Loralyn Mears, PhD
CES 2020 Preview Series: EMBR Labs is Making People Hot & Cold
This article was originally published on December 27, 2019 at https://gritdaily.com/ces2020-preview-embr-labs/
EMBR Labs is an MIT success story. Its founders, Sam Shames, David Cohen-Tanugi, and Matt Smith, are all MIT graduates. Shames graduated in 2014, Smith completed his PhD in 2012 and Cohen-Tanugi completed his PhD in 2015. The trio incorporated the company in 2014 after winning the MADMEC contest the year before pitching “Wristify,” a personal thermostat that you wear like a watch.
Like most inventions, a need or personal passion project can drive a company’s efforts in a whole new direction. Shames was literally freezing in the school labs and became determined to develop something, rooted in science and engineering, that would enable people to control how they experienced temperature. Numerous pitch contest wins, a Forbes 30 Under 30 in Engineering accolade for Shames back in 2015, and a recent $6M Series B financing round combined to set EMBR Labs on an upward trajectory. This is the company’s third appearance at CES but it marks the first time that they will be presenting. Grit Daily caught up with Shames as he and his team were preparing for CES 2020.
Grit Daily: Thanks for taking some time with us today, Sam. Did you have any inkling that you’d be in pursuit of an entrepreneurial path while you were studying at MIT or did that evolve during your tenure there?
Sam Shames: Yes and no. When I entered MIT in the Fall of 2010, I didn’t really grasp the word ‘entrepreneur’ or have any idea that you could begin your career by staring your own business. But I knew that I didn’t want to work for anyone else. Nor did I want to apply for job after job and work for a big company. The commercial application of technology was always more attractive to me than developing novel, specific-use materials. After I met Matt and David, our future path became very clear and we set upon a course to create and launch EMBR Labs. My grandmother, who just retired from her own market research company last year at age 89, inspired me to think differently and focus on what the customer needs, not wants. Together, we’ve had numerous interesting discussions comparing notes about what we’ve experienced starting up and launching new businesses and products.
GD: Does EMBR stand for anything, what’s behind the name? And, have you rebranded ‘Wristify’ as ‘Wave’ or is it a new product?
SS: EMBR is an acronym for ‘Environmental Mind Body Resonance’ which represents the idea that technology can help us feel better. Yes, we rebranded our personal thermostat as ‘Wave’ in order to expand into our future line of products and services versus be limited to something that was literally tied to one’s wrist. Plus, at that time when we originally branded our technology, we were still in school and didn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about the brand. As our company evolved, we began to embrace a bigger vision around personal, thermal wellness and we didn’t want to narrow our scope. ‘Wave’ seemed like a natural brand name because it describes how the sensations of heating or cooling come in pulses or waves.
GD: That’s a great segue for my next question, how do you explain your technology to someone who didn’t go to MIT?
SS: The Wave doesn’t change your body temperature; it only changes how you warm or cool you feel. Our bodies have thermoreceptors, which are specialized nerve cells designed to sense thermal properties. They send signals to our brain whenever a difference between environmental temperature is detected. Heat receptors are located closer to the surface of our skin whereas cool receptors are located deeper in the skin. We have more receptors on our hands and face than we do on our thighs, stomachs or other parts of our bodies. How warm or cool we feel affects our physical and emotional wellness which has implications on our productivity, mood, ability to sleep and so on.
Our technology is a thermoelectric module that you fasten to the inside or your wrist, a particularly sensitive area of our bodies densely packed with thermoreceptors. We use a semi-conductor material that uses the flow of electricity to alter the temperature of that material up or down. The experience is very similar to a shower dial where you can control how hot or cold the shower is. We all know how uncomfortable and cranky a cold shower makes us feel if we were going in hoping for a nice, hot shower. If we can’t control our personal, thermal experience, we don’t get the same level of restorative benefits.
People have been adjusting their perception of personal temperature to modulate their comfort level for a long time. We do so in many ways from bundling up to stripping down, consuming cold beers or hot teas and so on. It’s been largely in a subconscious way so we’ve decided to formalize personal temperature comfort by creating a new category, thermal wellness, where consumers can now consciously adjust their level of well-being.
GD: Is your technology regulated by the FDA?
SS: No, we are not making any claims. We are conducting studies with Johnson & Johnson to evaluate the effects of Wave on women experiencing hot flashes and Dr. Hui Zhang of the University of California Berkeley was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to study how technology affects thermal discomfort. Our customers regularly post feedback citing how Wave helps them sleep better and reduces their anxiety, but we have not yet substantiated these results with scientific studies that could support such claims.
GD: You are selling in the USA alone, yet you have many ratings from customers who live outside of the USA. Tell us about that.
SS: We did a Kickstarter campaign which made Wave available to anyone worldwide who supported our effort. And we’re delighted to see that many people are buying Wave from our website but they’re mailing our technology out to their friends and families who live elsewhere.
GD: In an interview that you did with INC. January 14, 2019, you cited some lessons learned in entrepreneurship that most founders fail to grasp at such an early stage in their careers. Your advice to other founders was to: 1) create something people need, not want; 2) engage your customers early and often; 3) be ok with being wrong; 4) and keep learning. Just about one year later, would you change that advice?
SS: I would not change it, but I would add some context around it. During the summers, I worked for my grandma on her market research business and she engrained the value of understanding your customers and market before you make any moves. MIT offers in-depth training in entrepreneurship and an extensive network that you can tap to get advice and all these sources echoed the “talk to your customers” message so it’s become part of my thinking.
The advice that I’d add with one more year of experience leading a company is to look carefully at how and when you need to grow. You need to be prepared to delegate work so that you can be freed up to focus on the company’s growth. It’s all too easy to get sucked into the vortex of doing the job of the person that you need to hire to do it but you’re too busy to write the job description. That’s exactly when you need to pause, look at what you’re doing, and make changes. Over the past year, we’ve doubled the size of our company with strong hires in engineering and product development. As a result, it’s amazing how much more we’ve been able to accomplish and now we’re truly scaling up. One other bit of advice, if you want the perfect icebreaker at a networking event, just ask someone if they feel hot or cold in the room.
GD: What has surprised you about your journey as a COO and co-founder?
SS: There have been many surprises. Each year, I’m doing a different ‘day job’ where the responsibilities I have and tasks that I do are changing focus. Today, I’m currently most focused on financial aspects, raising money, business development, establishing SOPs and things like this. With startups, you get to wear a lot of hats which can be daunting because you know that you’re not qualified to play that role, but you must figure it out. Learning while doing is both exciting and rewarding so I’m really enjoying how my role is evolving year to year.
GD: Aside from rebranding and launching a ‘thermal wellness’ as a new category, have you made other pivots?
SS: The biggest pivot we made was switching from managing temperature so that facilities managers could be attracted by our product as a means of reducing energy and costs, but all the market research we did demonstrated that we didn’t understand the severity of the problem, and it was about the customer’s personal perception of temperature that mattered. We had everyone on our team read the market research interview transcripts to maximize what we could learn from them. Once we empathized with what our customers really needed, we were on our way to thermal wellness versus developing yet another cool gadget and more geek technology.
GD: What’s the greatest obstacle that you have overcome to date?
SS: For any company shipping hardware goods, inventory management is always tricky. In 2018, we were back-ordered for four months and missed our original projection. Inventory and cashflow obviously go together so it’s important to get it right. We learned a lot from those mistakes and improved our outcomes this year with a back-order rate of only 3 weeks. Now that we’ve launched a rose color Wave in addition to the existing silver wone, we’re learning about how much complexity we added to inventory management simply by opting to offer a second option. So, we have some new challenges going into 2020.
GD: How did being named by Forbes as a Top 30 under 30 change your life?
SS: On one hand, that recognition is exciting and offers an amazing tagline for Linkedin. On the other hand, it’s not like the phone started ringing off the hook the next day. ‘Overnight success’ is never overnight. The Forbes summits offer tremendous networking and learning opportunities, so that’s been an incredible experience. But all these facets are lagging versus leading indicators. So, it’s hardly the end of the road by any means, it’s just the start!
GD: How do you think age and gender affect entrepreneurial success?
SS: One of the things that we (my two co-founders and I) were very conscious of from Day 1 was the optics of EMBR Labs. We were highly aware that three white guys, fresh college grads no less, were designing a product that could help menopausal women feel more comfortable. People were likely going to see our efforts as disingenuous. We’ve seen how the technology industry has been evolving to consciously make diversity and inclusion a natural part of any business, so we set out to build a team that reflected the diversity in our market.
On the flip side, as white guys from MIT, getting meetings and having people return our calls wasn’t that challenging compared to what you hear from other founders, women, women of color and men of color when they describe their experiences with fundraising. We certainly never had any prospective investors ask us if we were ‘truly committed’ to the business or planned to take maternity leave and get distracted by our children. While the industry has made forward progress, there is still room for improvement. We want to be part of that next generation of technology companies where managers make a conscious effort to understand how their employees feel and how they want to be managed. Being proactive by recruiting and managing people the right way is critical for us to address some of this disparity we still see when it comes to the effects of age, ethnicity, and gender on entrepreneurial success.
GD: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
SS: Whenever I see a post by a happy customer that Wave makes them feel better, it’s the ultimate reward knowing that your product is making a difference in someone’s life. Add to that the motivation and reward of being among the first to solve a problem that others have been unable to solve and it’s easy to see why founders are 100% into their companies. We’ve clarified our message, we’re poised to scale, ready to grow and help others attain thermal wellness. Technology isn’t always bad for us. Sometimes, it can make us feel better, too.
GD: Thank you, Sam, for your time today and for introducing me to your personal thermostat technology. We’ll see you at CES on the stage at the Sands Expo all day from Tuesday the 7th through Friday the 10th in booth #41131