Back in June, Las Vegas Sands bought 1,000 smart rings from Oura, a Finnish wearable technology startup.
The US hotel company, which owns the Venetian and Palazzo, had seen studies indicating that the devices, worn on a finger, could potentially predict the onset of Covid-19 symptoms.
Forking out around €300 for each ring, the management reasoned, was nothing in comparison to how much it would cost to send staff home to quarantine in the event of a mass outbreak.
While just a trial, other big organisations have followed suit. In June, as the NBA season geared up to resume in the US, news reports came out saying that players and staff would be provided with Oura rings to track their health.
More recently, Oura became the official health technology partner of car racing organisation NASCAR, as well as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), with both organisations touting the rings’ health benefits and potential to flag Covid cases early.
Oura shot to fame when celebrities like Britain’s Prince Harry and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey started using its rings to track their sleep — but is partnering with big business actually the way for Oura, and others like it, to become big businesses themselves?
B2B for wearables
There’s a growing trend towards organisations offering employees ‘perks’ which track their health. Fitbit, synonymous for many with wearable technology, saw revenue drop slightly in 2019, but saw its business-to-business (B2B) offering Fitbit Health Solutions grow 17% year-on-year, having launched a national health programme, increased its coverage of Medicaid plans and rolled out a chronic condition coaching platform.
“Organisations are going to want to spend on [wellness devices] because they pay for healthcare — and understand that better, healthier workers lead to more productivity and happier workers,” Harpreet Singh Rai, Oura’s chief executive, tells Sifted in an interview.
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“So I totally think that [the B2B] market is going to keep accelerating faster than the general market and the consumer market in wearables,” he adds.
From celeb darling to Covid-19 predictor
Until recently, Oura was marketed as a fashionable sleep tracker. Given its relatively high price tag and sleek design, it became a darling of influencers and celebrities.
Even before the pandemic really took hold, the company (founded in 2013) had raised a total of $47m, including a $28m Series B round in March. It’s sold over 250,000 rings to date, and has over 150 employees, most of them in Europe, with the team doubling in size in the last year.
Oura rings, which are paired with a phone app, record body temperature, heart rate and movement, through which you can track your sleep, exercise and wellness. In most ways they are not dissimilar from health and fitness trackers created by the likes of Fitbit and Garmin, or aspects of the Apple Watch, albeit in a different form.
However, recent studies have suggested that the company’s rings can also spot asymptomatic cases of Covid-19 before symptoms are noticeable.
In May, a team of researchers from the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, announced that they had developed a program, using biometric data from Oura rings, that could be used to anticipate the onset of Covid-19 symptoms up to three days before they showed.
The researchers said that their results showed a 90% accuracy rate on predicting the onset of Covid-19 related symptoms like fever, coughing, breathing difficulties and fatigue.
Other studies are also taking place, with researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, receiving a $5.1m award to continue work on an algorithm to predict the onset of Covid-19 symptoms based on data collected via Oura rings.
Rai says the company started with a focus on sleep because it wanted to start with what it considered to be the most important issue. “How did you sleep last night is going to determine how you physically perform today or tomorrow,” he stresses.
However, the company has always had a goal to move into other areas of wellness, he says. “Illness is something we were always aware of, but it is obviously more heightened now.”
Rai says there are major opportunities in predictive healthtech, pointing to the fact that every flu season hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people get the flu who don't have to. Fewer people could catch it in the first place, he says: “If they got a heads up alert that said ‘Hey, looks like something's off, maybe you should go get tested, shouldn’t go to work today, try to take it easy,’.”
“The future of the wearable industry is moving towards these health sensing capabilities,” he says. “I think that’s where the industry goes — I just think Covid probably accelerates it.”
Ring versus wrist
Rai also suggests that the prevalence of wrist-wear in the wearable tech industry right now is mostly down to how the sector has evolved, starting from the old pager-sized step-trackers, as well as the technical challenges of shrinking the tech down to fit on a finger.
Nowadays, a lot of companies operating in the space choose to focus on wrist-wear with backward logic, he says, focusing on what consumers already know rather than what could give the best results.
But data collected from the finger, rather than the wrist, is more valuable, he argues. “The reason we chose the ring form factor from the beginning was we do believe that the pulse signal on your finger is much, much stronger than on the veins on your wrist. That's why hospitals use heart rate sensors on the fingertip. No one uses the wrist."
When it comes to wearables, Rai says the main issues continue to be data accuracy, trust and credibility, as well as what to do with all of the data once you have it.
“Now that I have my heart rate when I take a run, what do I do with that? That's always where we've been trying to focus as a company, on how to address those issues,” he says.
It’s also tricky navigating how to get these consumer devices more widely accepted by medical professionals, he adds.
French healthtech startup Withings is one taking up that challenge: it recently raised $60m and wants to prove that Fitbit-type devices could play a large role in cutting down high blood pressure and other chronic diseases.
“This industry needs to improve its accuracy and its credibility by sharing its data with researchers and users more openly, helping them understand where the strengths and where the weaknesses are,” says Rai.
David vs Goliath
Despite major players like Nike, Apple and Fitbit operating in the wearable space, Rai is optimistic that there is room for a smaller, focused player like Oura.
“These industries are very competitive, and the reason you get a lot of competition is because there's a lot of opportunity,” he says, pointing out that the market has over 150 million units, “so even 1% of that market is pretty big.”
“I don't think you need to win it and be the biggest in the room to still have a good business,” he adds.
Digital contraception app Natural Cycles announced this month that it was releasing new software that will utilise temperature data received from third-party devices, with Oura being the first wearable added to the platform.
Rai also points to the example of fitness startup Peloton. “I think they've only passed a million bikes recently, but they figured out a way to build a better bike, to get better content and information to users, and build a community that other people haven't done,” he says.
“In these big markets, you don't need to win it to make a real impact in the world and build a big business.”
And the current pandemic may help to change the way we look at wearable tech, both as individuals and as companies and organisations.
“I definitely think this is the future,” says Rai.