Lean startup, lean team: BioConnected’s Sven Rees on being ahead of the game in sports tech

BioConnected

L-R: Dr Sven Rees, Dr Kay Trippner, Chris Huggett and Ian Bell

BioConnected’s ‘world-first’ fitness headphones have only been on the market for a few months but – to ‘stay ahead of the game’ – the Sydney-based sports tech startup is already plotting to diversify into the pre-medical space, says Chief Innovation Officer Dr Sven Rees.

He described the company’s debut product – the HR+ bio-sensing headphones and app – as an “all-in-one training and heart monitor device that helps wearers to measure and boost their fitness without the need for chest straps, wrist-based activity trackers or a coach”.

“Our wireless headphones measure a wearer’s heart rate, which is a key measure of fitness,” Dr Rees told Dynamic Business. “They’re also the first headphones in the world to measure heart rate variability, which is a marker of cardiac stress and over-training, and our app also records the wearer’s speed, pace, distance, energy expenditure, cadence and steps. Plus, wearers receive encouragement

“Consequently, a wearer can, for example, see whether they were slower today than they were yesterday and receive encouragement from BioConnected’s ‘in-ear’ coach to make improvements.  In this way, we’re showing people that what they’re doing is making a real difference to their health and fitness.”

Since the launch of the HR+ headphones in November 2017, BioConnected has snared Second Place at the GMIC Sydney Pitchub Competition and entered into conversations with two VC funds, owing to success at another pitch competition in China. Critically, Dr Rees said BioConnected’s initial adopters have been “highly engaged”, with 1000 fitness activities logged on the company’s software platform each month, plus a high volume of email enquiries around customer support.

“Inconvenience and inaccuracy”

The idea for BioConnected was sparked by Dr Rees’ frustration – as a sports scientist, exercise physiologist and fitness educator – with the incumbent means of measuring a person’s heart rate to determine their fitness levels.

“Chest strap monitor are widely considered uncomfortable, compressive and inconvenient to wear,” he said. “Plus, the Ethics Committee has stated that chest straps couldn’t be used in the case of children because you’d be required to lift up their shirt, which is invasive. I struggled, however, to identify an alternative means of accurately measuring heart rate during exercise. Yes, there are wrist-based activity trackers, but they’re only accurate when the wearer is at rest – not during exercise.”

Driven to solve this problem, Dr Rees co-founded BioConnected with Chris Huggett (Chief Design Officer) and Anthony Wilson (board member) in November 2014. They were later joined by Dr Kay Trippner (co-founder, Chief Financial Officer) and Ian Bell (Chief Marketing Officer).

“Practice what you preach”

Dr Rees said each member of the management team has a strong passion for health and fitness, which is reflected not only in their company mission to ‘help people live fitter, healthier and happier lives’ but also in their personal appearances. He explained, “It’s important for us to practice what we preach and be a walking embodiment of our company philosophy, otherwise we’d be hypocrites”.

Critically, Dr Rees and his co-founders each bring a different skillset to the company. Between them, they have expertise in audio manufacturing and distribution, finance, marketing, design, software development and exercise physiology.

“This know-how, together with our passion, is evident in every aspect of our hardware and software. If you look at our ear buds, for example, everything has been tailored for the perfect fitness experience. They’re lightweight and impervious to sweat, and a unique locking mechanism ensures they stay in wearers’ ears. Further, they have a small form factor to optimise the wearer’s centre of gravity. Plus, the cord has been designed for optimal stiffness/flex properties to avoid that annoying cord bounce people typically experience when they train with headphones. This is what passion looks like from a team that really loves exercise.”

“Bang for your buck”

According to Dr Rees, the three-year journey from concept to prototype to beta version to in-market product required the BioConnected team to practice the principles of the lean start-up methodology in order to “get the most bang for our buck”.

“For example, it was essential for us to demonstrate that we could sell our product even before we built out MVP and went to production,” he said. “Building hardware and software can be a long and expensive exercise, so it was important for us to determine whether there was or wasn’t a market for our product before we got in too deep.

“So, we spoke to people. We initially promoted BioConnected at a Cycling event at Olympic Park, before taking to Martin Place in Sydney to gauge people’s interest in the product and offer them a discount on pre-orders – and that funded our beta version”.   

Dr Rees said he and his team are taking “a grass roots approach” to increasing BioConnected’s brand currency. This has involved getting the likes of long distance runner Ben St Lawrence (Australian record holder, 10,000 metres) and Triathlete Pete Jacobs (winner, 2012 Ironman World Championship) to “try, like, endorse and rave about the HR+ bio-sensing headphones”.  In addition, Dr Rees said it has been important to keep their customer base engaged with the product, and the science that has gone into building it, because strong word-of mouth and personal recommendations are “effective growth tools”.

“An enormous market”

Due to the nature of BioConnected’s technology, Dr Rees said the startup has yet to butt horns with any direct competitors. On one hand, he said wrist-based wearables like fitbit, Apple Watch and Garmin tick the fitness box but not the audio (“they’re not what I call ‘hearables”). On the other, he said headphone brand Bose and Jabra – while closer than any companies to being direct competitors – “lack a strong focus on sports fitness”.

He added, “Our addressable target market on a global scale is enormous. Research into the people who currently own a wearable found that 86% would look at buying a biometric set of headphones because the wearable on their wrist doesn’t actually let them listen to music.”

“Ahead of the game”

Although Dr Rees believes BioConnected’s debut product is, for now, “ahead of the game”, he said he and his team cannot afford to rest on their laurels.

“The biggest challenge now is to expand and scale fast enough to take advantages of our timing into the market and our competitive advantages,” he said. “While we could grow organically we would lose significant time advantages. Therefore, we need to raise capital to accelerate growth and scalability around the world.

“Critically, we’ll be rolling out a suite of products and services that will ultimately make people fitter and healthier. Over time, we will transition our core focus from fitness to the pre-medical space. For instance, ear buds that replace a blood pressure monitor or analyse a person’s REM sleep. In line with this, our business model will also change over time from hardware sales to paid for software services.”