has really been attracted to this space for quite some time. I think one of things that attracted Tim to this business is this question about how you keep the user engaged, right? So, I think there has been a lot of activity and wellness for a long time. I think many of us have either seen our friends and family or lived ourselves through the New Year’s resolution that last for about two weeks before you sort of fall on the wagon, and so your engagement sort of fades over time. For us a major focus of what we’re trying to do is to solve that problem. How do you not only deliver a cool wristband gadget is interesting, that collects interesting data but now, when it comes to wellness, it’s not a prolonged engagement, then it’s sort of doesn’t matter, right?
Medgadget: Great, well thanks for this chat. My last question, I guess, is when I can buy one?
Jef Holove: We haven’t announced a specific launch date yet and that’s partly because we’re mostly focused on the right product first as opposed to a launch date first, so I guess I’ll leave it at that now. But more and more information is coming out about us so stay tuned.
Medgadget: Do you think it will be this year?
Jef Holove: It could be this year.
Medgadget: Thanks a bunch Jef.
Product page: Basis…