Boston-based company to sell next-generation wristband to athletes

ByDarren Rovell ESPN logo
Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Should a player sit out of a game because he might get hurt? Should a team travel immediately after it plays a game?

A new company is hoping to take predictive analytics to sports medicine and, in turn, revolutionize how teams and players themselves think about athletes' bodies and their recovery.

On Tuesday, Boston-based WHOOP will announce the availability of a product it has been building for more than three years: a next-generation wearable wristband, similar to Jawbone and Fitbit, that takes more complex measurements like skin conductivity and heart-rate variability to analyze the stress an athlete puts on his or her body and how that athlete's body recovers.

The product, which, for now is only being marketed to elite athletes, costs between $500 and $5,000 a year for individuals. It could cost teams up to $100,000 a year to monitor players and view the company's complete array of analytics through Bluetooth, which transmits up to 150 megabytes of data per athlete each day to a dashboard.

The company says its WHOOP system, which has received $12 million in venture capital funding -- most significantly from data science investors Two Sigma Ventures and MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte -- currently is being used by players in all major pro sports and by Olympic athletes.

While at Harvard, Will Ahmed, a squash player and WHOOP's founder, became fascinated with the idea of sleep, recovery and understanding exactly what athletes were doing to their bodies. He wanted to figure out how to standardize the science of making sure athletes peak at the right time.

"I thought it would make sense for athletes to invest in the other 22 hours that they were not training to understand how their bodies react and what they can do better," Ahmed said. "Because those subtle nuances make the difference."

Ahmed said athletes have become more aware of the role sleep plays in their recovery, but the products available on the market don't offer the complexity of data that they need. Ahmed said one of the most important metrics the WHOOP wristband detects is heart-rate variability, which measures the beats of an athlete's heart rate while it's at rest and provides a window into the central nervous system and how an athlete's complete body is handling the strain of workouts and recovery.

Predictive analytics are not new to elite athletes. Italian soccer team AC Milan opened its MilanLab to do exactly that in 2002. But there hasn't been a product sold to all teams that offers the array of technical data that WHOOP does.

The WHOOP wristband is worn 24 hours a day, seven days a week and charges while it's being worn.

"We're a step ahead of athlete," Ahmed said. "When they wake up, they get a score from 0-100 that measures their recovery. That might change what an athlete does that day. Going into the night, the device will tell you how much recovery or sleep you need based on the strain you put on your body throughout the day."

Mike Mancias, LeBron James' long-time personal trainer, is a WHOOP investor.

"Athletes are stronger and faster today, but they're also more in tune with their bodies," Mancias said. "They're sick and tired of missing games, and they are investing in their bodies through chefs, trainers and therapists to extend their careers. This is the next step."

Mancias, who is employed by the Cleveland Cavaliers, said medical analytics are the next frontier in sports.

Of course, providing athletes and teams with more information isn't free of controversy.

Players' unions concerned with athletes' rights might be wary about giving teams the rights to this type of data and allowing it to drive decision-making. On the other hand, the devices could arm athletes with the information about playing, which could conflict with the teams' agendas in explaining to crowds why players sit out games without identifiable injuries.

Ahmed says if athletes and teams remain on the same page, the results could be powerful.

"Teams can measure how athletes recover on the home versus the road," Ahmed said. "Should the team leave right after a game, or should they just sleep in a hotel in town to allow the guys to recover better?"

Ahmed also foresees teams scheduling practices not around times in the day when it's convenient, but based on when it's best for players' bodies.

The dashboard provided to athletes and teams can be searched and sorted and even analyzed more by scientists on WHOOP's staff. Mancias serves on the company's advisory board, as is cardiac electrophysicist Jeffrey Olgin, among others.