I’m the first to admit, I get seduced by the buzz of innovation in the startup space; by the lure of the new and exciting shiny that will change peoples’ lives. Wearables evangelist, Tom Emrich, has invited co-founders Ariel Garten, Trevor Coleman and their team to showcase the brain-sensing Muse in Toronto at a sold-out We Are Wearables event hosted by innovation hub, MaRS, this Thursday. Their company, InteraXon, is at yet another inflection point: Ariel spent Monday in New York doing meetings and media interviews just as they’re shifting into the consumer world and wearables as a category is white hot, especially with the launch of Apple’s iWatch. They’re already selling online to early adopters and the coverage they’ve been getting in tech and business media is sliding into the consumer space. Google “thought-controlled beer tap,” and you’ll see the attention their dude-oriented Beer Tap has got for Muse since 2012, spiking after it demo’d at CES earlier this year and featured on CNBC. Google “brain-sensing headband” and Muse comes up in top results with stories in the leading tech business media and the more mainstream CNN, USA Today and Newsweek.
I think this is just the tip of the iceberg as I look at how people respond to Muse and other wearables and see people beyond tech circles latching on. Wearables are huge now and while they make up a big trend in the startup world, when consumers buy products like Fitbit, they’re looking for something that is meaningful to their lives. Yes, wearables are hot, but they have to be relevant to people. And while consumer success for wearables depends on the early adopter, gadget-loving, fitness-focused high achiever who reads Vogue or GQ, the moment the New Yorker published David Sedaris’ piece on his discovery and ensuing love of his Fitbit, it marked the technology moving into wider consciousness and becoming, definitely, A Thing.
So consumers aren’t buying a wearable, they’re buying a fitness app that happens to be a wristband. Investors fund wearables; consumers buy a promise, something that can win a place in their lives. Just before leaving for Europe recently, Valerie Fox, ED of Ryerson’s business incubator for startups, Digital Media Zone, saw wearables moving into something bigger than the pieces we’re seeing now for personal portable computing; she described how the category is set to move us beyond the limits defined by the wonderful yet clunky rectangle-shaped mobile devices we use – and I got the feeling that smart watches, as we’re currently seeing them, are lumped in with the phone and tablet for her. Her vision of the future is an intriguing one.
Ariel Garten gets that Muse needs to find a place in peoples’ lives. I’m interested in how people define success and wanted to know if success looks the same for Ariel now as it did at the beginning. Back in Christmas 2009, when I first met her and Trevor, they had just won a spot to demo their thought-computing technology at the Vancouver Olympics. They definitely had a POV that was geared to entertaining and inspiring people with an emphasis on thinking big. Ariel had a pretty unique profile – neuroscientist, artist and psychologist; Trevor’s background, putting on events in Toronto’s music scene, informed his take on product development which swung to the theatrical side of entertainment and creating an experience; and the third co-founder and CTO, Chris Aimone, brought a M.Sc. in Computer Engineering with cybernetics, artificial perception and machine learning to the story. There was a lot I didn’t get but that’s ok. I’d read a lot of Sci Fi as a teen and what they were describing about thought computing sounded like that. In six weeks, the team managed to develop the technology to dramatize thought computing for people by visualizing it as light shows projected on the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, the CN Tower in Toronto and Niagara Falls. It played back in real-time on big screens at Ontario House at the Olympics where players were outfitted with headsets that monitored their brainwaves – and it streamed online too. They took something small that was happening in your head and made it into something huge that was broadcast across the country. If that sounds simple, it wasn't and when I look at how that's covered now, it's a bit as if someone's talking about making a nice dinner, like, who can't do that. Ariel answered the question of what success looked like back then a bit like she does now, saying that she wanted to get people looking inside their minds, to impact their lives for the better. Trevor answered like a true product guy: “Success was surviving Vancouver.”
He went on to define success as survival in a blur of gamification metaphors: with every inflection point on that hockey stick graph that startup founders chase, the inflection points are where funds are raised and the stakes get higher, the game gets faster; the goal posts move but you’re still running, the bike path gets narrower, the ship is sailing and you’re not up in the crow’s nest looking at the horizon, you’re down in the boiler room making sure the ship can get where it needs to be. I've seen this before in founders; it's intense. But when I pressed him about the “why,” he was unequivocal about it mattering because of the difference Muse has made to peoples’ lives. As I prodded Ariel and Trevor separately, I got the feeling that it was really the emails that pour in from users who’ve used Muse to overcome personal hurdles that are the rewards which give their work real meaning.
Finding success isn’t the same for everyone. Starting small and scaling up didn’t seem to occur to Ariel and Trevor in terms of defining what the product was. They weren’t following all the rules. They thought big from the start and bounced from one huge idea to another as Ariel networked globally and travelled incessantly, listening to what aviation leaders had to say as much as music executives. In the early days, the team was so unusual, they and the technology as they saw it were impossible to pigeonhole. You needed to have an open mind, listen to what they were doing, who they were talking with, to imagine where they were going with the brainwave technology, and even then, I couldn’t see where it was going to land.
That was, until a student of Steve Mann who was working with them developed an actual real-life version of the Star Trek Next Gen game where a player on the Holodeck thinks balls into holes on a 3D grid that’s constantly shifting. Only in this case, I was sitting in a chair with nothing but a headset and a monitor in front of me. No joystick or anything. My mind was the controller. It was pretty incredible. After playing it, it was clear this was going to be a headset with an app as a meditation device. But that makes it sound simple.
To the people funding early stage startups, success is easy to measure: there are milestones that need to be met. The seed round, the first chunk of funding, needs to produce the next round. When I reminded Ariel that back in 2012, when they were pitching to the VC community, the team was projecting to be in stores by summer ’13, she laughed. It’s pretty much a constant that in the fast-paced world of innovation, it takes longer for things to happen than everyone expects. Then, while they were in meetings to raise their Series A to fund product development, production, manufacturing and distribution; InteraXon launched an Indiegogo campaign which was successful in three ways: not only for almost raising twice their goal ($287,472 of a $150,000 goal), their campaign had a responsive presence which was frequently updated with content that resonated with a new audience of early adopters, feeding brand awareness and buzz. And it also gave them their proof of concept, which landed them their first $6 million.
Success also looks like influence; and while the company’s impressive boldfaced list of early investors in disruptive technology have represented a valuable influx of cash to fund the pie chart of activities a company needed to execute on, the relationships cultivated with their boldfaced-named investors have been equally important. Ariel connected with Deepak Chopra early on when she was speaking at leading edge tech events such as Loïc Le Meur’s LeWeb conference and lecturing at the Singularity University and MIT. Though the meditation guru didn’t step in as an investor, he has been a brand champion the past few years, promoting Muse and selling it through his institute’s store.
Innovation is messy and success isn’t clear and simple when new things are germinating, even when all the right pieces are there. I remember how Heather Reisman was first an outlier when she invested in Kobo, then a hero/genius when it become a popular e-reader. In the last month, Muse launched in key Indigo stores. Heather Reisman has become a supporter of the effects of the technology and has just got involved as another investor. On a busy Sunday during TIFF a couple of weeks ago, I ran into Ariel and one of the team at the Manulife Indigo where they were quietly debuting Muse; their two comfy chairs were constantly filled with people trying out the brain-sensing headband with the app on a tablet. As they’re launching into the consumer world, the team at InteraXon is experiencing incredible conversion rates with trial; 70% of the people who try it, buy it because of how the app visualizes their brain activity and guides them through real-time feedback to calm their minds. This seems to be hugely meaningful right now in a busy, ADD-inducing, media-dense urban life. Muse is breaking into prime time. As people in the startup world say, theirs is overnight success story that took five years of hard work.
To date, they’ve raised $9.3 million. When I asked Ariel about what success looks like at this point, she told me, “Now, success looks to me like having a well-designed product produced, in stores – and it’s something that everyone understands.” While a measure of success is funds raised, we hear of founders who say it never gets easier for startups as more money comes in. It just gets bigger and faster. But if her original, personal measure of success was to have people look inside their minds and impact their lives for the better, the feedback says that’s happening in spades. And that sounds like success too.
Brenda van Ginkel
Every great brand that's making a difference to people or the planet deserves to stand out and be noticed. I write about creative direction and brand strategy for entrepreneurs and those supporting them, packaging concepts with messaging for growth and audience engagement in a crowded, noisy digital space.