After finishing his PhD at Philips, Pop worked for ten years at Holst Centre, a renowed research institute active in the field of wearable health care and flexible electronics. In July 2015, Pop founded LifeSense Group, together with two co-founders: long-time colleague Mitsugu Yoneyama, and Eindhoven Design Academy graduate Julia Veldhuijzen van Zanten.
LifeSense is a spin-off of Holst Centre. Up until now, Holst Centre, the founders and the Japanese partners have invested a total of one million euros in LifeSense.
In 2014 LifeSense (at the time known as Unicare) participated in Startupbootcamp’s HighTechXL accelerator programme. Pop: “The Startupbootcamp programme proved to be very valuable for us. There we learned to think like an entrepreneur. Before the programme we had the money and were very close to producing a working product, but we didn’t really know how to make it profitable. After completing the programme we did.”
LifeSense might be the current name of the startup, we won’t be seeing that name prominently featured on their products. Pop: “I don’t want LifeSense to become the next Philips, where we label every product with the company brand. LifeSense Group will be more like Unilever: an umbrella company, where individual products will be branded and marketed as such.” Carin is the first of those products.
According to Pop, over 40 million women regularly experience urine loss after giving birth to their child. That’s one in three young women who have given birth. This is caused by weakened pelvic floor muscles which prevent optimal bladder control. By doing regular exercises to train their pelvic floor muscles, women can improve their bladder control.
Measure, protect and exercise
What makes Carin unique, is that it combines three meticulously designed elements into one tool-kit.
– Carin Measure is a wearable sensor which measures during which activities urine loss occurs. Being just two millimetres thin, this is the thinnest and most portable device of its kind, according to Pop.
– Carin Protect is a piece of underwear with barely visible build-in sensor technology made of textile. It is especially designed with a small pocket in exactly the right place, to fit the Carin Measure sensor. Carin Protect comes in two different versions: basic and lace.
– Carin Exercise is an app that provides women with a pelvic floor muscle training programme, tracks progress and keeps them motivated.
Testing, testing, testing
When looking at the individual elements of Carin, one immediately notices a lot of thought went into making everything as user friendly as possible.
Before Carin was on sale in the web shop, a lot of testing had been done. Pop shows several iterations of the sensor, ranging from an early elongated model measuring twenty centimetres, which proved to be rather unpractical, to many smaller ones in different shapes. Pop: “One hundred women participated in developing and testing Carin. Because we listened to their feedback, we were able to produce the sensor we have now.”
The same is true for Carin Protect. The original version of this piece of underwear was designed by co-founder Veldhuijzen van Zanten as her graduate project at the Eindhoven Design academy. By using user feedback, Carin Protect was perfected.
Clinical trials with Carin were conducted in 2014-2015 at Archipel Zorggroep Eindhoven and the Pelvic Care Center Maastricht at the Maastricht University Medical Center.
A lot of thought also went in the realisation of the supply chain, with every piece being made with both quality and cost efficiency in mind.
All the electronic parts are built in Best (near Eindhoven), by Matas Electronics. The high tech textile for Carin Protect comes from Taiwan, and the underwear is sewn in Europe (Moldova). The Exercise app has been developed in Barcelona, and the paper for the packaging is produced in Kyoto, Japan.
Pop explains how fast Carin developed to its current state: “We created the complete supply chain in only six weeks. Not just memorandums of understanding, but actual contracts. Then we had Carin on the market just six months after we founded LifeSense. This has been possible only by lifting on the strong R&D background and international name of Holst Centre.”
About sales and licensing
The Carin toolkit, including the sensor, app and one piece of underwear, is being sold as a package for 249 Euro. Extra underwear costs 25 euro a piece for the basic version and 42,50 Euro for the lace one.
After the initial purchase of the Carin toolkit, customers won’t have any other expenses apart from buying extra underwear. Pop: “In this, the business model is similar to that of the Senseo coffee pad machine. We sell the Carin package once and then women can buy extra underwear later.”
Carin is on sale since January this year and several hundred units have been sold, with prospects looking good. Pop: “We expect to have 750.000 euro revenue in 2016, which I think is rather conservative. In 2020 we expect to have 8 million euro in revenue.”
Another source of income will be the franchise licensing of Carin. “We have an entry fee of 250.000 euro plus twenty percent of Carin product sales revenue, which enables a partner to use all elements. All they have to do is mention ‘powered by LifeSense’. If necessary, they can get access to our supply chain as well.”
Spreading the word
Carin appeared on television and in several lifestyle magazines, but most of the marketing is done by carefully building a community around Carin. Women who use Carin spread the word on social media. Ex-fashion model Eline van Uden and former Olympic rower Kirsten van der Kolk are responsible for marketing, media and public relations. Kirsten writes a blog about a healthy lifestyle and how Carin can be incorporated in that.
Pop explains why users are important for LifeSense: “We are a company that develops meaningful health products for the consumer market and so our users are our main focus.”
In January 2016, just six months after being founded, LifeSense opened its second office in Tokyo. Though this seems a rather uncommon expansion strategy for a young startup, it made perfect sense for LifeSense.
Pop: “Yoneyama-san, one of our co-founders, is from Japan and together we have been to Japan over 50 times during our time at Holst Centre, so it was the logical next step to choose Tokyo as LifeSense’s second office location.” From here they will serve the Asian market, which has a lot of potential customers with the needed purchasing power. “Just in China alone, there are over ten million women which could benefit from Carin. Compare this to the 50.000 women in The Netherlands.”
Giving something to other startups
Pop is positive about the startup climate in The Netherlands and especially in Eindhoven. “Here we have access to state of the art technology as well as to our supply chain.” The investment climate in The Netherlands, on the other hand, he calls ‘very bad’. Pop explains, referring to the early investment from Holst Centre: “I know now we were very fortunate as we got off to a good start, which enabled us to go to market quickly. For a lot of other Dutch startups it’s difficult to find that early money.”
This is why LifeSense wants to do something back for the Dutch startup scene. Through a partnership with Golazo, organiser of events like the Eindhoven Marathon and the Ladiesrun, women can order Carin with a discount. A percentage of sales is put in a startup fund. Pop: “This money we will invest in the local startup scene, probably through a competition in 2017.”
The future of LifeSense
LifeSense wants to design more wearables for the consumer health market. The monitoring of urine loss with Carin is just the beginning. The components of Carin offer many other possibilities. In the future, the same hardware will be used to monitor other parameters and to solve other problems. Pop offers a little bit of insight in the short-term plans: “On May 8, international Mother’s day, we will launch a Kickstarter campaign for our next product. Our goal is to offer a product which lets women fully monitor their health, starting at the moment they have their first period, up until the time menopause sets in. So from age 12 to 55.”