Interview: Paul Landau, Fitbug CEO

Paul Landau is the founder and CEO of Fitbug. Here I ask him a few questions around Fitbug and the future of digital health. You can find Paul on Twitter at @FitbugPaul.

You’ve been in the digital health space for a long time relatively speaking. How has the space evolved since you formed?

I launched my first exercise tracking venture back in 2001, which used smartcard technology and Compaq iPaqs (the precursors to accelerometers and smartphones) to track gym workouts, as a means to helping fitness club members improve their workouts and encourage better retention rates for fitness club operators. The core idea was that getting fitter isn’t an overnight process and tools were needed to help people see their progress and stay motivated. It worked and I was able to prove that the concept was appealing to consumers and did indeed improve workout adherence.

I wanted however to get to the 90% of people who were not into ‘working out’, so this early venture morphed into Fitbug in 2004 and we launched v1.0 in January 2005.

Back then there was no such category as “digital health”. My original vision for Fitbug was a service based offering which used devices as the data enabler to providing personalised online support to help regular people achieve their goals.

As a start-up in this undefined sector that was ahead of the curve, the early years were challenging – having to do all the evangelising and single handedly try to educate the market that “devices + online coaching support” really could achieve beneficial health outcomes.

[pullquote]Over the last few years however, things have started to hot-up in the space with the concept attracting other players who have helped establish a category with a name![/pullquote]

Fitbug always had a direct to consumer strategy in mind and has been available to consumers to purchase online since launch, however we focused primarily on building strategic B2B channel partnerships over the early years as we viewed this as the best approach to get early traction. So here in the UK we started working with health insurance companies (eg PruHealth), corporate employers (eg O2, Ford, Channel 4), incentive providers (eg Nectar) and with the NHS focusing on lifestyle based weight loss interventions. In the US, we also started working with various B2B partners as early as 2006.

Over the last few years however, things have started to hot-up in the space with the concept attracting other players who have helped establish a category with a name! –“Digital Health”. Nike entered the market with their Nike Plus shoe sensor plus iPod in May 2006, Fitbit then followed suit in Sep 2009, Jawbone first launched “Up” in November 2011 and then Nike released their Fuelband in Feb 2012.

Big established brands like Nike and Jawbone with their marketing might have certainly helped to establish this exciting category and build consumer awareness for this emerging technology which is actually creating the convergence of B2B and B2C sales channels, with this technology now being understood and adopted by consumers and business alike.

[pullquote]I believe however that the newer entrants still view the space as a device play, as opposed to a service proposition.[/pullquote]

I believe however that the newer entrants still view the space as a device play, as opposed to a service proposition – a position which I don’t entirely buy-in to. Devices are currently integral as they are the enabler/data collector, but ultimately if the desire is to help millions of people live healthier happier lives through technology, it is the support, feedback and personalised service that needs to be delivered to help realise this.

You recently launched the Orb which was first announced at CES last year? What’s the difference between it and other activity trackers?

The Fitbug Orb
The Fitbug Orb

The vision for the Orb was clear from the outset – to provide a far more versatile and, affordable device backed up by a personalised service proposition.

  • Most devices today are £100+ – meaning they are prohibitively expensive for most people. At this level, it’s a considered purchase, and we wanted to introduce a device that was more accessible to people whose interest in digital health had been sparked, but had been put off by the price tag.    The Orb is the first device available for under £50 with all the main features of more expensive options, including sleep tracking.
  • In terms of versatility, we were seeing the emerging trend for wrist wearables, but actually felt this had various drawbacks – the thinking was why restrict where people could wear it?    We liked the idea of giving choice. So with Fitbug Orb, you use the device alongside a range of wearable accessories so you can decide what works for you depending on what you’re doing.    You may like wearing the Orb on your wrist when you go for a workout, but if you’re out for the evening and glammed up, you probably would prefer your device to be a little more discreet.  We have even introduced an underwear clip aimed at the female market as we’ve been asked for years where to put it if you’re wearing a dress without pockets or a waistband.
  • The Orb also comes with access to “KiK”, our digital coach – an advanced service which provides you with a personal weekly plan with activity and nutrition targets, feedback, goal tracking, food logging, recipes and wellness content etc…  We care passionately about helping you achieve your goals – not just selling you a device and hoping it works for you.

What was the process you went through to get the Orb from concept to finished product?

To bring the Orb to fruition we undertook the following main phases of work involving both the physical device and the technology platform. It’s not a linear process and many of these activities are run in parallel with a constant requirement to loop back and refine. There are a huge amount of moving parts in bringing a new device to market!

  • Analysis of current Fitbug user feedback – what did our users want to see from Fitbug?
  • Analysis of the market – what are the prevailing trends in the digital health market?
  • Specification – Finalising the main features and capabilities desired from the device.
  • Conceptualisation – what are the possible design routes to achieve the spec?
  • Industrial Design – Turning concepts into more detailed working drawings…
  • Firmware Specification – In parallel to aesthetics, what does the device actually need to do? And how does it talk to the rest of the Fitbug platform?
  • Prototyping – how the form factor translate from paper to physical thing you can actually hold?
  • Refining – What works and what doesn’t? Every minutiae is considered and polished to try and achieve something which ultimately meets the original requirements and works great.
  • Platform Integration – the device itself is just one element. In the digital health space, you are working on multiple dimensions also including the devices internal software (firmware) and how it interacts with the app and website infrastructure.

What does the next 12 months look like for Fitbug? Anything in the pipeline that you can share?

Unreleased projects are always kept firmly under wraps however I can share that the Fitbug platform is currently part way through a significant evolution. We have an exciting roadmap ahead on the platform side with numerous new initiatives that will come to fruition. As mentioned before, we are passionate about helping each member achieve their goals and we believe there is far more that can be done to achieve this.

Fitbug was initially focussed primarily on corporate entities but seems to be now moving more in to the consumer space. Is this where the growth is?

In the early years there wasn’t a consumer play for digital health – it wasn’t an established category and consumer awareness for the concept was too low. Fitbug therefore primarily focused on building relationships with strategic B2B partners and corporates – however from the outset consumers have been able to join Fitbug and its always been clear to me that the consumer channel would get established.
Over the last few years as this sector has become more established, consumer awareness has risen and it’s therefore a natural progression for Fitbug to invest more heavily on marketing its proposition more widely available to consumer audiences as well as our traditional B2B or B2B2C routes to market. The Fitbug proposition has always been offered with the consumer in mind as the ultimate end user – no matter how you came to be a Fitbug user, you are always a consumer.

Where does digital health fit in with employee wellness? Are organisations increasingly using digital tools to retain a healthier, happier and ultimately more productive workforce?

Employers these days understand the importance of having a healthy workforce – the rationale for implementing a wellness programme does however differ by organisation. Some will be very focused on the hard benefits such as reducing sickness absence or improving productivity; others will be looking for softer benefits such as being an ‘employer of choice’ and attracting the best talent, boosting teamwork and morale.
In the US where employers normally bear the brunt of escalating healthcare costs, there is a clear requirement to help employees make better lifestyle decisions and minimise the risk of preventable health issues.

What does the next three to five years look like in digital health?

[pullquote] I expect the next 3-5 years to see continued innovation and applications of sensors in unforeseen ways, but perhaps more importantly adoption by new types of users.[/pullquote]

With the amount of change that has been seen over the last 2-3 years and increasing appetite and understanding for digital health, I expect the next 3-5 years to see continued innovation and applications of sensors in unforeseen ways, but perhaps more importantly adoption by new types of users. The quantified-selfers out there are looking to keep pushing the boundaries and gain data sets on more and more self-tracking metrics, however in terms of mass adoption, we are still just scratching the surface. Over the coming few years we will move from niche early adopters to acceptance by more ‘real people’ who are becoming aware of the concept but to date have remained on the periphery.

In order for this to happen, propositions need to be user friendly and consumer oriented, priced realistically, use the data in easily digestible formats and be far more service oriented than most of the propositions out there today. In my mind this isn’t a ‘device play’ but a ‘service’ where the device acts as the enabler to helping individuals achieve what’s important to them. For most people it’s less about self-tracking and more about receiving a helping hand to stay motivated and on track towards their goals.

So whilst smart watches, patches, glasses, smart clothing etc… will all undoubtedly proliferate, the adoption curve needs to catch up with the innovators in order for the full potential to be realised.