Julia Hu insists that she is not one of those "quantified-self" enthusiasts.
That's an unorthodox statement to hear these days in Silicon Valley, where so many entrepreneurs and tech workers champion the data-driven healthful life, counting their calorie intakes with apps and working from treadmill desks. Hearing it from the creator of a wearable device that tracks sleep, diet, and exercise--now that's almost blasphemy.
And Hu, the founder of Lark Technologies, indeed does track her own sleep and activity--and does so with a product she created, a wristband called the LarkLife. But she says the act of adjusting one's behavior based on raw data is not a natural response for most humans.
"When you look at everyone in the world, about 3 to 4 percent are motivated by data. These are Olympic athletes, highly goal-oriented people, and tinkerers," Hu explains. "The rest of the population is not at all motivated by numbers--or is actually negatively motivated by seeing numbers."
Hu's company is out to make personal data extremely easy to digest. The broader goal: to help the other 97 percent of the population live healthier, longer, and more productive lives.
The company started out when Hu--who'd had entrepreneurial aspirations since college at Stanford, where she interned with countless start-ups--met a sleep scientist named Cheri Mah. Mah had coached world-class athletes to win and break records by monitoring and improving their quality of sleep. Hu thought she could scale Mah's particular brand of sleep coaching, and by doing so, allow wisdom and advice on sleeping better to reach more consumers.
"We kind of automated her coaching program," Hu says.
Shortly after enrolling in business school at MIT she dropped out to found Lark Technologies and prototype its first product: a silent alarm clock to help an individual wake up without rousing the entire household (Hu's then-fiancé was not only an early-riser, but had an aggravating "snooze"-button habit). Instead of beeps, Lark's wristband wakes its wearer with a mild vibration. Today, her Mountain View, California-based company has 21 employees and makes a variety of wrist devices that track the wearer’s exercise, diet, and sleep patterns. The devices, which sell for $99 to $159 each, offer personalized coaching via an iPhone app.
Lark products sync with wearers' smartphones to provide real-time data by digesting it into simple tips--similar to what one might find in a health or lifestyle magazine. But imagine the magazine is written specifically for you--your sleep patterns, your diet, for the past seven days.
"We think that the phone can turn into something so much more powerful than a communications device," Hu says. "It can be your sleep coach and your nutritionist."
Hu, a second-generation Chinese immigrant, had spent time in China's manufacturing capital of Shenzhen, where she gleaned some knowledge on the process of prototyping and manufacturing the Lark. In its early days, her company incubated at PCH International, a supply-chain management company based in Cork, Ireland, and received funding led by Asset Management Ventures, a venture capital firm based in Palo Alto, California.
Skip Fleshman, a managing director at Asset Management, says that Hu has had her challenges leading a growing company in her mid-20s, but has hired more experienced executives to complement her skills when she needs to fill in gaps. He says that she especially excels at making deals.
"For being younger, she has a very good business sense," Fleshman says. "She's disarming, sweet, and kind, and then you realize she's completely out-negotiated you."
Lark complies with national health-privacy law HIPAA, and the company is working with certain hospitals to help patients regain a sleep routine--and hopes to strike deals with other health-related companies in the future.
Lark also has a unique opportunity to collect sleep data on its thousands of users--some millions of nights of sleep--in what it calls the world's largest sleep database. From that raw data, the company hopes to help everyone--not just Lark users--be healthier. Hu says she hopes "that benefit can be applied to everyone's health."
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CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is senior writer at Inc. @Lagorio
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