I know I have been a bit of a sourpuss (foreshadowing alert) on the whole digital health marketplace. While I fully acknowledge that there are some great technologies and great apps and even great business cases for the use of digital health products, a large number of the digital health ideas currently being touted as the cure for what ails our healthcare system are far from the cat’s meow (foreshadowing alert). Too often entrepreneurs come to investors with products that are cool but are not really broad enough to be businesses. Also common are digital health-focused service ideas that have great concepts behind them but which are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to a business model (foreshadowing alert). While I admit there is more than one way to skin a cat (and, again), it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there (yep) and if one is going to create real value from an investment in the digital health field, we are going to need some new tricks.
Enter into my consciousness one of the best new tricks I have seen yet. I read about it in the Huffington Post upon a tip from my best friend, who knows I am on a quest to find something better than what the cat would typically drag in (now I can’t stop myself). Neuroware is a company that has figured out how to combine body sensors with the requisite iPhone in order to improve human communication and greatly expand positive social interaction. Ready for it? Meet Neuroware’s new product, the Shippo.
Shippo is a system comprised of a smartphone-based app plus body-worn sensors plus, shall we say, a health appliance; together the system reads brain waves and heart beats and then uniquely applies those inputs to improve one’s ability to communicate emotions and intentions. Oh, I forgot to mention, the health appliance is a tail. Yes, you heard me, a tail. I mean a wagging, fluffy kitty/doggy tail that is attached to your rear end (or the clothing covering it anyway) and is simultaneously connected via iPhone to the aforementioned digital brain wave/heart wave sensors so your detected mood can direct the tail to wag. If you’re happy or excited it wags fast, if you’re sad it sits dormant; there are in-between modes signifying different states of mind. If you have a pet you get the idea.
“Why,” you ask? “Why does the world need this?” I think you are looking at this all wrong. I think that the right question is, “Why doesn’t the world need this?” The ability to rapidly read each other’s moods could well be the cure to the entire Mars-Venus communication gap that has held back male-female relationships for centuries. But let me back up for a minute. Did I mention this started with ears?
Yes indeed. Neurowear, a Tokyo-based enterprise, first developed the Necomimi, a headband with kitty ears that move like a cat’s would in accordance with mood. Happy? Ears perk up. Relaxed? Ears down and at rest. According to Neurowear, the philosophy behind their digital health offerings is this:
Many animals leave biological information such as horn/nail-marks, body odor, body waste etc. in their living environment to mark their territory or share information such as their health status. It is an important form of animal communication that human beings lost over time.**
We asked ourselves if there wasn’t a way to leverage the power of technology to bring this form of instinctive communication back to humans. The smartphone app “neuro tagging map” offers a new way of communication based on location information and biological information.
The technology behind this app is called “neuro tagging”. It consists of using smartphones and neural sensors to register how people “feel” in their current place, based on biological information such as neural waves and heartbeat. Neurowear believes that neuro tagging brings a new value to the places being tagged. Places where many people got relaxed, places where one particular friend felt so well, places where anybody gets excited….Who knows what kind of new experiences await when maps will be filled with people’s emotions?
Necomimi is the new communication tool that augments the human bodies and abilities. This cat’s ear shaped machine utilizes brainwaves and expresses your emotional state before you start talking. Just put on Necomimi and if you are concentrating, this cat’s ear shaped machine will rise. When you are relaxed, your new ears lie down. If you are concentrating and relaxing at the same time, your new ears will rise and actively move. In general, professional sports players demonstrate this ability the most.
Can I just start by saying that I watched a good 50% of the NCAA Basketball play-off games, men’s and women’s, and I did not notice a single athlete with actively moving ears. Not once have I seen LeBron James point his ears towards the basket or Buster Posey wiggle his ears to tell the pitcher that his next lob should be an inside breaking ball. But maybe I’m just not paying close enough attention. Here’s some video if you just have to see Necomimi for yourself.
With its ear product poised to improve the human condition, Neurowear apparently knew there was more than one way to skin a cat (good one!). According to the Neurowear website:
Since the release of “necomimi” one year and a half ago, we got thousands of requests saying, “We want a tail!!”
Naturally. I mean who wouldn’t? No self-respecting cat or dog would communicate with its peers by ears alone so why would you expect a person to do so?
Thus evolved the Shippo, which the website says works as follows:
To use it, fix the tail with a belt and set the neural sensor (Mind wave mobile) on your forehead. In the concept movie, the neural sensor is embedded in a Beret hat, making it easy to wear anywhere in the street. There are 3 levels of moves, each expressing a different mood. The basic move for an ordinary mood is a slight twitching of the tail. If you relax the tail will wag slowly, and if you concentrate on something the tail will start wagging much faster.
Here’s a video to give you the full effect:
As an investor who sees a lot of entrepreneurs pitch and who is known for being a little too direct at times, I would like to see Shippo add a fourth mode for “tail between the legs” for those occasions when the conversation gets a little dicey. I’m guessing we’d see high utilization of that mode down on Sand Hill Road and at some of the Board meetings I regularly attend. No doubt that would also be a popular mode at VC partner meetings, a particularly dog-eat-dog environment (sorry, had to do it).
A VC friend of mine, HLM’s Marty Felsenthal (here’s your plug Marty) told me he had another use for the Shippo, which was to replace the docked tail of a friend’s dog and other dogs like him who have lost their tail to fashion. His friend’s dog is really cute, according to Marty, but it’s lack of tail makes determining the dog’s state of mind difficult. Interesting idea to use the Shippo as a medical prosthetic, we agreed, but after discussing the market opportunity it became clear that this Indication for Use might push the Shippo into an FDA-regulated class of digital health devices, tragically slowing its market entry.
In closing let me add this: if you skipped over the above Shippo video you must go back and do yourself a favor and watch it. The Shippo may or may not actually improve your health status, but the hearty laugh you will have watching this thing will definitely improve your mood. And laughter, as science has shown, does improve your health. Plus, can’t you just picture a bunch of people walking around downtown Palo Alto, iPhone in hand, wearing a beret and a tail? That vision just makes me happy all over, which is proof that the product has a positive outcome—and let’s be overly direct: that’s more than a lot of digital health products can claim.