Jul 23, 2023
When Wired magazine reviewed the Embr Wave in 2020, it declared “an end to the thermostat wars.” Any woman who is going through or who has experienced menopause will know what this means: hot flashes can be a huge challenge, bothering both the woman having them and their partner and family.
The Embr Wave has addressed that challenge with a highly innovative wellness solution that offers instant, discreet relief on demand. Worn on the wrist, Embr Wave users simply touch a button to release the precise cooling or warming thermal waves they need to feel more comfortable. It is clinically shown to be a safe and effective solution for not only managing hot flashes but cold flashes, night sweats, and disrupted sleep.
Matt Smith, the founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at EMBR Labs, is a visionary leader and respected technologist at the forefront of thermal wellness technology. His research, speaking engagements, and passion for innovation is leaving an indelible mark on the world of temperature science and technology.
Matt plays a pivotal role in leading Embr’s research and development efforts, driving the company’s mission to create revolutionary products that optimize personal comfort and well-being. Founded 10 years ago by Matt, Sam, and David as MIT students, Embr has grown and their product, the Embr Wave, from a kickstarter gadget to a 2nd generation wellness device with over 150,000 units sold. The Embr Wave® delivers precisely engineered cooling or warming Thermal Waves™ at the touch of a button, for instant, discreet relief on demand. It is clinically shown to be a safe and effective solution for managing hot flashes, cold flashes, night sweats, and disrupted sleep. They recently secured $35M in growth-stage capital to fuel further market adoption and expanded growth.
Gregor Mittersinker: One of the areas we've been exploring lately is the intersection of data and design, specifically data as a foundation for product ecosystems, allowing businesses to build a user-centered data flywheel. You started this journey ten years ago, when you were a student at MIT. Your early proof-of-concept prototypes were really the genesis of the idea that ultimately led to Embr Wave today.
Matt Smith: It all started with a hackathon where we demonstrated the technical feasibility of the concept: a wristband with a thermal system built into it. It was a one-of-a-kind wearable technology, as it delivered immediate value to the person wearing it, in contrast to all other wearables at the time that were counting steps or monitoring fitness. Our approach was unique in a way that we were not about data in the early days, but about delivering direct value with a wearable. For the first two years, we focused on building prototypes that we could get in the hands of people, to validate that there was a product-market fit beyond being a technology gadget.
After two years of refinements, we had prototypes that could be used in the field for a longer period of time. We won the Cool Idea prototyping award from Protolabs, giving us $50,000 of funding and free prototyping services. We were finally able to go from testing a couple prototypes to over 50 units with our target users. We had no issue recruiting testers, and over 100 people in different customer segments participated. At the end of the test we asked for their credit card information to pre-purchase a device. We didn't tell people what it would look like or when they would be receiving it, but about 30% of people who tried it for a week signed up. This strong interest validated that we were about to define a new product category with a great business potential, leading to our seed round of funding. With this funding we worked with Loft to integrate the core technology into an elegant product that could be produced at scale, resulting in a great collaboration.
One of the customer segments from the 2015 trials were women with hot flashes; eight years later, Embr is the leading menopause-focused technology company in the market.
Gregor: It was really fascinating that your early research defined the product category and also validated the target audience.
Matt: If you find a real product-market fit, then the rest is about the right execution. We identified our key consumer benefit long before we had our first product on the market.
Gregor: How critical is it to tweak the algorithm for generating thermal waves to improve the customer experience? Do you constantly improve and monitor these experiences for better results?
By launching this first gen product as a connected device and iteratively developing features, we got a crystal-clear idea of the thermal needs of our customers in different segments.
Matt: We went to market in 2018 as a general population thermal comfort technology. As you remember from early designs, we were always saying: “this is for everyone”. It has to be for women with hot flashes, and also early adopter tech dudes. Even though our device was inherently providing value, we made the strategic decision to ship the initial product with a mobile app, enabling us to send over-the-air updates to the app and device. Via the app we learned from customers, and we delivered new cooling modes based on real-life insights. Our users immediately said that they wanted longer sessions, as we originally only supported 5-minute sessions. We had to build a new control system to deliver 10, 30, and 60-minute heating and cooling sessions. Then we started giving users control over the waves letting our users experiment. This rapidly accelerated our ability to learn and iterate on new warming and cooling modes. People were giving us detailed feedback on their usage and needs, and we cross-referenced these qualitative insights with app analytics to build a library of modes and monitor their adoption using the app.
By launching this first gen product as a connected device and iteratively developing features, we got a crystal-clear idea of the thermal needs of our customers in different segments. It was a very rapid development process during that stage, because we were growing our user base, and it was relatively easy to develop new cooling and heating modes, ship them out and learn how people used them.
A great example for this iterative development process was our first sleep mode. We got the feedback that people struggled to get good sleep, whether they were experiencing hot flashes or not. Developing a fall-asleep mode led to a partnership with Johnson and Johnson, where we studied how our device helped women with hot flashes to fall asleep and return to sleep. This clinical study was another major milestone for the company because the results demonstrating how our device helped women manage temperature-related sleep disturbances were endorsed by Johnson and Johnson and published in a peer reviewed journal.
This data-driven development flywheel helped the first gen product mature significantly from when we launched it. Even though the physical product was the same, we were able to deliver an expanding set of features thanks to data gathering and iterative app development.
Gregor: Some of the biggest players in wearable space, with much deeper pockets than Embr, have started as a wellness platform and over time used clinical data to start making claims. How is your strategy evolving as you are scaling as a company?
Matt: We have invested a lot in clinical validation to evolve from a thermal comfort device to focus on being a solution for women with hot flashes. We hired a Chief Medical Officer, scaled a clinical team, ran several studies both with and without partners, and have presented those results at leading scientific conferences for menopause and sleep. We are still a consumer products company, so we are very careful to make it clear that we are helping manage symptoms and not treating a disease, but we are able to make pretty compelling claims on our website and on television thanks to these studies. I didn't fully appreciate how well regulated the claims process is, and how important it is to have trustworthy data to back it up. In the mobile app, our users can report symptoms severity over time, so we are generating a really large data set showing how the device impacts the severity of different symptoms over time. We have thousands of data points from the app and tens of data points from the controlled clinical studies and both tell the same story, which is great to earn credibility from our customers.
Gregor: Have you had a discussion with the FDA about what it would entail to be able to make medical claims for your products?
Matt: We've worked with a couple of consultants to define our regulatory strategy, but for now our business decision is to focus on consumer channels. Our devices are still evolving rapidly thanks to the data flywheel and our regular feature updates, which is a good fit for the consumer wellness space. When the time comes, we could work with a partner to bring a version of this product to a specific population in a regulated channel.
Gregor: That makes a lot of sense. Looking back at the last ten years as a Med Tech startup founder, what is the biggest lesson that you have learned?
Matt: You know, it's funny, that's a question I think about a lot, but I have not been asked very often. My advice to founders would be that this journey is really all about understanding people. Obviously your customer is the most important person, but everything is made of people: your company, your investors, your product design firm, your contract manufacturer; it is fundamental to foster good relationships with all your partners along the way. Loft introduced us to people that you trusted, and they helped us extensively. Finding the right business partners and investors for you is so important to drive successful partnerships. Having a systems engineering view of things certainly helps to design a Med Tech device, but the most important part of any success is the people. You can exhaust yourself trying to build the world's most perfect pitch deck, business model or product design, but all of those things are actually assets in the relationships that you build with people. Every line you draw on your org chart or process diagram involves humans, and the success of the initiative will depend on building and maintaining strong relationships.So my advice for any founders is to invest in building trusted relationships in every facet of your organization.
Gregor: That's a really great insight, and I completely agree with you. It is fascinating, because typically MIT likes to build machines.
Matt: Yeah, I'm speaking as a recovering scientist.
Gregor: Embr Labs just secured $35M in funding, which is absolutely incredible. Congratulations! These late stage deals are always fascinating, because private equity firms think of scale very differently from venture capital firms. You're now on a great scale-up trajectory. There's a tremendous potential for growth associated with the infusion of cash. This will probably change the way you think about your company.
Matt: It’s a really exciting time for the business. The capital we raised is growth-stage capital and it is based on the traction that we showed. It will help us continue to deliver products to the women who need it most. What has evolved for me, being more science and technology minded, is that everything we do needs to be strongly connected to the economics of the business. We are on track to become a profitable business, so we are making sure that every dollar we invest in new development has a clear return on investment for the business. Everything is still about delivering value to our customers, only with another level of discipline. It comes back to data, and using data to guide the areas of new development we are pursuing to ensure we are building a healthy, profitable company.
Gregor: The sandbox got smaller…
Matt: The check size got bigger and the sandbox got smaller.
Gregor: How do you leverage the data collected to expand your market size? How does the data flywheel help justify market expansion investments?
Matt: Our financial models are always grounded in market sizing data. Not only in terms of adoption in an addressable market, but for example within the group of women with hot flashes, there are specific personas who really love our device. Our data allows us to focus on the right market segments, current and future.
Gregor: Thank you so much for these fascinating details about your business at the intersection of wearable technology and data. I love how three guys from MIT set off to define the world of thermal comfort.
Matt: Thank you Gregor. It was really fun to be able to reflect on our journey together. I appreciate all the work you guys have done!
Jul 23, 2023