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The “BodyKey” To Losing Weight – Q&A with the Co-founders of Emergent Detection

Obesity is a major issue in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that over 60% of Americans are seriously overweight. Currently, over 100 million people in the United States are trying to lose weight, spending over $61 billion on weight loss products – most of which do not work for people based on observed increasing obesity trends.

Losing weight is difficult, not only because in many people it requires a significant psychological change to their lifestyle, but also physiologically, the body will try to correct any calorie deficit undertaken to lose weight. Combine these challenges with primitive or inexact measurement tools such as the bathroom scale or calorie counting, and you have a recipe for frustration and failure. There is a complex relationship between diet, nutrition, exercise and health, which is not measured by most existing weight loss tools. For example, the scale only measures pounds, vague feedback at best on these relationships, and does not take into account changes in body composition. Calorie counters only estimate energy utilized; they do not measure actual fat lost, which is the primary metric that should be considered in weight loss from an overweight or obese starting point. No wonder dieters often find themselves in vicious yo- yo cycles worsening their health in the process.

One of the companies leading the way in the development of “next generation” of high tech fitness tools is Emergent Detection. Their revolutionary product, BodyKey, might just be the most personalized weight loss tool every created. BodyKey helps people lose weight as efficiently as possible by telling them how much fat THEY are burning from THEIR diet and fitness program. Additionally, each user has their own web-based dashboard to track their progress, view results, and see which foods and exercises are most effective for THEIR body to lose weight.

Shoestring Venture had an opportunity sit down with Eric Fogel and Keegan Hall, the co-founders of Emergent Detection, for an interview about fitness, entrepreneurship, and what they’ve learn along the way.

SSV: What is the story behind Emergent Detection?

Eric Fogel: Back in 2009 I met Dr. Aaron Falk, who has a PhD is Physics, and we began some initial research regarding possible uses for the optical sensor technology that Dr. Falk created. I have a Masters Degree in Biochemistry and previously worked as a Research Scientist at Amgen, so I began exploring a variety of biochemical applications for this technology before the decision was made that the weight loss industry would be the best place to start. About that time I met Keegan Hall, who was also a MBA candidate at UW. We teamed up with two other UW MBA’s, Joel Gjuka and Amanda Mathes, and developed a business plan around our new product, called BodyKey, and entered the prestigious University of Washington Business Plan Competition in 2010. During this competition we squared off against 92 teams from 15 different schools and eventually finished in 3rd place behind a team that already had revenues and another team who had received a significant amount of grant money from the US Government. Remember, we barely had a functional prototype at this stage so we were very pleased with 3rd place. From there, Keegan and I went forward and “officially” founded the company and began turning our dream of creating a company into a reality.

SSV: Tell me more about BodyKey and what makes it so unique.

Keegan Hall: Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight knows how difficult this process can be. Losing weight, in the simplest terms, consisting of burning more calories than you take in; I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “eat less, exercise more.” When we initially began research the potential of our technology within the weight loss industry we made a very interesting observation: the are a lot of companies that help people eat healthier (calories in) such as Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and many others. Additionally, there are a variety of products to help track the calories you burn (calories out) such as pedometers, gym equipment (treadmill, elliptical, etc) and others. However there were not any products to help you understand the most important piece of the weight loss puzzle: YOU. In reality, there is not a “one size fits all” solution for weight loss. All people are different and each person’s body, specifically their metabolism, reacts differently to the foods they eat and exercises they perform. People needed a way to immediately assess the effectiveness of their efforts and give them the confirmation that they are, in fact, making progress towards their weight loss goal. That’s exactly what BodyKey does, plus much more.

People can now see the effect of eating a salad versus a hamburger or the effect of 20 minutes on the treadmill versus a 20-minute bike ride. This personalized feedback is critical for helping people select the program that most effective for their body. Additionally, BodyKey gives them an immediate reading of how much fat they’re burning so, even if the bathroom scale doesn’t show progress in the form of weight lost, the user knows they are on the right track to reaching their goal. After all, most people are really trying to lose fat, not necessarily pounds. Just think, when you work out, you’re not only burning fat, but also building muscle. As such, you might not lose any pounds, but you’re still making significant progress. The scale simply doesn’t tell the full story and, in a lot of ways, it’s misleading.

SSV: How does BodyKey work?

Eric Fogel: BodyKey works by measuring direct byproducts of stored fat being broken down and used for energy within your body. These specific metabolites are detectable in the urine and when measured, provide information about how much fat your body is burning. For example, let’s say you just finished your morning’s workout. Simply clip in a single-use, disposable test cartridge into the BodyKey device. Apply an in-stream urine sample to the end of the cartridge, where a special wicking material draws the sample inside for analysis. The metabolites in the sample then interact with chemical detection reagents embedded within our specially designed disposable cartridges. BodyKey then measures the biochemical reaction that takes place through reading a colorimetric change. This entire process takes about a minute, and BodyKey then tells you about how much fat you’re burning on its display screen.

SSV: Do you think people will have any reservation about using a product that requires a urine sample?

Keegan Hall: That’s a good question, and the short answer is “no.” We have done a significant amount of consumer research relating to this very topic. What we found is that people are willing to give a urine sample in exchange for the valuable and personalized information that BodyKey provides. In fact, nearly 67% of people within our target demographic have no issues with this requirement. It’s also important to note that they only other way to obtain this kind of information is through a blood test and, as you’d expect, most people are much more resistant to this option. So, when you look at it from this perspective, giving a urine sample in the privacy of your own home is a piece of cake!

Another interesting tidbit we learned from our research is that a large percentage of those people actually like the idea of providing a urine sample because it reaffirms that we’re providing accurate, personalized data. Think about how many fitness products rely solely on estimates based on your height, weight, sex, age, etc to provide you with data. How can you expect the results to be accurate and specific to you when it relies on estimates?

I’d also like to emphasize the clean and sanitary process of using BodyKey. There are absolutely no cups, dipping, measuring, etc. Simply apply a small urine sample to the test strip and you’re done. After BodyKey has analyzed the sample, you can simply hit the eject button to cleanly dispose of the used test strip. We’ve put a lot of time into the design of BodyKey to ensure that the user does not need to handle the urine in any way.

SSV: You mentioned that you participated in the UW Business Plan Competition. What did you learn from that experience?

Eric Fogel: The competition consisted of multiple rounds, and going into the competition we felt like we had a really good business idea and a pretty well-developed plan to execute. The competition allowed us to ‘pitch’ to numerous potential investors (judges), absorb their feedback, and then refine our plan. This proved to be an invaluable experience as it gave a glimpse into the “real world” of raising capital as well as provided us an opportunity to gain the insight from a variety of successful entrepreneurs.

In addition to being a truly amazing experience, the UW Business Plan Competition also gave us $5,000 in seed money to launch our company. Also, as a result of our 3rd place finish, we were invited to take part in the Herbert B. Jones Milestone Achievement Awards in which we were awarded another $10,000. The UW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, who administer the competition and Milestone Awards, provide us with a great platform to network with many respected players in the entrepreneurial ecosystem who have assists us in reaching the stage we’re at today. The early press that we received from the competition, as well as the prize money, helped us gain a lot of early notoriety and momentum that proved to be critical in helping us raise future capital.

SSV: How much capital have you raised so far?

Keegan Hall: We were fortunate to find a group of angel investors who believed in our idea and us, as the founding team. They provided the early capital that we needed to really launch our company. Our next “big break” came when the US Government awarded us a Qualified Therapeutic Discovery Program grant for the amount of $229,900. These funds have played a critical role in the continued refinement of our product and have also allowed us to further develop our web-based dashboard. Additionally, we were able to hire a CTO who is developing the entire backend of our user database.

What almost killed your business in the start?

Eric Fogel: What almost killed us is the same thing that has gotten us to where we are now: full-time commitment. It was difficult to impose on our families as we undertook this new endeavor with no income coming in. In fact, we were down to the last few weeks of personal runway before we each would have been forced to take some sort of day job. That said, being full time committed has also allowed us to focus exclusively on building the company and making forward progress. It was harsh, but the symbolic burning of our ships made us more motivated to pull it all together and to make things work.

What was the biggest transition you had to make (i.e. new skill set, habits, abilities, focus)?

Eric Fogel: The list of things that need doing is always getting longer, so it has been important to improve on context switching. We all wear many hats in an early stage company, and being able to switch gears to do each appropriate task in a timely fashion has been invaluable as we execute on the plan.

Keegan Hall: I don’t think most people realize the amount of work that goes into starting a company. My background is in sales and marketing as well as design. So, not only did I create all of the branding elements for our company, but I also had to learn how to create a website. I also designed the entire user interface of our web-based dashboard that users utilize to track their progress so I also had to learn how to translate my design into HTML and CSS. Needless to say, it was quite a learning experience, but I happy to have acquired a variety of new skills since we founded our company a year ago. We’ve come so far in only a year and we’re very excited about the opportunities that lie ahead.


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