Innovation in Start-Ups

Innovation in Start-Ups

on the twelfth floor in a renovated office building at the foot of the Smithfield Street Bridge, a famous Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, landmark built two centuries ago, sits an entrepreneurial high-tech start-up com­pany that epitomizes the concept of innovation. The office space has won several awards for its novel use of low-cost materials and has the feel of an open landscape that characterizes the company’s horizontal organization. White stretch fabric hangs from the ceiling in a dramatic way that shields but does not completely hide the exposed details of the original architecture. When the heating and cooling system kicks in, the fabric expands into large sails, giving the feeling of being on a sail­ing ship, an apt metaphor for the river below and the activity within. The atmosphere is creative but minimalist, and it is just the right mix to keep the mostly young interdisciplinary employees inspired. The views out the windows show a panoramic view of the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, the point in Pittsburgh where the ohio River is conceived. These are the same rivers that were used in the last Pittsburgh revolution. The once-polluted rivers that were filled with coal and slag barges are now a center of tourism and leisure boats. The new revolution is innovation.

The open space is filled with desks, laboratories, computers, and a prototyping studio that can build anything from high-end electron­ics to wearable product concepts; they even have professional sewing machines used in fashion design and manufacture. Bulletin boards appear throughout, filled with charts, pieces of the latest technology in materials, and images of people involved in all sorts of everyday activities. in the lobby, which melds with the desks of programmers, is a glass-top table with a box underneath filled with sand that you can reach into and play with, a remnant icon from Sandbox Advanced Development, the predecessor to BodyMedia.

In that space are also the some of the world’s leading experts on body sensing, ergonomics of wearable devices, the analysis and min­ing of monitoring data, and cutting-edge aesthetics. BodyMedia, a small but growing biotechnology company, was founded by a foursome in 1999 with the mission to “be the recognized leader in integrated products and services that track and promote health and wellness through continuous body monitoring.” CEO Astro Teller has an impressive lineage as the grandson of Edward Teller and of Gerard Debreu; Edward Teller was the father of the hydrogen bomb and advisor to six United States presidents, and Debreu was an econom­ics Nobel Prize winner. Astro Teller has a Ph. D. in computer science and looks more like a rock star (with his below-shoulder-length hair,

goatee, and mustache) than an executive. Another founder, CTO Ivo Stivoric, does not have an engineering degree. Neither does the VP of product design and mechanical development, Chris Kasabach. Instead, both have several degrees in industrial design. The fourth founder, Chris Pacione, VP of interaction design and marketing com­munications, does not have a marketing degree. Before teaming with Pacione and Teller, Stivoric and Kasabach had worked together in a research lab at Carnegie Mellon University developing five genera­tions of wearable computers. Prior to returning to Pittsburgh to teach, where he ended up connecting with the other founders, Pacione had worked as an interface designer for one of the leading interaction design consulting firms in the world, Fitch. The team leads one of the most advanced and exciting technology companies in body health monitoring today.

Their product, the SenseWear armband body monitor, has won multiple national awards and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Time, and Business Week, among others. Against the odds in a climate of start-ups going bust, the company grew to 31 employees, raised $22 million in venture funding, and became a profitable com­pany in its first five years. It has three significant utility patents issued on its core technology and nearly 50 more pending in the United States and abroad! The company also sells its products indirectly through partnerships that include Roche Diagnostics for clinical weight management and Apex Fitness as part of a weight-loss pro­gram and through resellers in the scientific research market.

The four founders represent further examples of the new breed of innovator. As an innovative team, they have developed a style of working that allows them to deliver state-of-the-art solutions to prod­uct opportunities. That working style incorporates interaction between their employees and their customers, a research and devel­opment approach, and a culture that keeps them on the cutting edge of discovery and application. For instance, SenseWear is not only an elegant monitoring device, it is also part of a complete service of interpreting the diverse streams of information generated by and stored within the device over periods as short as a few minutes or as long as a few weeks. BodyMedia’s breakthrough insight into the need for a complete product and service solution occurred when the founders realized, after extensive observation and research with end users, that people want to incorporate the body monitoring into their everyday life (a product) and that both experts and novice users had a variety of potential applications for the information they monitored (a service). For instance, the Sensewear device might be used to accurately track calories burned during exercise, information that can be used in Web-based software (also provided by BodyMedia) that enables both personal trainers and their customers to track the suc­cess of a weight-loss regimen. Or the device might track vital cardiac signs for someone such as Rob Nicholson, mentioned previously in this chapter. The SenseWear combination of an elegant unobtrusive product, one with a simple and seamless download and easily under­stood interface, gave BodyMedia the right combination of innovative ideas to create a breakthrough in body monitoring.

innovation can happen in both large and small companies. The nimble small companies, however, are often in a position to innovate without the bureaucracy and inertia of stability and the status quo. Large corporations have also found ways to build an entrepreneurial attitude, often by relying on small interdisciplinary advanced product development teams. But the new generation of start-ups is all about innovation, about change. BodyMedia developed its SenseWear product not because it had a technology looking for an application. Instead, the team had the training to observe societal trends. The team put forth the effort to understand the emergence of the desire for—and, in some cases, the need for—unobtrusive real-time moni­toring of body performance. They were able to recognize this oppor­tunity because they had extensive experience and expertise in wearability and computing.

The team of four founders at BodyMedia had gained experience in these areas through their education and experiences at Carnegie

Mellon University. The team was a spin-off of a research lab in the College of Engineering. The lab was focused on the fact the technol­ogy advances were allowing for the development of highly functional computers that could be carried or worn. Whereas most labs would have addressed size alone from a technology standpoint, this lab hired research assistants who had recently graduated from the university’s department of industrial design. The team of Chris Kasabach and Ivo stivoric started to produce much more comprehensive prototypes that included product semantics—the form and interface features that describe the aesthetics of the product, human factors, and mar­ket-driven aesthetics not found in most engineering-driven labs. The result was prototypes that looked and operated like mass-produced products. When designing wearable technology for military applica­tions for equipment inspection, they took into account that most sol­diers using the equipment were Game Boy-savvy and between the ages of 18 and 24. Their work attracted researchers at Intel, and they were asked to push the concept of usability and reduction of size to new areas of application. This project brought the entire team togeth­er as Astro Teller added a computer science dimension and Chris Pacione brought in communication and interface expertise. They also added new industrial design research assistants to the team— Francine Gemperle and David Aliberti.

The first prototype concept in the university setting was given the name Digital Ink. The idea was that your pen could also be your computer. The nice thing is that everyone carries and uses a pen, and building off that common tool would make everyone instantly com­fortable with “computing.” Although the concept was fantasy from the team’s imagination, they had enough experience with technology to know this product was feasible, and enough practical understand­ing to create an innovative integration and delivery of technology in a product that everyone would embrace and that was eventually patented. The success of the product concept enabled the core team to spin out of Carnegie Mellon to start a consulting firm, Sandbox Advanced Development. The goal was to generate enough money consulting to start a new company where they would develop their own products. Within a year, they were on their way, and the original sandbox is in the lobby today, as mentioned earlier, as a reminder of where they have been and the attitude of free-flowing ideation they want to maintain.

Small and large companies alike need to build off of expertise. But innovation comes from trained insight and process. BodyMedia follows a rigorous process of innovation and exploration, processes that we discuss throughout this book. The result is a unique capabil­ity in the growing market of body monitoring.

The SenseWear device itself is comfortable and nonintrusive to wear, located at the optimal location of the body, balancing ergonom­ics and function. Rather than projecting a medical image, the device is a beautiful aesthetic. So it can be worn overtly rather than hidden. it is a statement of lifestyle rather than a banner of medical need. its patented system analyzes body output such as total calories burned, duration of physical exercise, number of steps taken, active energy expenditure, and sleep onset and wake. The functional, ergonomic, aesthetic, and overall experiential qualities of the SenseWear rede­fined body monitoring in a market that had provided technology with little care for the experience of use.

Updated: September 26, 2015 — 6:46 pm