In a surprising turn, Withings founder Eric Careel bought his company back from Nokia, two years after selling it for $200 million. The circumstances were fortuitous: Nokia was looking to offload the digital health business, which it had apparently come to see as a failed experiment.
Less than four months after the deal, the company has launched its first device in this newest iteration of the brand: the Withings Steel HR Sport. The $199.95 device is an attempt to compromise between Withings’ stripped down but long-lived smartwatch Activité and devices like the Apple Watch that boast a wide variety of features and capabilities but last only a few days on a charge. The device offers offers heart rate monitoring, connected GPS tracking, and “fitness level assessments” based on VO2 max all with a 25-day battery life — which also allows the device to be more useful for sleep tracking than devices that need to be frequently charged at night.
“The new Steel HR that we are launching is a larger mechanical watch that is more adapted to US people and with advanced features we did not have before, which is the estimate of VO2 max,” Careel told MobiHealthNews. “We are introducing connected GPS, so a way to start a workout from your watch and directly register in your application. We are also including the sleep score which is a very advanced sleep tracker taking advantage of the heart rate and the sleep monitoring we are able to do on a watch. And we know that this is very well rated by our customers.”
Why Careel bought Withings back
Careel says he bought the company back for two big reasons: the team and the mission.
“To be honest I was a little bit disappointed to sell the company two and a half years ago. It has been hard for me … It was difficult for me to leave the team at that time,” he said. “It’s easy to say a team is fantastic, but I have built five or six teams in my life and this one is really fantastic.”
Withings is especially good at cross-collaboration among many different kinds of specialists in hardware, software, and operations, Careel said.
As for the mission, Withings has always been oriented around monitoring toward the goal of improving health, not just fitness or wellness.
“For me, we are in front of a revolution in how people are taking care of themselves,” he said. “We have built the first step in the system. We have built a strong offering and we need to continue to go in this direction.”
A big market with big players
Apple’s news last week of including an ECG in its Apple Watch is a very encouraging sign, Careel says, since it shows that the industry as a whole sees an opportunity in health monitoring and is moving in that direction. Fitbit is also working on health-oriented devices, and if Jawbone’s relaunched company gets off the ground its orientation will be in that direction as well.
“Where we want to go is preventive health,” Careel said. “We are not a fitness company. Companies like Garmin and Fitbit are competing about new products which are for people who are doing sport every day or every week. That’s not our mentality. Our mentality is to be a companion about your health, so we focus more on preventive health.”
Buying back into an industry that’s increasingly dominated by Apple is a daunting proposition, but Careel thinks there are still many differences between what the companies do.
“The more successful [Apple is], the more there is a place for us,” he said. “Because our DNA is to offer noninvasive ways to follow your health in your daily life and we are doing that through three main points. One is the scale where we are the leader and we are the inventor. The second one is the wrist, and the third one is under the mattress during the night with the sleep sensor [where] we have the most advanced product on the market, even if it’s still a small market.”
Even when it comes to the wrist, Apple’s offering isn’t for everyone, he said.
“On the wrist, we are in competition with Apple,” Careel said. “But the smartwatch is a product that is between a small computer and a Watch that is offering one day maximum of battery life. On our side we have a [health-oriented] product with more than eight months of battery life.”
A global opportunity
Withings has offices in the Boston, Massachusetts in the United States and in Paris, France where it was founded. The company does 35 to 40 percent of its business in Europe, 55 percent in the United States, and the rest in other parts of the world, Careel said.
But the United States is a more exciting opportunity, Careel said, because of indications that healthcare players are taking connected devices seriously as preventative health tools.
“US is very important for us for a single reason: the way the consumerization of health is moving is quite fast compared to what we’re seeing in France, for example,” he said. “So the capabilities that some insurers are putting on the market to reimburse programs for decreasing the weight of people with pre-diabetes risk shows that the ecosystem of health in the US is now able to measure the way that preventive health is helping people and helping to save the life of the patient. So that’s why the US is so very important for us.”
Careel suspects Europe is ultimately headed in the same direction, if at a slower pace.
“There are other countries like the UK and Germany which are also prepared to move quite fast,” he said. “Some countries like the Netherlands are ready to move fast.”
Withings is back, and at least one thing is for sure: It’s going to remain an independent company for the foreseeable future.
“The first big lesson [from the Nokia acquisition] is that we have to focus deeper and deeper in this healthcare realm,” Careel said. “The keynote of Apple two days ago, that’s exactly the same direction we want to take. And [second], we want to make sure we’re always able to control our future.”