Health IT

Relationships helped Lark move from prototype to shelves in one year with less than $1 million

With two product launches under its belt, two-year-old digital health startup Lark Technologies is an example of what can happen when you really take the time to get to know the right people. Lark’s flagship product, a sleep tracker and coaching system that connects to a mobile phone, launched last summer and earlier this year […]

With two product launches under its belt, two-year-old digital health startup Lark Technologies is an example of what can happen when you really take the time to get to know the right people.

Lark’s flagship product, a sleep tracker and coaching system that connects to a mobile phone, launched last summer and earlier this year was endorsed by the National Sleep Foundation. The wristband device uses sensors to detect micromotions of the body during sleep, and mobile phone software uses algorithms to generate meaningful data and feedback on sleep patterns.  It’s also an alarm, using vibrations to ease users out of sleep, rather than jolting them awake the way an alarm clock does.

The company’s new product, launched this week, builds on that technology. Larklife is a wearable wellness tracking and coaching system that takes data it collects as users wear it all day and generates recommendations to help users improve their health.

From a business perspective, Lark is capitalizing on a business trend that founder and CEO Julia Hu said is emerging. “You’ve seen a lot of startups starting to tackle hardware, and I’d like to think part of the reason is because hardware manufacturing is getting more accessible for startups,” she said. “Silicon Valley has been about software all of these years, because software can be so quickly innovated upon.  We feel that software is enabling hardware to become a rapidly innovated upon product and experience, and our goal is to push that vision forward.”

So far, the Mountain View, California, startup has done that with relatively few resources, thanks in part to the help of university business plan competitions, a network of medical and industry experts and connections with a well-known manufacturing company in China.

“Most people need a couple million dollars to really create a product,” Hu said. “What we decided to do, instead of raise a ton of money, was to leverage our partnerships to really allow us to do things that were of much higher value but with much fewer financial resources.”

In 2009, Julia Hu, then an MBA candidate at MIT, entered the annual MIT 100K Elevator Pitch Competition with little more than a problem – that her boyfriend’s alarm clock woke her up every day an hour before she actually needed to be up.

“There was no science or technology behind it, but I think that was the moment I decided to start LARK,” she said. “After that pitch, so many people came up to me and said, ‘I’ve had the same problem all my life and I’ve just dealt with it.’ The response was just so much of empathy that I decided to start LARK.”

A few other business plan competitions followed, and by the following summer, Lark was established and ready to be incubated, earning a spot at Lightspeed Venture Partners’ Summer Fellowship program. The collective winnings from the contests and incubator had provided Hu and her small team with about $80,000 – enough to sustain them for several months and let them build a device prototype. That’s when Hu dropped out of school and took on the role of full-time CEO.

The part of her story that Hu can’t emphasize enough is the significance of early relationships. She met Lark’s sleep expert adviser, Dr. Jo Solet of Harvard Medical School, at a talk she attended in an effort to help herself sleep better. After several conversations, she saw that the two had an aligned vision and asked Solet to be part of the project.  The new adviser helped Hu meet as many people in academia as she could, and she was eventually able to assemble a team of advisers that helped turn a $5,000 sleep monitor into a $100 consumer product ready for manufacturing.

Hu had also previously worked in consumer products in China and was familiar with a manufacturing company based there, PCH International. She met with the company’s CEO, Liam “Mr. China” Casey, himself a dedicated entrepreneur, and a manufacturing partnership was formed. In addition to that, Casey and Lark went on to create a business accelerator that would help penny-pinching startups get a kick-start in design and manufacturing.  “We got to try out different things and scope out what would be helpful for startups,” she said. “We basically got a world-class company in the background doing a lot of the heavy lifting and scaling for us while we handled other things like retail partnerships.”

The team caught the attention of several retailers, including Apple. “At that point, when we had proven the concept out and had a partnership with PCH, which was really one of the key ingredients to starting out, we then went to raise $1 million,” Hu said.

The product launched in the Apple store in June of last year and was then customized for numerous other countries and taken global. In additional to all of that, Lark spent the past year working on its new product, which it plans to take global as well.

With a team of 21 (and growing), Hu said it’s possible that the company will do more fundraising but didn’t disclose any plans.

“We actually brought LARK from prototype to Apple shelf in one year with less than $1 million,” she said. “So much of our value has been created in partnerships with non-financial incentives.”

[Photos from Lark]