Health

Weighing Peloton’s opportunity and risks ahead of IPO

Posted by | Amazon, Android, Apps, Bluetooth, fitness, funding, Gadgets, hardware, Health, initial public offering, IPO, john foley, Peloton, Startups, tonal, Treadmill, Twitter | No Comments

Exercise tech company Peloton filed confidentially for IPO this week, and already the big question is whether their last private valuation at $4 billion might be too rich for the appetites of public market investors. Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons leading up to the as-yet revealed market debut date.

Risk factors

The biggest thing to pay attention to when it comes time for Peloton to actually pull back the curtains and provide some more detailed info about its customers in its S-1. To date, all we really know is that Peloton has “more than 1 million users,” and that’s including both users of its hardware and subscribers to its software.

The mix is important – how many of these are actually generating recurring revenue (vs. one-time hardware sales) will be a key gauge. MRR is probably going to be more important to prospective investors when compared with single-purchases of Peloton’s hardware, even with its premium pricing of around $2,000 for the bike and about $4,000 for the treadmill. Peloton CEO John Foley even said last year that bike sales went up when the startup increased prices.

Hardware numbers are not entirely distinct from subscriber revenue, however: Per month pricing is actually higher with Peloton’s hardware than without, at $39 per month with either the treadmill or the bike, and $19.49 per month for just the digital subscription for iOS, Android and web on its own.

That makes sense when you consider that its classes are mostly tailored to this, and that it can create new content from its live classes which occur in person in New York, and then are recast on-demand to its users (which is a low-cost production and distribution model for content that always feels fresh to users).

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Future launches $150/mo exercise app where real coaches nag you

Posted by | Apps, Exercise, funding, Fundings & Exits, Future, Health, Kleiner Perkins, Mobile, Recent Funding, Startups, TC | No Comments

The only way to beat laziness is with guilt, so that’s what Future sells. It assigns you an actual human trainer who builds personalized workout plans and messages you throughout the day to make sure you’re doing them. It even gives you an Apple Watch to track your activity and ensure you’re not lying. Future actually got me to the gym where my coach kicked my ass remotely with a 30-minute lifting routine I’d never have stuck to by myself.

The catch? It’s probably the most expensive app you’ve ever seen, charging $150 per month.

Future officially launches today. Luckily it comes with a one-month money-back guarantee that CEO Rishi Mandal says has only been redeemed once. It’s produced some stunning stats from its beta tests: 95% of users stuck with it for three months, and 85% kept training for six months. That’s unheard of in fitness tech.

Future’s welcome kit includes a water bottle and Apple Watch

The remarkable retention and Future’s potential to become a gateway for your exercise and nutrition spending have roped in some big-name investors. Today it’s announcing an $8.5 million Series A led by Kleiner Perkins with partner Mamoon Hamid joining the board, building on its $3 million seed. Other backers include Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger, Khosla Ventures, Founders Fund and Caffeinated Capital. Athletes are betting on Future’s promise of democratizing the personal training they get, including Golden State Warrior Sean Livingston, and NFL stars Ndamukong Suh and Kelvin Beachum.

“Future manages to be both deeply personalized (and personable!) while being super convenient,” says Krieger of one of his first investments since leaving Instagram. Future’s Mandal built his old startup Sosh while sitting next to Krieger at incubator Dogpatch Labs, where Instagram was getting its start. “The always-available nature of it means travel or a shifting schedule is no longer an excuse to not work out.”

How Future works (out)

Throughout the onboarding, Future flexes the money you spend to offer what feels like a luxury app experience.

Upon signup, you’ll answer some questions about your goals like slimming down or beefing up, and pick from a few expert trainers matched to your needs. You’ll do a 15-minute video chat with your trainer to get friendly, describe your schedule and hammer out details of your workout plan. After you get your welcome kit with some swag and an Apple Watch, your trainer delivers your week’s worth of personalized daily routines that come with video instructions for each exercise. The Future app provides audio cues (and optional music) to guide you through the workouts while your trainer chimes in with personalized pointers and motivation via pre-recorded voice clips.

Future’s app guides you through workouts with instructional video clips and audio cues

But what’s unique about Future is that your trainer proactively checks in with you throughout your day to make sure you’re actually going to the gym or doing those pushups. Because you don’t switch between trainers with each workout like some apps, and because they have your activity and heart-rate data from the Apple Watch, they can spot patterns of procrastination or flaking out. You’re prompted to give feedback after each sweat session that the trainer uses to tweak your plan. That personalization and prodding go a long way to making sure Future always fits your day and actually stays part of it.

For example, I wanted to burn a few pounds without burning too much time by adding a gym day or two plus some warmup strength training before my home Peloton rides. My trainer Renee Zernicke, a former University of Wisconsin director of Sports Performance for basketball, designed a 30-minute weight-lifting circuit and some 10-minute bodyweight exercise plans for me. When I messaged her that I was doing a more intense spin class today, she remixed my warmup exercises to avoid legs so I wouldn’t be tired during my ride. So far she’s always responded within a few minutes, and been cheerful yet forceful. “I know your days are slammed, just wanted to check in and see if you were able to get to that spin class?” she messaged me at 6:30pm. That’s something even most in-person trainers don’t do.

Future matches you with several trainer options

I found most of the workout instructions easy to understand, and the audio cues make it easy to do routines without constantly staring at your phone. But the one thing you really lose with a text message trainer instead of an in-person coach is warnings when you’re doing something wrong. Bad posture or jerky motions could get you injured. It’s all a lot smoother if you know your way around a gym. Future could do more to gauge your familiarity with proper form for riskier exercises, and then either teach you or steer you away from them. I hope I’m so sore today because I’m getting built, not getting hurt.

Your pocket motivational speaker

My trainer Renee encouraging me to get to the gym

Future was inspired by some scary facts. “Seventy percent of Americans are obese and overweight,” Mandal tells me. “We spend $3.5 trillion per year on healthcare, yet we have pretty mediocre outcomes.” Mandal had gone through Stanford, worked at NASA and been at Slide when it was acquired by Google. After selling his local experience app Sosh to Postmates, he became an entrepreneur-in-residence at Khosla Ventures, which does many medtech investments. There, Mandal realized health is largely determined by how you eat, sleep, deal with stress, take your medicine and exercise.

Thanks to smart watches, that last one had become the easiest to measure while remaining the toughest to do right on your own. Mandal set out to learn what the fittest people, professional athletes, do for exercise. They all said they relied on personal trainers to make all the workout plans and force them to do them. Home gyms or apps full of pre-made exercises weren’t enough. They needed someone to keep them accountable.

The trouble is that’s pretty expensive one-on-one. So Mandal teamed up with Justin Santamaria, a 10-year Apple veteran from the first iOS team who’d been working on iMessage and FaceTime. Together they designed Future in 2017 to make personal trainers cheap enough to be more accessible while retaining the personal connection that keeps trainees on track.

If you won’t shell out $150 per month to be nagged, there are plenty of apps like Sweat that let you choose between guided workouts. Hell, if you’ve got that much will power you could get any gym membership or just go running. But the closest thing to Future, called Fit.net, folded. AI trainers like Freeletics can’t make you feel guilty or inspired the same way. Lose It and MyFitnessPal can get fellow trainees to badger you, but Mandal found people don’t obey peers like a respected trainer.

The constant communication and sense of trust users develop with their coaches could give Future potential beyond subscription fitness. The app becomes a hub for your healthy behavior. Future already offers an in-app Shop where it recommends workout clothes, headphones and water bottles. It’s easy to imagine it partnering with fitness equipment makers, health food lines or other brands to score a cut of referred sales. “We become your most important relationship regarding your health. You only talk to your doctor two times to three times per year,” says Mandal. But you might tell your trainer you’re looking for ways to eat healthier or sleep better. “Over time, that’s the opportunity.”

Still, the biggest hurdle is convincing people to pay more than 10X their Netflix fee for a personal trainer they don’t see in person. Compared to the $1 apps we’re used to, Future can induce sticker shock. But compared to unused gym memberships, pricey private coaching and potential health problems, Future could look affordable if well-to-do professionals squint right. Humans are sluggish. Most healthy habits lapse. But Future is building the closest thing to “press button, pay money, get fitter” — which in the end looks like getting someone to enthusiastically shame/support us from afar.

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Google Fit comes to iOS

Posted by | Android, Apple, Apps, Google, Google Fit, google now, Health, iOS, iPhone, Mobile, mobile software, operating systems, smartphones, TC, wear os | No Comments

Google today announced that Google Fit, the company’s fitness tracking app that launched on Android back in 2014, is now available on iOS.

It definitely took Google a while to bring the app to iOS. Until today, the only way to get your Fit data on your iPhone was in a special section of the Wear OS app on the iPhone. Without a Wear OS device, though, that section would’ve been empty.

If you’ve seen the Fit app on Android, then the iOS version will look very familiar. It features the same focus on Move Minutes and Heart Point, as well as the ability to pick up different activities based on your movement. You can also connect the app with apps connected to Apple Health like Sleep Cycle, Nike Run Club or Headspace can also sync with Google Fit.

Indeed, as a Google spokesperson told me, all of the movement data in the app also comes from Apple’s Health app — or from a Wear OS smartwatch, though few iOS users have opted to cross streams and use a Wear OS watch with their iPhones.

Since Apple Health already tracks your movement data, I’m not sure all that many iOS users will make the switch to Google Fit. It’s still good to see Google bring its service to this competing platform for those who maybe use multiple devices

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Juul launches a pilot program that tracks how Juul devices get in the hands of minors

Posted by | Gadgets, Government, Health, juul, juul labs, Startups, TC | No Comments

Juul Labs is today launching a pilot for its new Track & Trace program, which is meant to use data to identify exactly how Juul devices wind up in the hands of minors.

Juul vaporizers all have a serial number down at the bottom, by the Juul logo. However, it wasn’t until recently that Juul had the capability to track those serial numbers through every step of the process, from manufacture to distribution to retail to sale.

With Track & Trace, Juul is calling upon parents, teachers and law enforcement officials to come to the Juul Report web portal when they confiscate a device from a minor and input the serial number. Each time a device is input in the Track & Trace system, Juul will open an investigation to understand how that minor wound up with that device.

In some cases, it may be an issue with a certain retail store knowingly selling to minors. In others, it may be a case of social sourcing, where someone over 21 years of age buys several devices and pods to then sell to minors.

Juul will then take next steps in investigating, such as talking to a store manager about the issue. It may also enhance its secret shopper program around a certain store or distributor where it sees there may be a spike in sale/distribution, to youth to identify the source of the problem. To be clear, Track & Trace only tracks and traces the devices themselves, and does not use personal data about customers.

Juul isn’t yet widely publicizing Track & Trace (thus, the “Pilot” status), but it is focusing on Houston as a testing ground with banner ads targeted at older individuals (parents, teachers, etc.) pointing them to the portal. Of note: The ad campaign is geofenced to never be shown in or around a school, hopefully keeping the program a secret from young people illegally using Juul.

The company wants to learn more about how people use the portal and test the program in action before widening the campaign around Track & Trace. That said, the Report portal is not limited to Houston residents — anyone who confiscates a Juul can report it through the portal and trigger an investigation.

“It’s important to note that the pilot is an opportunity for us to learn how the technology is working and optimize the technology,” said Chief Administrative Officer Ashley Gould. “It’s not just at the retailer level. It’s a whole process through the supply chain to track that device and find out if everyone who is supposed to be scanning it is scanning it, and the software that we’ve created to track that serial number through the supply chain to the retail store is working. The only way we’re going to know that is when someone puts in the serial number and we see if we have all the data we need to track it.”

According to Juul, every device in production will be trackable in the next few weeks. In other words, Juul vapes that are years old are likely not fully traceable in the program, but those purchased more recently should work with the system.

Juul has been under scrutiny from the FDA and a collection of Democratic Senators due to the device’s rise in popularity among young people. Outgoing FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has called it “an epidemic” and enforced further restrictions on sales of e-cig products.

Juul has also made its own effort, removing non-tobacco and non-menthol flavored pods from all physical retail stores, enhancing their own purchasing system online to ensure online buyers are 21+ and not buying in bulk, going after counterfeits and copycats posing as Juul products and exiting its Facebook and Instagram accounts.

But Juul Labs also committed to build technology-based solutions to prevent youth use of the product. Co-founder and CPO James Monsees told TechCrunch at Disrupt SF that the company is working on Bluetooth products that would essentially make the Juul device as smart as an iPhone or Android device, which could certainly help lock out folks under 21.

However, the Track & Trace program is the first real technological step taken by the e-cig company. And it has been an expensive one. The company has spent more than $30 million to update its packaging, adjust printing standards, change manufacturing equipment and integrate the data and logistics software systems.

For now, Track & Trace is only applicable to Juul vaporizers, but it wouldn’t be shocking to learn that the company was working on a similar program for its Juul Pods.

Editor’s Note: This article mistakenly said that Republican senators were scrutinizing Juul. It has been edited for accuracy.

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Democratic senators question Juul about its Altria deal

Posted by | altria group, ecigarettes, Gadgets, Government, Health, juul labs, Startups, TC | No Comments

Eleven democratic senators, led by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), have penned a letter to Juul Labs, asking a series of questions around the product’s marketing, its effectiveness as a tool to help people quit smoking combustible cigarettes, sales figures and, perhaps most importantly, more information on the deal that gave Altria a minority stake in Juul Labs.

“The corporate marriage between two companies that have been the most prolific at marketing highly addictive nicotine products to children is alarming from a public health standpoint and demonstrates, yet again, that JUUL is more interested in padding its profit margins than protecting our nation’s children,” writes Sen. Durbin in the letter.

Questions in the letter include records around advertising and marketing spend for Juul products, as well as any changes that might have been made to Juul’s Youth Prevention Plan following the deal with Altria.

In late 2018, Juul announced it had sold a 35 percent minority stake of the company to Altria Group, makers of Marlboro cigarettes, for $12.8 billion. The company said that a partnership with Altria would help Juul market and distribute to currently addicted adult cigarette smokers.

In the letter, the senators cite the American Heart Association, which called the Altria/Juul deal “a match made in tobacco heaven.” Juul was already in hot water over its product’s popularity among young people, so it’s only expected that a partnership with traditional Big Tobacco would further fuel concerns among critics.

More from the letter:

JUUL’s decision to team up with Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, is also bad news for children considering that Altria has a long and sordid history of spending billions to entice children to smoke through targeted campaigns that intentionally lied about the science and health effects from cigarettes. And their efforts have clearly paid off. According to the CDC, Altria’s Marlboro cigarette continues to be the most popular cigarette brand among children in the United States, with 48.8 percent of high school smokers preferring Marlboro cigarettes. Further, the proportion of high school smokers who smoked Marlboro cigarettes increased dramatically between 2012 and 2016, by a whopping 27 percent. While JUUL has promised to address youth vaping through its modest voluntary efforts, by accepting $12.8 billion from Altria—a tobacco giant with such a disturbing record of deceptive marketing to hook children onto cigarettes—JUUL has lost what little remaining credibility the company had when it claimed to care about the public health.

A Juul Labs spokesperson had this to say in response to the letter:

We welcome the opportunity to share information regarding JUUL Labs’ commitment to curbing underage use of our products while fulfilling our mission to eliminate combustible cigarettes, the number one cause of preventable death in our country. We agree that companies such as ours must step up with meaningful measures to limit access and appeal of vapor products to young people. That’s exactly what we’ve done, and we will do more to combat teen use to save the harm-reduction opportunity for the 34 million adult smokers in the United States. Don’t take our word for it — look at our actions. As part of our action plan deployed in November 2018 to keep JUUL products out of the hands of youth, we stopped the sale of certain flavored JUULpods to traditional retail stores, strengthened our retail compliance and secret shopper program, enhanced our online age-verification, exited our Facebook and Instagram accounts and are continuously working to remove inappropriate third-party social media content. We support the FDA’s draft guidance restricting the sale of certain flavored products, including JUULpods, at retail outlets and online, and will continue to work with FDA, Congress, state Attorneys General, local municipalities, and community organizations as a transparent and responsible partner in combating underage use.

U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jack Reed (D-RI), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tom Udall (D-NM), Ed Markey (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) joined Sen. Durbin in sending the letter. It comes just a month after the FDA proposed further regulations to the sale of flavored e-cig products.

Juul has until April 25 to provide answers and information in response to the letter.

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Torch takes $10M to teach empathy to executives

Posted by | Apps, Enterprise, funding, Fundings & Exits, Health, mental health, Mobile, Recent Funding, Startups, Talent, TC, therapy | No Comments

When everyone always tells you “yes,” you can become a monster. Leaders especially need honest feedback to grow. “If you look at rich people like Donald Trump and you neglect them, you get more Donald Trumps,” says Torch co-founder and CEO Cameron Yarbrough about our gruff president. His app wants to make executive coaching (a polite word for therapy) part of even the busiest executive’s schedule. Torch conducts a 360-degree interview with a client and their employees to assess weaknesses, lays out improvement goals and provides one-on-one video chat sessions with trained counselors.

“Essentially we’re trying to help that person develop the capacity to be a more loving human being in the workplace,” Yarbrough explains. That’s crucial in the age of “hustle porn,” where everyone tries to pretend they’re working all the time and constantly “crushing it.” That can leave leaders facing challenges feeling alone and unworthy. Torch wants to provide a private place to reach out for a helping hand or shoulder to cry on.

Now Torch is ready to lead the way to better management for more companies, as it’s just raised a  $10 million Series A round led by Norwest Venture Partners, along with Initialized Capital, Y Combinator and West Ventures. It already has 100 clients, including Reddit and Atrium, but the new cash will fuel its go-to market strategy. Rather than trying to democratize access to coaching, Torch is doubling-down on teaching founders, C-suites and other senior executives how to care… or not care too much.

“I came out of a tough family myself and I had to do a ton of therapy and a ton of meditation to emerge and be an effective leader myself,” Yarbrough recalls. “Philosophically, I care about personal growth. It’s just true all the way down to birth for me. What I’m selling is authentic to who I am.”

Torch’s co-founders met when they were in grad school for counseling psychology degrees, practicing group therapy sessions together. Yarbrough went on to practice clinically and start Well Clinic in the Bay Area, while Keegan Walden got his PhD. Yarbrough worked with married couples to resolve troubles, and “the next thing I know I was working with high-profile startup founders, who like anybody have their fair share of conflicts.”

Torch co-founders (from left): Cameron Yarbrough and Keegan Walden

Coaching romantic partners to be upfront about expectations and kind during arguments translated seamlessly to keep co-founders from buckling under stress. As Yarbrough explains, “I was noticing that they were consistently having problems with five different things:

1. Communication – Surfacing problems early with kindness

2. Healthy workplace boundaries – Making sure people don’t step on each others’ toes

3. How to manage conflict in a healthy way – Staying calm and avoiding finger-pointing

4. How to be positively influential – Being motivational without being annoying or pushy

5. How to manage one’s ego, whether that’s insecurity or narcissism – Seeing the team’s win as the first priority

To address those, companies hire Torch to coach one or more of their executives. Torch conducts extensive 360-degree interviews with the exec, as well as their reports, employees and peers. It seeks to score them on empathy, visionary thinking, communication, conflict, management and collaboration, Torch then structures goals and improvement timelines that it tracks with follow-up interviews with the team and quantifiable metrics that can all be tracked by HR through a software dashboard.

To make progress on these fronts, execs do video chat sessions through Torch’s app with coaches trained in these skills. “These are all working people with by nature very tight schedules. They don’t have time to come in for a live session so we come to them in the form of video,” Yarbrough tells me. Rates vary from $500 per month to $1,500 per month for a senior coach in the U.S., Europe, APAC or EMEA, with Torch scoring a significant margin. “We’re B2B only. We’re not focused on being the most affordable solution. We’re focused on being the most effective. And we find that there’s less price sensitivity for senior leaders where the cost of their underperformance is incredibly high to the organization.” Torch’s top source of churn is clients’ going out of business, not ceasing to want its services.

Here are two examples of how big-wigs get better with Torch. “Let’s say we have a client who really just wants to be liked all the time, so much so that they have a hard time getting things done. The feedback from the 360 would come back like ‘I find that Cameron is continually telling me what I want to hear but I don’t know what the expectations are of me and I need him to be more direct,’ ” Yarbrough explains. “The problem is those leaders will eventually fire those people who are failing, but they’ll say they had no idea they weren’t performing because he never told them.” Torch’s coaches can teach them to practice tough-love when necessary and to be more transparent. Meanwhile, a boss who storms around the office and “is super-direct and unkind” could be instructed on how to “develop more empathic attunement.”

Yarbrough specifically designed Torch’s software to not be too prescriptive and leave room for the relationship between the coach and client to unfold. And for privacy, coaches don’t record notes and HR only sees the performance goals and progress, not the content of the video chats. It wants execs to feel comfortable getting real without the worry their personal or trade secrets could leak. “And if someone is bringing in something about trauma or that’s super-sensitive about their personal life, their coach will refer them out to psychotherapists,” Yarbrough assures me.

Torch’s direct competition comes from boutique executive coaching firms around the world, while on the tech side, BetterUp is trying to make coaching scale to every type of employee. But its biggest foe is the stubborn status quo of stiff-upper-lipping it.

The startup world has been plagued by too many tragic suicides, deep depression and paralyzing burnout. It’s easy for founders to judge their own worth not by self-confidence or even the absolute value of their accomplishments, but by their status relative to yesterday. That means one blown deal, employee quitting or product delay can make an executive feel awful. But if they turn to their peers or investors, it could hurt their partnership and fundraising prospects. To keep putting in the work, they need an emotional outlet.

“We ultimately have to create this great software that super-powers human beings. People are not robots yet. They will be someday, but not yet,” Yarbrough concludes with a laugh. IQ alone doesn’t make people succeed. Torch can help them develop the EQ, or emotional intelligence quotient, they need to become a boss that’s looked up to.

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Gig workers need health & benefits — Catch is their safety net

Posted by | Apps, Catch, Collaborative Consumption, eCommerce, Finance, funding, Fundings & Exits, Health, Khosla Ventures, Kindred Ventures, Mobile, nyca partners, payments, Personnel, Recent Funding, Startups, Talent, TC, Y Combinator | No Comments

One of the hottest Y Combinator startups just raised a big seed round to clean up the mess created by Uber, Postmates and the gig economy. Catch sells health insurance, retirement savings plans and tax withholding directly to freelancers, contractors, or anyone uncovered. By building and curating simplified benefits services, Catch can offer a safety net for the future of work.

“In order to stay competitive as a society, we need to address inequality and volatility. We think Catch is the first step to offering alternatives to the mandate that benefits can only come from an employer or the government,” writes Catch co-founder and COO Kristen Tyrrell. Her co-founder and CEO Andrew Ambrosino, a former Kleiner Perkins design fellow, stumbled onto the problem as he struggled to juggle all the paperwork and programs companies typically hire an HR manager to handle. “Setting up a benefits plan was a pain. You had to become an expert in the space, and even once you were, executing and getting the stuff you needed was pretty difficult.” Catch does all this annoying but essential work for you.

Now Catch is getting its first press after piloting its product with tens of thousands of users. TechCrunch caught wind of its highly competitive seed round closing, and Catch confirms it has raised $5.1 million at a $20.5 million post-money valuation co-led by Khosla Ventures, Kindred Ventures, and NYCA Partners. This follow-up to its $1 million pre-seed will fuel its expansion into full heath insurance enrollment, life insurance and more. Catch is part of a growing trend that sees the best Y Combinator startup fully funded before Demo Day even arrives.

“Benefits, as a system built and provided by employers, created the mid-century middle class. In the post-war economic boom, companies offering benefits in the form of health insurance and pensions enabled familial stability that led to expansive growth and prosperity,” recalls Tyrrell, who was formerly the director of product at student debt repayment benefits startup FutureFuel.io. “Emboldened by private-sector growth (and apparent self-sufficiency), the 1970s and 80s saw a massive shift in financial risk management from the government to employers. The public safety net contracted in favor of privatized solutions. As technological advances progressed, employers and employees continued to redefine what work looked like. The bureaucratic and inflexible benefits system was unable to keep up. The private safety net crumbled.”

That problem has ballooned in recent years with the advent of the on-demand economy, where millions become Uber drivers, Instacart shoppers, DoorDash deliverers and TaskRabbits. Meanwhile, the destigmatization of remote work and digital nomadism has turned more people into permanent freelancers and contractors, or full-time employees without benefits. “A new class of worker emerged: one with volatile, complex income streams and limited access to second-order financial products like automated savings, individual retirement plans, and independent health insurance. We entered the new millennium with rot under the surface of new opportunity from the proliferation of the internet,” Tyrrell declares. “The last 15 years are borrowed time for the unconventional proletariat. It is time to come to terms and design a safety net that is personal, portable, modern and flexible. That’s why we built Catch.”

Catch co-founders Andrew Ambrosino and Kristen Tyrrell

Currently Catch offers the following services, each with their own way of earning the startup revenue:

  • Health Explorer lets users compare plans from insurers and calculate subsidies, while Catch serves as a broker collecting a fee from insurance providers
  • Retirement Savings gives users a Catch robo-advisor compatible with IRA and Roth IRA, while Catch earns the industry standard 1 basis point on saved assets
  • Tax Withholding provides an FDIC-insured Catch account that automatically saves what you’ll need to pay taxes later, while Catch earns interest on the funds
  • Time Off Savings similarly lets you automatically squirrel away money to finance “paid” time off, while Catch earns interest

These and the rest of Catch’s services are curated through its Guide. You answer a few questions about which benefits you have and need, connect your bank account, choose which programs you want and get push notifications whenever Catch needs your decisions or approvals. It’s designed to minimize busy work so if you have a child, you can add them to all your programs with a click instead of slogging through reconfiguring them all one at a time. That simplicity has ignited explosive growth for Catch, with the balances it holds for tax withholding, time off and retirement balances up 300 percent in each of the last three months.

In 2019 it plans to add Catch-branded student loan refinancing, vision and dental enrollment plus payments via existing providers, life insurance through a partner such as Ladder or Ethos and full health insurance enrollment plus subsidies and premium payments via existing insurance companies like Blue Shield and Oscar. And in 2020 it’s hoping to build out its own blended retirement savings solution and income-smoothing tools.

If any of this sounds boring, that’s kind of the point. Instead of sorting through this mind-numbing stuff unassisted, Catch holds your hand. Its benefits Guide is available on the web today and it’s beta testing iOS and Android apps that will launch soon. Catch is focused on direct-to-consumer sales because “We’ve seen too many startups waste time on channels/partnerships before they know people truly want their product and get lost along the way,” Tyrrell writes. Eventually it wants to set up integrations directly into where users get paid.

Catch’s biggest competition is people haphazardly managing benefits with Excel spreadsheets and a mishmash of healthcare.gov and solutions for specific programs. Twenty-one percent of Americans have saved $0 for retirement, which you could see as either a challenge to scaling Catch or a massive greenfield opportunity. Track.tax, one of its direct competitors, charges a subscription price that has driven users to Catch. And automated advisors like Betterment and Wealthfront accounts don’t work so well for gig workers with lots of income volatility.

So do the founders think the gig economy, with its suppression of benefits, helps or hinders our species? “We believe the story is complex, but overall, the existing state of the gig economy is hurting society. Without better systems to provide support for freelance/contract workers, we are making people more precarious and less likely to succeed financially.”

When I ask what keeps the founders up at night, Tyrrell admits “The safety net is not built for individuals. It’s built to be distributed through HR departments and employers. We are very worried that the products we offer aren’t on equal footing with group/company products.” For example, there’s a $6,000/year IRA limit for individuals while the corporate equivalent 401k limit is $19,000, and health insurance is much cheaper for groups than individuals.

To surmount those humps, Catch assembled a huge list of angel investors who’ve built a range of financial services, including NerdWallet founder Jake Gibson, Earnest founders Louis Beryl and Ben Hutchinson, ANDCO (acquired by Fiverr) founder Leif Abraham, Totem founder Neal Khosla, Commuter Club founder Petko Plachkov, Playable (acquired by Stripe) founder Tad Milbourn and Synapse founder Bruno Faviero. It also brought on a wide range of venture funds to open doors for it. Those include Urban Innovation Fund, Kleiner Perkins, Y Combinator, Tempo Ventures, Prehype, Loup Ventures, Indicator Ventures, Ground Up Ventures and Graduate Fund.

Hopefully the fact that there are three lead investors and so many more in the round won’t mean that none feel truly accountable to oversee the company. With 80 million Americans lacking employer-sponsored benefits and 27 million without health insurance and median job tenure down to 2.8 years for people ages 25 to 34 leading to more gaps between jobs, our workforce is vulnerable. Catch can’t operate like a traditional software startup with leniency for screw-ups. If it can move cautiously and fix things, it could earn labor’s trust and become a fundamental piece of the welfare stack.

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Prototype prosthesis proffers proper proprioceptive properties

Posted by | EPFL, Gadgets, hardware, Health, medtech, prosthesis, Prosthetics, robotics, science, TC | No Comments

Researchers have created a prosthetic hand that offers its users the ability to feel where it is and how the fingers are positioned — a sense known as proprioception. The headline may be in jest, but the advance is real and may help amputees more effectively and naturally use their prostheses.

Prosthesis rejection is a real problem for amputees, and many choose to simply live without these devices, electronic or mechanical, as they can complicate as much as they simplify. Part of that is the simple fact that, unlike their natural limbs, artificial ones have no real sensation — or if there is any, it’s nowhere near the level someone had before.

Touch and temperature detection are important, of course, but what’s even more critical to ordinary use is simply knowing where your limb is and what it’s doing. If you close your eyes, you can tell where each digit is, how many you’re holding up, whether they’re gripping a small or large object and so on. That’s currently impossible with a prosthesis, even one that’s been integrated with the nervous system to provide feedback — meaning users have to watch what they’re doing at all times. (That is, if the arm isn’t watching for you.)

This prosthesis, built by Swiss, Italian and German neurologists and engineers, is described in a recent issue of Science Robotics. It takes the existing concept of sending touch information to the brain through electrodes patched into the nerves of the arm, and adapts it to provide real-time proprioceptive feedback.

“Our study shows that sensory substitution based on intraneural stimulation can deliver both position feedback and tactile feedback simultaneously and in real time. The brain has no problem combining this information, and patients can process both types in real time with excellent results,” explained Silvestro Micera, of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, in a news release.

It’s been the work of a decade to engineer and demonstrate this possibility, which could be of enormous benefit. Having a natural, intuitive understanding of the position of your hand, arm or leg would likely make prostheses much more useful and comfortable for their users.

Essentially the robotic hand relays its telemetry to the brain through the nerve pathways that would normally be bringing touch to that area. Unfortunately it’s rather difficult to actually recreate the proprioceptive pathways, so the team used what’s called sensory substitution instead. This uses other pathways, like ordinary touch, as ways to present different sense modalities.

(Diagram modified from original to better fit, and to remove some rather bloody imagery.)

A simple example would be a machine that touched your arm in a different location depending on where your hand is. In the case of this research it’s much finer, but still essentially presenting position data as touch data. It sounds weird, but our brains are actually really good at adapting to this kind of thing.

As evidence, witness that after some training two amputees using the system were able to tell the difference between four differently shaped objects being grasped, with their eyes closed, with 75 percent accuracy. Chance would be 25 percent, of course, meaning the sensation of holding objects of different sizes came through loud and clear — clear enough for a prototype, anyway. Amazingly, the team was able to add actual touch feedback to the existing pathways and the users were not overly confused by it. So there’s precedent now for multi-modal sensory feedback from an artificial limb.

The study has well-defined limitations, such as the number and type of fingers it was able to relay information from, and the granularity and type of that data. And the “installation” process is still very invasive. But it’s pioneering work nevertheless: this type of research is very iterative and global, progressing by small steps until, all of a sudden, prosthetics as a science has made huge strides. And the people who use prosthetic limbs will be making strides, as well.

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DARPA wants smart bandages for wounded warriors

Posted by | artificial intelligence, DARPA, Gadgets, Government, hardware, Health, medical, medtech, science, TC | No Comments

Nowhere is prompt and effective medical treatment more important than on the battlefield, where injuries are severe and conditions dangerous. DARPA thinks that outcomes can be improved by the use of intelligent bandages and other systems that predict and automatically react to the patient’s needs.

Ordinary cuts and scrapes just need a bit of shelter and time and your amazing immune system takes care of things. But soldiers not only receive far graver wounds, but under complex conditions that are not just a barrier to healing but unpredictably so.

DARPA’s Bioelectronics for Tissue Regeneration program, or BETR, will help fund new treatments and devices that “closely track the progress of the wound and then stimulate healing processes in real time to optimize tissue repair and regeneration.”

“Wounds are living environments and the conditions change quickly as cells and tissues communicate and attempt to repair,” said Paul Sheehan, BETR program manager, in a DARPA news release. “An ideal treatment would sense, process, and respond to these changes in the wound state and intervene to correct and speed recovery. For example, we anticipate interventions that modulate immune response, recruit necessary cell types to the wound, or direct how stem cells differentiate to expedite healing.”

It’s not hard to imagine what these interventions might comprise. Smart watches are capable of monitoring several vital signs already, and in fact have alerted users to such things as heart-rate irregularities. A smart bandage would use any signal it can collect — “optical, biochemical, bioelectronic, or mechanical” — to monitor the patient and either recommend or automatically adjust treatment.

A simple example might be a wound that the bandage detects from certain chemical signals is becoming infected with a given kind of bacteria. It can then administer the correct antibiotic in the correct dose and stop when necessary rather than wait for a prescription. Or if the bandage detects shearing force and then an increase in heart rate, it’s likely the patient has been moved and is in pain — out come the painkillers. Of course, all this information would be relayed to the caregiver.

This system may require some degree of artificial intelligence, although of course it would have to be pretty limited. But biological signals can be noisy and machine learning is a powerful tool for sorting through that kind of data.

BETR is a four-year program, during which DARPA hopes that it can spur innovation in the space and create a “closed-loop, adaptive system” that improves outcomes significantly. There’s a further ask to have a system that addresses osseointegration surgery for prosthetics fitting — a sad necessity for many serious injuries incurred during combat.

One hopes that the technology will trickle down, of course, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s all largely theoretical for now, though it seems more than possible that the pieces could come together well ahead of the deadline.

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Juul Labs hires former Apple employee to lead the fight against counterfeits

Posted by | adrian punderson, altria group, Gadgets, Health, juul, juul labs, Personnel, Startups, TC | No Comments

Juul Labs, the e-cig company under fire for its product’s popularity with young people, has brought on a new VP of Intellectual Property Protection with Adrian Punderson, formerly of PwC and Apple.

Punderson’s job is all about working alongside government agencies, as well as Juul Labs Intellectual Property VP Wayne Sobon, to combat the sale of counterfeit and infringing products. These can range from copycat vapes and pods that are actually marketed as Juul products all the way to products that are designed specifically to be Juul compatible without using the trademark.

These counterfeit and infringing products pose a serious threat to the company. Of course, no business wants its products infringed or its market share stolen.

With Juul, however, it’s far more complicated. Juul Labs is currently under heavy FDA scrutiny over the popularity of its products with minors.

“As you start to enforce generally on the sale of these types of products to youth, oftentimes they are going to look for another seller or distribution point of this product,” said Punderson. “The challenge is that oftentimes they’re going to platforms or places for this and you have no idea what the origin of the product is. A lot of it is counterfeit. So they get something they believe is Juul only to find out they have a counterfeit device or pod.”

He went on to say that, for Juul, a top priority is identifying counterfeit sellers and quickly putting that information into the hands of law enforcement. To the extent that they can’t take action, said Punderson, Juul will take civil action.

Part of the concern is that there is zero transparency into what ingredients are being used in infringing products, whereas Juul’s recipe at least meets the legal requirements for disclosure as it seeks full FDA approval.

Juul doesn’t currently have data around the scale of infringing products on the market, but counterfeit Juul products may inaccurately increase sales figures, intensifying scrutiny from the FDA.

Juul has already taken legal action against many infringing manufacturers and distributors, but Punderson aims to take Juul’s efforts against infringing products to a new level.

He sees the issue as threefold: Juul Labs must work to stop these products from being manufactured in the first place, ensure they aren’t allowed across borders into the country and take action against retailers who sell infringing products and remove them from the market.

“This isn’t a problem where there is only a production problem but there isn’t really a distribution or consumption problem,” said Punderson. “We don’t have the luxury of looking at the problem singly-faceted. From a global perspective, we want to stop the production and distribution of infringing products around the world, and we’ll work closely with government agencies attempting to stop illicit distribution of goods.”

Punderson previously served as managing director of IP Protection at PriceWaterhouse Coopers, VP of Global Anti-Counterfeiting/Anti-Diversion at Oakley and worked at Apple on the Intellectual Property Enforcement team.

Juul is currently viewed by many as a Facebook-ified, 2018 version of Marlboro. Notably, Juul Labs recently closed a $12.8 billion investment from Altria Group, the makers of Marlboro cigarettes. When asked why he chose to work for Juul, Punderson said his initial reaction was no. But after he did some research around the mission of the company, and thought of his own personal experience losing his father to emphysema, he came around quickly.

“I would do anything to get two or three more years with my dad, who was a lifelong smoker,” said Punderson. “[…] We’re trying to do good things here, move people away from tobacco and give them an alternative. To me, it’s a valuable, noble cause that’s worth being involved in and I’m proud to be here.”

It remains to be seen just how big of an issue infringing products are for Juul and other above-board e-cig makers, but Juul is ramping up its efforts to combat copycats from getting into the hands of consumers.

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