Written by Jennifer Fitzgerald | Photos by Anthony Harden
The folks behind Asheville med-tech startup Elite HRV are tuned in to the daily changes in our nervous systems that affect overall stress levels and health.
Our story begins with Average Joe.
We all know him—right? He is pretty normal. He works. He pays bills. He probably sits a little bit too much. Caffeine is definitely important to his life. He carries a little bit of extra weight. He struggles with his health. He lives in a world—which is our world—where life span has plateaued, health span is actually decreasing, and chronic disease is on the rise.
Average Joe spends about $2,500 a year on his health for non-medical related things like the gym, supplements, diet planning, and alternative healthcare. Employers of people like Average Joe spend about $9 billion a year on employee health, so clearly people are trying, but public health continues to decline. Why? The answer is because it’s really complicated.
That is how Jason Moore, co-founder and CEO of Elite HRV, began his recent pitch on Demo Day—the graduation from Venture Asheville’s Elevate Program. His task: to describe what his business is in eight minutes.
Jason says there are tons of factors that impact Average Joe. “It’s not just diet. It’s not just stress. It’s not just exercise. It’s all of these factors combined and more that affect the health of the average person.”
Jason and his wife, Alyssa Moore, who is co-founder and COO of Elite HRV, find themselves in Asheville at the right time and place. What is it that their company does and what is HRV? We’ll get to that; but first, let’s take a look at the interesting journey that brought them here.
Alyssa grew up in Wyoming and moved quite a bit as her family was in the oil business. She went to Texas A&M University and finished with a petroleum engineering degree. After graduation she worked in the oil industry for five or six years in different parts of Texas. She met Jason through work, and they were married in 2014.
“I was getting pretty burnt out,” she says, “because of being a lead engineer in a startup out in the field. I was working crazy hours and on call all the time. I was getting calls in the middle of the night, several nights a week. It was starting to feel like—I need a break. After we got married, we decided to quit those jobs and do a little road trip. We traveled for a couple of years. And that’s how we found Asheville.
“It was mostly out of necessity and insanity, but I felt like we grew a lot. We wanted different things—we didn’t want to go back into the corporate world. We didn’t want to back to Houston. That just really didn’t fit our priorities.”
Jason, from Houston, Texas, comes from a big family. His Dad was a very entrepreneurial guy who owned a tech company in the ‘90s that went through a lot of ups and downs.
“I learned a lot when I was a kid going through that journey with them,” says Jason. “I learned a lot from a financial standpoint. I’ve had a lot of good influences on me growing up. I wasn’t a naturally super hard worker like Alyssa through school, but pretty gifted, and I had really good influences of hard workers, including the original partner of Elite HRV who was my college roommate.”
Jason went to Texas A&M as well, but he and Alyssa did not meet each other while they were there. He received a degree in information systems and then worked in the oil industry, where he was hired by Alyssa’s mom. (They joke that he was preapproved by her mom.) While working for the oil company in Houston, Jason designed data analysis systems for complex equipment data out in the field. He traveled a lot and honed his skills of educating people on data analysis and designing interfaces for people who were trying to use data in different ways. That was the start of breeding some of the skills he needed for Elite HRV.
Jason’s big family has a lot of health issues—many of the top 10 killers of health you will find within a person or two of him in his family.
“My dad is suffering a lot right now with his health,” says Jason. “I was starting to see some early warning signs myself and then I had all these warning signs from my family that I needed to pay attention to. So, I just got really passionate about it over the years all the way to becoming a health coach and trainer as a side passion while doing this oil industry IT work. I really didn’t ever really think I would pivot my whole career out of IT and information systems, but then we got married, and Alyssa had all these high stress things going on at work, and I was getting more into the health and fitness performance side of things as a passion—and so we saw kind of a mutual opportunity to quit.”
The couple had saved up a little bit of a buffer that allowed them to travel and spend more time bonding as a couple. Their time working in the oil industry enabled them to do this—both skill-wise and financial-wise. They acknowledge that not many people can forgo pay for a couple of years. And as they traveled, they started nurturing the ideas that Jason had, which started Elite HRV as a side project while they were working in the oil and gas industry.
“It was my previous college roommate and I,” says Jason. “He’s a computer science guy, and I had the data analysis side of it. He put out an app and within a couple of months while we were still working it had been downloaded by several thousand people.”
While Jason and Alyssa were traveling for two years, they started working more and more on Elite HRV. Jason recognizes Alyssa as being the type of person who multiplies anything she touches by 10 at least. So, as he began bouncing ideas off of her for Elite HRV, and the more time they dedicated to the business, the better it got. It became apparent that this Elite HRV side passion had started looking like a real business and they decided to go for it. Three months into their travel, Alyssa officially joined the company.
Continues Jason, “Eventually my original partner decided that he wanted to go back to a ‘normal job’—which is totally understandable because normal jobs—they actually pay you. We continued on without him and we ended up contracting some additional help over time as we started figuring out how to monetize the business. Fast forward—now we are up to seven full-time people, and we moved to Asheville to set roots and work hard on the business and also be in a place that was conducive to the lifestyle that we like, which is good food, good outdoors, and a health priority, family-oriented. And as a bonus, there are amazing entrepreneur resources in Asheville that we didn’t even know about when we arrived here. So that’s been a blessing as well.”
What’s HRV All About?
When Jason was a health coach, he realized that everyone’s situation is different and unique. Something that works for one person doesn’t work for someone else because they have their own situation and condition. It was then that he discovered the interesting concept called Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV is a deeper and more comprehensive biomarker than number of steps or heartrate. It’s like the check engine light for your entire body and mind and examines the tiny changes and patterns between heartbeats. At that time there was promising research being done that showed HRV can actually tell you what is happening to your body in real time.
“So, all of these factors are coming in as inputs and manifesting as you,” says Jason. “HRV, what it does, is detects subtle changes in your nervous system, and those changes in your nervous system are very sensitive to changes in your overall stress and health. What I determined is that there are people in the industry that are trying to make HRV more measurable and accessible to average people. My background in data analysis and tech and trying to figure out how to make complex data out in the field really useful to decision makers gave me the foundational knowledge I needed to create that. My original partner and I put our heads together. I [thought I could] make an app that connects to a basic chest strap that was accurate enough to get tiny changes in heart rate that we needed to measure HRV. So then you get real deep into the science here. Essentially, that opened huge doors to be able to measure it anytime, anywhere. And then you can start to do all these really neat observations on yourself, and a coach can observe their client and say, ‘OK, when we tweak your exercise, what happens? When you do a diet, what happens? When we introduce this supplement, what happens?’”
Elite HRV started with a mobile app and then a desktop analytics tool followed, which actually syncs the data from the app and aggregates it for coaches, health practitioners, research teams, and sports teams. The Elite HRV advanced algorithms analyze the precise times between heartbeats and detect activity from the nervous system, which controls processes like energy regulation, digestion, mood, and response to stress.
Before, to get accurate HRV it required medical grade testing, so the average user couldn’t do that. Even if you did that in a hospital setting you couldn’t really do it long-term. Being able to do it at home now it is more powerful in a way because you are able to test more frequently and make better decisions and guidance. Originally it was the mobile app, which was and continues to be free for users, which could be used with a chest strap heart rate monitor. The mobile app may have no direct revenue associated with it, but it is actually the main entry point to the business.
Jason and Alyssa hoped someone would come out with a hardware that could accurately measure HRV without the chest strap. When this didn’t happen, they partnered with an engineer company and patented their CorSense medical grade finger sensor. The CorSense sensor, which can be purchased directly from the Elite HRV website, is much easier to use than a chest strap. Two minutes in the morning wearing the sensor is all it takes—a little morning check-in.
“To use our product, we really only recommend two minutes each morning,” says Alyssa. “We try and keep it as simple as possible. We don’t want people to have to wear wearables. We have a lot of that already. We don’t want to add to that.”
“We actually found benefits to the morning check-in process because a lot of times now people are so busy they just launch right into their day worrying about all that they have to do that day,” adds Jason. “Like skipping breakfast just to get after it. If you can really prioritize just a couple of minutes in the morning to check in with yourself, it’s like a win-win—you get data about what is going on inside, and you have a minute or two to say, ‘OK, start the day off with myself in mind.’ Not in a selfish way—it’s like, hey, I need to be good and healthy to help all the people out in the world that need my attention.”
One of the biggest things that changed the company’s growth was the launch of the Morning Readiness Gauge. It’s a simple green, yellow, red system that shows you how much stress your body is under. After you take your morning reading and check your app, this gauge swings right and left. If you are in balance, you are in the green. Too much stress swings you to the left, and then too much of what they call recovery swings you to the right. If you are in either one of those states, you might not want to work out hard and might want to prioritize getting more sleep.
“Each morning you get this gauge that says for you, based on your own situation, you are in balance or out of balance,” says Jason. “On the morning of, you actually get a paragraph with suggestions that might say your body looks a little stressed, so today you might want to do a little bit of deep breathing. Maybe you don’t try and set a PR at the gym.”
The user also receives an HRV score with their morning reading (1 to 100) that helps compare them to the population. Other statistics are also available, and you can actually put other information in like mood, exercise, and sleep. You can tag things like alcohol or caffeine and see how that data affects you over time.
“I think this app just saved your life.”
The next step for Elite HRV was adding educational courses. They now have 20 instructors who are experts on various subjects who teach courses on their platform.
“We actually sell premium educational courses,” notes Jason, “and originally this was just to teach people about HRV because it’s a really deep subject and so we had people coming in saying, ‘This is awesome—I can do my measurements, but I still want to understand more about how this works.’ So, we partnered with another person to co-develop a course on HRV, and we put that out there and it quickly became the world’s go-to-resource on HRV. We had really high-profile people take it and really normal people take it, too. It ended up generating a good amount of revenue for us and it also established our expertise further. And helped a lot of people learn. In the course, it’s not even selling our product, it’s just teaching science and teaching how to apply this to your real-world goals and things like that.”
Jason and Alyssa have received emails from people who say Elite HRV changed their life. One email was from an individual seeing in advance that they were going to have a heart attack, going to the hospital, and the hospital staff saying, “I think this app just saved your life.”
“This is not for predicting heart attacks, but it can and that’s the power of the metric that we use,” says Jason. “What you see more commonly is people saying I had no idea that I was beating up my body by trying to run a marathon and work 60 hours a week. They combine that work stress with that physical stress and its overload. So, their health is declining. They can’t figure out why their hair is thinning, or they are keeping a little extra weight even though they run eight hours a week. It kind of helps people really understand what’s going on inside.”
Elite HRV has over 270,000 users on the app worldwide, including every continent—even Antarctica. The Analytic Dashboard has a subscription model: $8 a month for personal, while for a team it’s $30 – $100 a month depending on the size of your team. The CorSense sensor and the courses are their main revenue channels.
So far, marketing has all been organic growth. Many people come to them through an online search for HRV, or perhaps they have someone they follow on a blog who mentioned HRV, so they search it in the app store.
“I wish I could say it was all by design, but basically HRV being so unique and powerful and us doing it really well has brought all the people to us, so we haven’t had to do a lot of outreach,” says Jason.
Eighty percent of users using Elite HRV are males; the average age is in the mid to early 40s, but they also have 90-year-olds and 20-year-olds. The Elite HRV platform works for all ages and all fitness levels.
In 2017 Vivek Menon joined the team as CCO. He brought experience in developing sales and marketing channels and he was part of a medical device startup that ended up going through multiple fundraising rounds and having an IPO. He has been a nice addition to the team because Jason and Alyssa have a technical background, while he focuses on the commercialization side of things.
There is one last channel that underlines all of this—the data. The data is obviously powerful for the individual, but there is also now amazing potential in the aggregate data that Elite HRV has.
“We’ve collected over 10 million health matrices in our database, and it’s unique data you can’t find anywhere else,” says Jason. “We have actually had people offer to buy it and we have told them no. We’re not against aggregate analysis of the data anonymized without people’s information, but we really want to be careful with that. We also want it to be just put towards the greater good and not used in a shady way. We think, internally, there is so much more power there that we should be able to analyze that aggregate data and come up with even better recommendations for our customers. So, we haven’t even been able to spend a lot of time on that yet because we’re a startup—we can’t do all the things all the time.”
Asheville: An Entrepreneurial Mecca
Jason and Alyssa were first introduced to Asheville’s entrepreneur resources through Mountain BizWorks. It was here that they were introduced into the local network and received a loan. The couple credits Mountain BizWorks for being instrumental in getting Elite HRV to the next level.
Through a Kickstarter campaign they raised almost $200,000. They also joined Venture Asheville’s Elevate Program; in Asheville they found amazing mentors, important networks, and a way to meet people that are like-minded and want to impact in the world like they do.
In December they were honored to win the Venture 15 Awards ranking the 15 fastest growing startups and honoring the people and organizations that make Asheville a place for startups to thrive. Sponsored by Venture Asheville, The Venture 15 Awards recognizes the area’s outstanding entrepreneurs and serves as an elite setting where they can share their talent and wisdom and offer inspiration to other companies. (The December 2018 issue of this magazine included a look at the Venture 15 Awards, for which we were an official co-sponsor.)
Jeffrey Kaplan, director of entrepreneurship for Venture Asheville, was immediately impressed with Jason and Alyssa’s thoughtfulness and focus, how well they work together as a team, and how well they understand their market.
“Sometimes you see founders exhibit puffery, to sell you on their excitement and world-changing ideas,” observes Kaplan. “Jason and Alyssa are confident and reserved, letting the product and testimonials speak for themselves. Beyond their competencies as founders, both Jason and Alyssa have tactical skills, making them such a strong combination. Jason knows the product, how to use and make observations from data, and leads an international team. Alyssa designs not just the product, but the graphics and instructions and illustrations in their pitch deck. They complement each other so well, it’s been a pleasure to support them on their journey.”
Jason and Alyssa have always broken down competitors into direct and indirect. A big indirect competitor is people’s attention because the Elite HRV platform requires an individual’s time to check-in with themselves.
“For the people who want to improve themselves and get healthy the main competitors would be big names like Apple,” says Jason. “An Apple watch tracks heart rate and things like that, but we don’t foresee them as much as a direct competitor as much as a potential future buyer or something like that, because our technology is very specialized to deliver accurate and meaningful insights about your nervous system, and the watch form factor really isn’t conducive for that. It’s nothing against Apple—it’s an amazing product, but it also does phone calls and has emojis. Those limitations that they have for it being a versatile social fashion type device will really hinder them on getting into the deeper metrics that we look at. That’s one end of the spectrum.”
“The other thing with high end wearables,” adds Alyssa, “is that they are expensive, so we are trying to make our stuff more accessible and affordable. We don’t want to replace those wearables, but we also know that there are a lot of people who would not buy them.”
Other competitors include basic fitness and activity trackers like Fitbit or step counters; however, a step tracker is a small piece of the overall pie of your health. Elite HRV will tell you if your step tracker is even helping you.
“There are a number of apps that do HRV,” explains Jason. “We didn’t invent the concept of HRV; we just layered on a lot of intellectual property on making it more accurate and accessible for everyone. There are apps that do HRV and do some of the basic HRV from the research that’s available, but the good news [for us] is none of them have even come close to serving a fraction of the number of people that we have served. If you add them all together, they probably serve as many people as we serve. We are going to continue to keep innovating and building up those barriers for competition. At the same time, our goal is not to crush everyone, but just to be competitive. To be able to have a business that has a good long-term future.
“We try and be as inclusive as possible. We made this device able to transfer data to any app. Some devices are closed platform—you can’t get your own data out of them; you can’t transfer your data; it’s not really your data. The devices won’t work with anything else. They try and get you into their thing and you can’t get out. We didn’t want to be like that. Our hardware can be used with anything.”
The monetization piece of the company is important from a business perspective, but not to get in the way of helping people. The more people they help the more people will help them. They feature free content, which includes blogs to add value to as many people as possible. Jason does a podcast where he interviews experts which has a couple hundred thousand downloads.
“Our algorithms and our intellectual property are really robust and complex—that’s a pretty big barrier,” says Jason. “For the big players, it would probably be easier for them to buy it from us rather than to re-create. For the smaller players, it’s a pretty high barrier because we’ve had a lot of time and expertise that’s gone into it. From a competition perspective there is also the basic intellectual property barriers that we have been putting up.”
The Highs and Lows of a Startup
The success of Elite HRV has peers asking Jason and Alyssa how they got through certain things and how they have been so successful. They explain that failure is relative to the situation because if they had no cushion to live off of, then Elite HRV probably wouldn’t be here or perhaps would have needed investors early on. If they had not had the ability to live off of savings, it might have been the end of the company early on.
They see failures as learning opportunities. A “failure” they experienced plenty of times was the release of a new feature in the app which users hated. They had to quickly figure out if they should scratch the feature or try to get it to the point where they thought it could actually help. They had features that have been completely scratched and features that never went live.
They spent a lot of time talking to their customers, which they believe is what set them apart at the beginning. They learned from their users what they liked and what they were trying to get out of the products. Jason has personally interacted with 15,000 people over the course of the past few years through email and phone.
“Any project, most often, takes longer and costs more than you originally anticipate unless you’ve done it before,” says Jason. “Luckily, given our background in high dollar high cost projects we kind of know that’s the case. So, we have planned around that. Everything is going to take longer and cost more than you think, so if you are waiting to pay yourself to eat, you need to find a backup plan because it’s probably not going to be that easy.”
The couple brings core values to their company that they aren’t willing to bend on that include health and happiness and being family-oriented. They want employees to be excited to be at work because they know if it comes down to it, they can take care of their family. They, of course, still expect a lot from their people—they expect them to be a high performer, but it doesn’t have to be at the sacrifice of other things. They aren’t gauging people’s merit based on the number of hours that they are logged in. High performance is critical because the issue they are trying to tackle is, from their viewpoint, basically catastrophic globally. It feels almost like a duty to them to reach as many people as they can. The only way to do this is with high performers who learn quickly.
“We have to not have excuses about figuring things out,” says Jason. “High performance is really important to us.”
People often ask Jason and Alyssa what type of business they are in. Are you an app? What exactly does Elite HRV do?
“We are an ecosystem,” says Jason. “We are still trying to figure out the best word. ‘Platform’ often comes up. ‘Ecosystem.’ Sometimes ‘community’ depending on who you ask. But we have the app, we have desktop analytics tools, we have hardware, we have educational courses and data science going on behind the scenes, so it’s an interesting startup. A lot of startups revolve around just one thing. I would say from an early phase it’s more risky to try and do lots of things at once, but we got past that, and now, that has actually helped us create barriers to entry for competition and things like that. Because if someone wants to create an app, fine, but who is going to use an app if it doesn’t have the hardware, the courses, the community, the experts, and all that stuff. And it’s really hard to create all that.”
“We’ve done everything so far bootstrapping,” says Alyssa. “Being able to work for no money for a couple of years was helpful for us getting this business to where it is. At this point, because we want to grow the team, we need investors to really get those resources—more developers, product managers. Getting us out of every piece. We want to breathe a little. Be able to focus on what we need to but not worry about other aspects of the business. We are just really starting to fundraise for $1 million this year.
“Our goal is really to bring awareness to people to start tuning in more to their body when they make changes or have goals they are trying to accomplish. What’s really happening? It’s so easy to lose sight of that because we have such a stimulating environment around us. We want people to be more aware. If we can help facilitate that with objective data, that’s great.”
“You can see why we are so passionate about it, and you can translate that back to my family,” says Jason. “The core of what we do is help people learn about themselves, and we get to learn a lot in the process through our customers and from each other and from these experts that we can help by giving them better tools.
“I think at the end of the day,” he concludes, “that’s kind of our thing—empowering people through better learning. Ourselves and the experts and the Average Joes and Sallys, and everyone else.”
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