About Founders Speak: A series of conversations with our founders on the journey they’ve had so far.

We spoke to with Mohit Kumar (Founder & CEO, Ultrahuman) about the emerging fitness-meets-healthcare landscape, how objective and observable variables can transform our perspective to health, how to listen closely so that feedback can guide business expansion, how to run an org as a sports team, and the learnings and challenges he faced through the course of his journey.

You can watch the full video here. And read the full transcript below.

Transcript of the conversation

Vinay Rao: Mohit, hello and welcome to the Founders Speak podcast. Founders Speak is a series of conversations with our founders where we deep dive into their success stories, and their process of building a company. In this episode, we have the founder of a company that has quite literally taken social media and pop culture by storm. I can’t think of the last time a tech product from India received this much social love. Their newest product, which is a wearable and a subscription service, branded as Cyborg, consists of a skin patch that extracts glucose from the interstitial fluid under the skin. The data is then fed into a companion app for analysis and visualization. Extremely thrilled to be talking to you, Mohit. Hello, and welcome to the show.

Mohit Kumar: Yeah, it’s a pleasure to be here Vinay. Thanks a ton for getting me here. 

Vinay Rao: Fantastic! So Mohit, the Ultrahuman Cyborg has been such a revelation, right? The hardware itself is Abbott’s and has been around for ages. But the App … now that is a real game-changer, and Twitter is awash with people now having discovered the solution to their problem of afternoon sluggishness, for instance. It’s something that I personally have struggled with for ages as well. So for the uninitiated, it will be great Mohit, if you can tell us what challenges does glucose present? And what Ultrahuman can do? Like how will sensors like the Cyborg help with long-term health?

Mohit Kumar: So I think the way to understand this is if you think about the body as a physiological machine, where different markers in the body tell you different things about your life or the way you live your life. So if you look at, let’s say, glucose as a primary fuelling mechanism, or if you look at HRV, the Heart Rate Variability as a signal from the heart to tell you about how recovered you are, you can potentially know more about your body. But more about that later. I think, fundamentally, the gap that we identified, and this is primarily the reason we’re building Ultrahuman, is that we couldn’t really figure out a more objective way to track progress in fitness. And most of the answers in fitness for us were all methods that somebody else would have tried on themselves or something that you just hear from people. For example, I think most people trying diets like Keto or Paleo are not trying these because they know the science of it, but because they have just heard about it from somebody. And the interesting part is that many of these diets also work. So it’s really hard to figure out what works for you. When you hear about these diets working for people or these exercise methods working for people, the possibility that it might not work for you makes it just way more confusing. It’s not a binary answer. So given that this objective way of assessing whether you’re making progress or not is really hard, we want to look at how we can actually make this more objective by looking at various biomarkers of the body. And this realization came to us when we observed a few athletes themselves, who were using biomarkers. This is at a martial arts camp. So, we were observing a few athletes trying out various biomarkers …

Vinay Rao: Is that the Muay Thai camp that you attended?

Mohit Kumar: Yes, that’s the Tiger Muay Thai. And I was really blown away by how people are using metrics like heart rate variability, tracking their sleep, and not just overall sleep like the duration, but also sleep zones and how each of these zones matters to them. But specifically, what caught our attention and what seemed very, very interesting to me back then was this metric called glucose. Because glucose is a metric that changes real-time in response to your stressor, sleep, your food obviously, and physical activities. And this real-time nature seemed very interesting because if you want to get people to change their habits, you have to create a positive feedback loop or a negative feedback loop. And we’ve found that with fitness, the problem was that the feedback loops are broken. For example, when people start working out or when people start committing to fitness, it probably takes them weeks, or sometimes even months to actually see feedback in their own body. And most of the impact that they can see is visual or in terms of the weighing scale. 

Now, the weighing scale is a little tricky because weight doesn’t give you the full picture. And it takes at least sustainably two weeks to actually move. Now the problem with a behaviour framing product or if you look at any behaviour framing product, you need to have an instant loop, and two weeks is just way too long, or even a week is way too long. But glucose being a real-time metric seemed to solve the problem for us. Because if you eat something healthy metabolically, and we’ll talk more about metabolic health later, but if it is healthy from a glucose response perspective, you’ll see the results right away, probably within an hour or two. If you actually have a great workout, you will see your results right away as well, instantly.

And these positive reconfirmation loops, actually motivated us to look at glucose very, very deeply, and explore it personally as well, and ask ourselves, how does this change our lives? And then bring it to people. Now, the hardware and let’s say this technology as well has been around for some time essentially. And I mean, there are very, very large OEMs like Abbott, Dexcom, and Medtronic alongside other companies in this space. And we partner with most of them to bring this technology to general fitness as well. It has been generally deployed in diabetes reversal and largely in sports nutrition. But we feel that the need to improve your eating habits for better health and the need to improve your exercise patterns or the need to improve your glucose response during sleep is not just a need for athletes and for people who have a problem but for millions and millions of people out there. So this is one of the reasons. 

Vinay Rao: Fantastic, and it’s interesting that you referenced Muay Thai because my next question, incidentally, is why healthcare? What got you interested in healthcare; and most importantly, why did you want to start up at this intersection of healthcare and fitness? What were the motivations, the drivers for wanting to solve for this particular problem statement? Also, if you can walk me through what was the meta-learning from Muay Thai? Very curious to know what that was.

Mohit Kumar: So actually, when we started thinking about this, we realized that when we think about healthcare, or if we just do a quick experiment and type healthcare in Google, you’ll see scary images. You’ll see hospitals, doctors, the emergency room, all of those things. And it seems very scary. But if you break down the word healthcare, it also means that people should have a better quality of life, and better quality of life just does not come with critical care, it also comes with people having lesser problems in life. And we felt that fitness is a great way to actually avoid these problems in life. But it’s a lifestyle, right? 

And it’s a behaviour change. So how do we make it simpler for people to invest in their lifestyle and care for themselves? That was the part that we felt was missing, and it was missing from both ends. If you look at fitness, in most cases the gyms that you see around, and no offense to gyms, gyms are amazing, but what’s really missing in some of these gyms or fitness camps is that, ‘what does it deliver to you from a health perspective’? Most of it is just still visual unless you’re training functionally. 

And given that fitness has a huge correlation to the health that you have, there should be a way to objectively measure how fitness is making you healthy, or how the fitness lifestyle is making you healthy. Similarly, all the health interventions are not very deeply integrated with the world of fitness as well. Like the medical industry does not know or integrate with your gyms around. So what we felt was that there were these two different products that were sort of non-integrated. We felt that this is the gap that we need to bridge and that the user is the same, the user wants to improve their life. Going to a hospital or going to a gym is a means to get better. How do we create a continuum between these two, and make it easier for people and not so scary. So, that was the reason why we got into healthcare, at the same time being a fitness company and basically the combination of these two is what we feel is really powerful.

Vinay Rao: Very interesting. And that’s an interesting segue to my next question because my next question is around lifestyle improvement. So a lot of people and not just diabetics, right, a lot of people have spoken and they’ve written glowingly about how their quality of life has seen a significant upswing after they’ve started using Ultrahuman’s Cyborg. So Ultrahuman is not just for those with serious diabetes management conditions it is also for those whose lifestyles could be seriously improved with such tracking systems. And in many of your interviews, you’ve also spoken about the larger roadmap for Ultrahuman, and how the ambition is for an individual to get a better view of the human body. So I’m guessing things like tracking, heart rate variability, or respiratory rate, gut health, and related metrics. So I would love for you to shine a light on what are these additional metrics that you have on the roadmap, in addition to what Cyborg already does? And a follow-up question to that is how mature is the market for data analytics using wearables?

Mohit Kumar: Got it. So I think the primary thesis is that we know more about the car that we drive than our own body today. And it’s both insane and interesting at the same time because your quality of life is determined by it. Yes, it is determined by the car you drive. But it’s definitely way more dependent on the body that you have. And it’s very hard to realize it until there is a problem. Most people don’t realize it. And that’s why, when people ask, and this is a common question to us sometimes asking, ‘hey, why do you need to measure your body? Why can’t you just live the way it is?’ And I think there is value in that argument, which is living the way it is, the way you are living is also pretty useful but being aware might add value as well. Because being aware sometimes gives you a clear picture of how you’re living your life.

And I feel that people who are building companies today, who are the creators of society, inventors, everybody, right? We have to really think about this hierarchy, the hierarchy of needs in a much better way now. And think about what we really need, and what really drives the quality of life? Is it just the availability of food, or the availability of the best modes of transportation. And given that the way we work is changing, we feel that the way healthcare also works or fitness also works will also change. And those are some of the macro phenomenon or macro changes that we feel are happening and will also drive this. And people will start realizing that we need to be more objective about our health. Now, we can’t wait for a problem to become more objective, like the fact that most people get their first blood test done when they have a problem and it’s insane.

Vinay Rao: Correct, absolutely right.

Mohit Kumar: And the same set of people would actually go for a regular car check-up without even having a problem. So that view of the human body has to have some value for people. And I think people are rising up to it. And people are realizing the value of tracking more and more metabolites in urine or analytes in blood or biomarkers like the way we do. This entire industry is getting created. That’s the most interesting part. We don’t have a global parallel; we don’t have 100 different companies creating this. So it’s really interesting and fun. And the other interesting and fun part about this industry is that it really needs both inventors and engineers to work together. Only inventors cannot really scale this, and only engineers cannot make this industry move forward. So it has the same classic mix as any other new-age industry, like let’s say, space travel or anything else that needs both yin and yangs to work together. So that’s one thing about more biomarkers. For the second part of the question, one way to understand this is to understand that what we’re looking for, really, is your body’s response to events in your life.

Even with just food, your response to food is not just based on the food that you eat but is also dependent on the underlying state of your body. So consider this as x plus y, x is the state of your body, y is the food that you’re eating. Now if you want to take anecdotal examples: when the state of the body was younger, the x plus y equation was always friendlier. Imagine having night-outs in your 20s and eating pizza and working all day and then not feeling a thing which seems amazing, and the same pizza and the same night out starts to hurt when you’re in 30s or you’re in 40s. 

Vinay Rao: Yeah, I can totally vouch for that. 

Mohit Kumar: So many of my friends start saying that ‘after a few nights, I’ll almost feel that I’m going to die’ jokingly. But that is true because the body does not treat events in the same way as it would treat them when it was younger. So x keeps changing, y also changes because your food supply changes, the quality of ingredients, all of these things matter. And y is the quality of food. Now, what we have with the Cyborg platform is the response of x plus y which indicates how your body reacts to an event on the basis of its recovery state plus the type of food that you’re eating. It does not really tell you like the attribution of x and y, like basically how much of it is because of x, and how much of it is because of y. So with more and more biomarkers like heart rate variability, respiratory rate, what we’re trying to do really is we’re trying to figure out the x part of the equation, like how much value can we attribute to x with this. So what real-world value does it drive to people? Think of it like this, the food that you’re eating, if it is giving you a negative response or a healthy response, some part of it might be about food optimization. But if you are sleep deficient, and that is actually causing a much poorer response, is food really the problem in that case? Then fixing sleep is a better answer, in that case, because cutting down food can also be a stressor. Most people don’t realize that because the way industry has grown, unfortunately, is that we have either started loving food or hating food and there’s nothing in between.

Vinay Rao: Correct. Such polar opposites. Yeah, I totally agree. 

Mohit Kumar: It’s like some of the health enthusiasts have started hating food and are saying that food is the real problem. And many health lovers just are obsessed with food and we don’t have middle answers here. So when we start looking at food as the enemy, when we say that food is the only problem, then we are actually creating a problem out of food. But it’s the same food that you’ve been eating in your 20’s, although maybe one could argue that the quality of food available today has been much worse. So that’s why finding more factors and going deeper into the equation, finding out the right attribution, figuring out how much is x and how much is y is the reason we are looking for more variables of the equation. These biomarkers would be things like heart rate variability, which is the marker of the state of your nervous system, whether your parasympathetic or sympathetic, it can be figured out from HRV. The state of recovery is indicated through your HRV. You can use respiratory rate to figure out the state of your recovery, body temperature, your sleep zones, how much slow-wave sleep are you getting, and for how long. And both have their own functionalities. And of course, glucose, the one that we track primarily. Glucose is not really the devil. It’s not really the enemy. I mean, it’s actually the primary fuel for our brain.

Vinay Rao: Like when someone says they’re on a keto diet, and they’re off sugar, my instant reaction is okay, fine, but what are you feeding your brain; like, your brain needs sugar, right?

Mohit Kumar: There are secondary fuels, and there are different ways to fuel your body as well. But glucose is a clean fuel, and avoiding it without tracking the consequences is a little risky. I think using keto as a tool is an amazing way to achieve something. But it’s not a lifestyle. We are surrounded by carbs, and if you want to give up everything, you’re basically saying that this is my life, and I want to be healthy, but don’t want to eat with people and that’s life. If you have chosen it, that’s amazing. But I don’t think most people can make that choice. 

Vinay Rao: Correct. I don’t think it’s sustainable at all. And two things that you just said particularly resonated with me, and I found it extremely insightful, like the fact that inventors and engineers have to work together. So I’ve just gotten started on Asimov’s Foundation series, there’s also a TV series that’s been made, and it looks fantastic production-wise. Interestingly, there’s this thing in the series called Encyclopaedia Galactica. So the entire premise of the book and the series is how do we diligently document the entirety of human knowledge and archive it for posterity. So they assemble this massive team of inventors and engineers to work together to be able to diligently document the Encyclopaedia Galactica. So when you said that these two groups of people have to work together, that is what came to my mind. I also particularly liked what you said about looking at health and fitness along two axes, and how changing y remains constant or vice versa. Basically, the response of x to y and how you need to look at health as a recovery state along one axis and what you’re eating and how you’re sleeping along the other axis. I thought that was extremely insightful. And those for me would be the two significant takeaways from what you’ve just said. Which brings me to my next question. So what was the pre- Ultrahuman life like. Where did you grow up? What are some of the poignant memories that you have from those days? Would love to go down that memory lane.

Mohit Kumar: So I grew up in various parts of the country primarily because my father was working at the Ministry of External Affairs. And he would get posted every three years. So I would say, if you change your school every three years, you will end up having a lot of friends. But a lot of light, good friends, not perhaps a lot of long term friends. And to some extent, it was annoying back then. You just start to get to know somebody, and then you have to change your school. So that’s how I grew up. I was really fascinated by science books, always. But never wanted to pursue science, basically. But engineering got me back into science or reading science books. I somehow can’t go through philosophy books or business books at all and for me, everything boils down to the science books. So, that’s what I did for most of my childhood. I was reading science books. 

But I think somewhere around 2010, 11, I actually got into cycling. It’s a very recent memory. So that’s where the fitness journey for me personally started, I used to do Brevet. It’s basically long-distance cycling. So these would be cycling trips, that will be long-distance in nature, like 300, 400, 500, 600, 700 kilometres. And if you do all of these in one season, you earn a title, that’s called super Randonneur. It’s a cycling title, and I used to cycle for a club that is affiliated with a French club. So that’s what I did. And I think I got it in 2012 and that makes you eligible for certain types of long-distance races in the world like the one in Paris. So that’s what I did. And it brought me into this world. I wouldn’t say that that’s fitness but that’s more performance sports and endurance sports. 

And post that, I got really fascinated by mixed martial arts, and specifically Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu which is like a ground fighting art. Jiu-Jitsu is more about self-defence, it’s more about controlling yourself against the push and pull of an opponent but it’s way more practical than that. It’s the realization that most fights end up on the ground, especially when people get into a fight for the first time. So that’s what got me super fascinated. Jiu-Jitsu has a lot of physics applied and you will get to learn about joints, you’ll get to learn about the mechanics, the dynamics of movement, etc. So that’s what I did. I had a lot of free time. So those were some of the early years of learning and then Zomato happened and I always wanted to get back to the world of performance sports and fitness and that’s why I’m here. 

Vinay Rao: Fantastic. You were the COO at Zomato. 

Mohit Kumar: The COO of the food delivery business. 

Vinay Rao: Oh, right. So life really has come a full circle for you. So you started out with fitness, then food, and then again fitness. 

Mohit Kumar: I don’t see food and fitness on two opposite spectrums. 

Vinay Rao: Correct. So how have those experiences shaped you and influenced you in running Ultrahuman? You were the senior product manager at Ola as well. So how have some of these start-up experiences shaped you and influenced how you run Ultrahuman today?

Mohit Kumar: I can only think about the most recent learnings because those are the ones I remember. So perhaps the most important learning has been to survive as much as you can and survive for the long run. If you’re building the right set of things, you’ll eventually be valuable and you will be valued and will actually deliver value to people as well. The second learning would be to, not over hire. I would say, do more with less basically and spend less money. I wouldn’t call it frugality but be a conscious spender to some extent. But among all of these things, I really like the principle of hiring less people and having a small team, at least in the early days. Because the learnings I can recollect is that culture in the early days drives what your organization would look like in the future. And if your organization explodes in the early days, most of the people wouldn’t have interesting work to do. And this is actually sometimes a realization that people don’t have and organizations don’t have. Which is that people sometimes don’t have interesting work to do. 

And that’s why people either dumb themselves down, or they leave. And this happens because most of us, and this is a mistake that I’ve also made in the past, think that we are doing so much work, scaling so much so we probably required two x of the people that we are able to hire. But the realization really is that unless you’re able to intellectually stimulate people, people would not show up their true potential, people would not grow unless you really give them something challenging. With a mega team, everybody’s handling something that is very, very trivial. So that actually does not help your people or your team grow. And from a financial perspective, it means you are spending more money but also people making less money in the future. Basically, you have maybe 10,000 people in your organization and you do a billion-dollar IPO versus when you have a 100-member team. So eventually you want everybody to make enough money so that they actually end up building their own businesses and they end up becoming creators. And that’s the best thing to see, right? When people working with you actually become creators and then you can learn from them further. That I think is one learning that we’re still working on. Which is how to keep that discipline intact and keep building fast and survive. We think of it as a 100-year company, how do we make it a 100-year company. How can we basically become anti-fragile, never die? That’s what we’re asking ourselves. 

Vinay Rao: It’s a great way to look at entrepreneurship and you’re a serial entrepreneur, right. Your first start-up was Runnr, which was also a Blume portfolio company. And then, of course, Zomato happened with that fantastic exit. And now, of course, Ultrahuman is quite literally the toast of the town. So this brings me to my next question – since we’re talking about entrepreneurship in 2021; and you can’t talk about entrepreneurship without the context of venture capital. So, with start-ups that bridge the worlds of fitness & healthcare, VCs tend to look at them as long-term plays. Also, what the pandemic era has shown us is that it’s vital to invest in some of these kinds of plays right, from a portfolio construction standpoint. And Ultrahuman has some marquee investors on the cap table.

So there’s Blume of course, there is also Kunal Shah, Gaurav Munjal, there’s Utsav Somani, and these are all the names that I can remember. There’s always been this deep conviction not just in the business or the category itself, but also in the product. So I would love to understand what that fundraising journey has been like from Series A to Series B. I would love to understand that.

Mohit Kumar: The pre journey was truly on the basis of Nexus and Blume taking a bet on us as individuals and to be fair, we didn’t have any clue of what we were building back then. I mean, to some extent, that is true even now but most of it is clearer now. But back then it was just about what we wanted to do and our partners were kind enough to believe in us. And then Series A, which happened recently, was largely about us getting closer to product-market fit and showing early signs of consumer love, early signs of the brand getting built. And we were really conscious about the brand element because a company can make 1 to 10 products essentially and do well in five of them or one of them or 10 of them depending on the type of company right? If you’re a Microsoft you can make 10 large products, if you’re Apple you will make five really good products. And then we’ll keep recycling them and create different versions of these. But I think when we were getting closer to organic customer love to some extent, we looked at our checklist for PMF and asked ourselves, ‘when do you actually need capital to grow?’

When to some extent, we have some semblance of why would people love us. And also, we instinctively feel that we would also want to use the platform. So for a long, long time, we didn’t have the kick or the need to use the platform because they still iterated. And the day we felt that – ‘Oh, now, I, as a user also want to use this like maybe 5, 6, 10, 15, 20 times a day’, depending on the day, and depending on the need, that’s when we knew more people would use it. And then we found that there are actually more people who would want to use it like that. So that made us more confident and encouraged us to go out and raise more capital. And fortunately, obviously, the ultimate decider of the business sometimes is the market. So the market was also in our favour, and our numbers were also growing. So that was the second part of the journey that unfurled when we were getting closer to PMF. 

It’s funny that the confidence that you carry in your fundraising meetings, cannot ever be faked. It is driven by how much confidence you have in your product, and what your users are telling you. I can see that when we were actually getting into the fundraising conversations very, very early, when we had less traction, and when we didn’t have customer love we were different. And when we started getting customer love, our confidence just shot up, and the amount of traction just exponentially increased and people interested in investing in the business just increased exponentially. And you cannot psychologically fake it. I mean, some people can. But at Ultrahuman, we knew we were ready for those meetings when we had a great strong product. So that was our fundraising journey. But if you plot it, it would show you how we tried, failed, tried, failed, and then succeeded. And then once you start seeing progress, I think it’s a flywheel. 

Vinay Rao: Fantastic. I really like what you said about the product which brings me to my next question. So what are you learning about Cyborg the product as we speak? So what is your product research repo look like? Would you say that you’ve crossed the chasm with Cyborg? And I’ll tell you where I’m coming from. So, somebody on Twitter said, and I’m quoting them verbatim here, they said, “One week of being an Ultrahuman Cyborg user, it is accurate and it has led me to not just reducing portion size and type of food but I’m also very, super aware of swings in my sugar highs and lows. And I’ve also learned that I’m much more disciplined than what I imagined, everyday activities, and meal times are almost exact. So overall, being a Cyborg has been a fantastic experience.” And this is just one of the many different testimonials that are out there for Cyborg. So what are some of the most interesting and anecdotal feedback that you’re getting for Cyborg?

Mohit Kumar: So I think when we look at the improvement roadmap, most of our team members and our eyes are set on the stuff that we need to improve and we keep archiving the stuff that’s already done. We’re working on creating a long-term health roadmap or improvement roadmap for people, and we’re solving for how people can actually measure it in a much more relatable way. So for example, if you make progress in your metabolic health with Cyborg, then you’ll see improvement in your metabolic score. So what does it mean? Does it mean that you’ll have a lower probability of metabolic disorders or does it additionally improve your blood work as well? So that’s the type of correlation that we need to establish. 

And that’s what we are consciously working on by connecting these biomarkers that we have to do something that the user already understands. So, that’s for a user who wonders, “I don’t have an issue right now, why should I invest in cyborg? Or why should I invest in my health today instead of just going to a gym? Why should I watch my key body metrics?” And the answer to that is that it’s always the right time to start tracking your body, if not late. Because with Cyborg, you’ll be making changes that will help you improve your body in the future, in a much more low effort, higher ROI manner essentially. So that’s one message that has to come out, which we are working on. 

And the other thing is adding more biomarkers. That’s what we have heard from users, asking how they can observe correlations between recovery patterns and glucose regulations, or their sleep patterns, or if they improve fuelling patterns in exercise how does it lead to improvement in exercise performance? And yeah, I think that’s what we are cautiously working on, which is getting new biomarkers out. We’re currently very closely evaluating how we can sustainably add more biomarkers without actually making it more cluttered for the user. 

And we want people to have the least amount of information that can drive the most ROI for them, as well as the most accurate amount of information. So we don’t want to bombard people with metrics. But like just these three metrics that actually can help you make actionable changes in life. If you want more, we can do that, too. But just three should drive 90% of the change in life. And the way we are doing that is that we actively work with a lot of athletes who give us a lot of feedback really fast because athletes and their bodies are very, very sensitive. So when they change something, they see the result almost immediately. So that’s the kind of magnified feedback we get from athletes which we then transpose into learnings for the platform, and then make available for people. 

So those are some of the things that I can talk about. And this space seems very, very exciting, given the fact that it’s too early right now. We feel that the value that we add today is making fitness technology or healthcare technology way more internet-friendly than it is right now. We have a very close synergy with medical practitioners, doctors, and researchers in this space. And we feel that this synergy is really cool because obviously, we can’t exist without people who have been researching in this space or who have been doing something similar in this space. But we also feel that the existing structure can’t scale without the intervention of engineers or the technology platform that we’re building.

Vinay Rao: Great. So interesting that you said that the space itself needs the intervention of engineers and innovators for it to take the quantum leap, so to speak. So I want to double click on the societal intervention that is needed for a product like yours. And I want to be able to do it through the lens of gut health. And I’ll tell you why because a couple of years back, I was served this massive gut health scare, and that sent me down a rabbit hole where I started reading a lot about gut health. So there’s this fantastic book by Guilia Enders, it’s called Gut – The Inside Story of our Body’s Most Underrated Organ, and this is a fantastic book. And literally for me, that book was when the penny dropped, right? And then I read about books by Rujuta Diwekar who is the most popular name in the Indian nutrition context. So, research data suggests that over a billion people in the world suffer from metabolic health disorders, considering this is also in many ways representative of the scale of the problem itself and the scale of the addressable market if I can call it that. And the awareness around gut health and blood sugar health is also very, very poor. And most of the things that I’ve learned about the gut microbiome, for instance, or the gut brain axis, for instance, all of it came from the books that I’ve read and the material that I’ve read online. So, how aware do you think the average Indian is from any of the metro cities about gut health and nutrition? I’m not even talking about India2, and India3. So how aware do you think the average Indian is about their gut health and subsequently about their health, right? And my follow-up question to that is, therefore, do you agree that the consumerization of healthcare, so to speak, is here? Are we at the vanguard of that?

Mohit Kumar: A curious average individual is either aware, or will get aware or will know about this in the next one or two years because this is just natural human curiosity driving you towards a better life and better health. So curious people are going to get here very, very fast. I definitely see way more people talking about microbiome now versus five years back, or three years back, or 10 years back even. The research is also fairly new, if you really think about microbiome as a space in a sector. Especially the role of neurons or the nervous system and how your body can extend beyond just the macro view. And these factors actually play a massive role. And basically, how you improve your health. So these are some of the things that I think people will naturally get educated about, out of curiosity. 

I think it will get glamorized when people start seeing results. The first batch of people or the first cohort of people will start seeing real results in their life, saying that, “Oh, curiosity drove me to this particular science, and I applied this in my life and this is how I improved my life.” Now, they’ll be the influencer or the role model or the athlete for millions, millions, and millions of people around. It totally depends on where somebody wants to be. Do they want to be an early adopter and try something out? Or do they want to actually see what people are doing and then they want to follow? And we feel that there’s definitely a large enough market for both, and we feel there will be 1000s and 1000s of companies created in this space, consumerizing human health eventually. Because we all intrinsically know the problem, we know that fitness is so confusing, or healthcare is so confusing, and that it’s not so objective. I mean, again, the example of a car, right? If we can create an objective system, like your car performance dashboard, or scale the supply chain as much as you scale your transportation networks or your private transportation, then it sheds light on what we’re trying to do. That is the type of roadmap fitness or healthcare is going to take in the next few years. 

And I think we are right at the cusp. If you look at most industry research papers, you will see 10 to 12 years as being the estimate and I don’t think we’re going to need even that much time. The internet can accelerate things significantly. I think we should be able to get there in the next five years. The other factor that’s actually driving this is that investing is getting crowdsourced. And now potentially there could be 100 million people investing in the space over the next few years. And some of them would potentially find new and innovative ideas as well. And not necessarily, risk-averse ideas. So healthcare definitely needs a lot of invention as well. It will need a lot of capital that has a slightly higher risk appetite as well. Because the human body is not that simple. It’s way more complex. It’s definitely way more regulated than most of the things out there. 

Vinay Rao: Absolutely. And since you referenced the category at large, my next question is around the category itself. And I would like to view it through the lens of marketing since I’m a marketer myself so there’s that added interest and added curiosity to know why. So visually, healthcare, it’s a scary picture, it’s a scary space, just like fitness is a very cool, very exciting category visually. So walk us through how you’ve positioned yourself in the category. So Peloton, for instance, had that mainstream moment right, albeit negatively, when the Peloton wife exploded into popular culture. Often when a brand has a great product and it wants to focus on facts and figures just so that consumers can fall in love with the performance of the product, what tends to happen is either there is a very strong affinity or a very strong disassociation to a brand for a set of reasons. And it sounds counterintuitive when I say it, because it happens all the time, but you don’t necessarily have to have the best product to be the most successful product. And I know you had a great viral moment with Chamath Abs. So I would love to understand how you’re thinking about brand building and marketing communications going forward in the context of the category being what it is with regards to pop culture.

Mohit Kumar: So the way teams have been thinking about getting users is that we want to work with cool people who are actually building for cool people essentially. There is coolness required at both ends. And when you hear the word cool you intrinsically wonder who these people are. People who are a little progressive in nature, they want to experiment with new things, they want to know more, not too judgmental, they’re not too harsh about things, they want people to try and improve, and they also want to work with cool like-minded people. That’s the type of brand and the company that we want to build. That’s why when a user has a conversation with us, we just want to have a conversation as normal people. As somebody you would meet at a coffee shop, and have general curiosity around and ask, “I want to try it out!”. And we say yes, absolutely let’s work on this. Enthusiastic, novel people. But not with a dynamic wherein we are serving you or you are serving us, it’s not like that, because we are building this together, right? 

We are solving the healthcare crisis for billions of people out there, a billion people globally have metabolic health problems. And if the first set of people help us scale, they’re actually potentially getting this product out to millions of people. And if we can democratize the technology by getting it out to a billion people. Eventually, the type of impact that you will be able to create will be humongous. And that’s the type of brand that we want to create. A brand that people actually own a piece of as a user, or as an individual, and we should be able to feed that curiosity. So the people who work here don’t see ourselves as very different from the users who want to use the product and we expect the same. And all of us should know enough science, to go deep into a conversation with a researcher or somebody who has practiced medicine in this space for a long time, just enough to have a logical conversation.

So that’s the domain knowledge that we need to have anyway. We need to understand how insulin works, we need to understand how certain mechanics of biofeedback work, we need to understand how the basics of physiology work for your human body. So that’s the basic level of education that all of us need to have. An engineer needs to have that, somebody handling customer support chat needs to have that, somebody designing the product needs to have that and that’s the type of brand that we want to build. That’s how we think about the brand now. 

Vinay Rao: Great. And I have to say that a lot of it is reflective in your marketing and communications, especially in how you converse with audiences across social platforms. So it’s fantastic. This brings me to my second last question for the day, Mohit. So build local and go global has almost become the ecosystem catchphrase and the ecosystem mantra, right. And you are a global brand, you’re not just an India-only product, you are a true-blue global product. So would love to hear your thoughts on how you’re thinking about international expansion. Also would love to hear your learnings around building a global consumer tech product.

Mohit Kumar: So on global expansion, we are very close to launching in certain European countries. We just started testing out the product with a closed set of users and are getting some feedback. We’re also looking for a few local logistics and distribution partners. So we’re very close to the European launch. That’s the most immediate aspect for us. But before that, we have a mega waitlist in India which we did not expect. But we have to serve them first, that’s our responsibility. So that’s what we’re working towards solving right now. These are the two expansion plans right now. In terms of a global product, the question isn’t really whether the product is global or not. The lens that we’re viewing this through is of the type of user that we’re building for. And sometimes that’s hard to balance and harder to learn. Sometimes as product managers, or as creators, you often think that creating a product is about getting 100 use cases right, prioritizing them by personas, and basically creating a priority index. But it is actually way more complex and yet, simple at the same time. 

Complex because it’s not really about finding use cases, and finding use cases is actually the easiest part. But it’s about finding who the people are that are going to use your product and you have to be comfortable losing the rest who will even use your product and even say good things about it, but they will never commit to your product. So finding that set is really important for an early-stage company. And that naturally solves for the expansion plan as well because imagine, if your expansion plan was linked to customer acquisition, you need to always tie capital to your expansion plan. But if your expansion plan is linked to a captive TG that you think will always use a product, you have a ready base of users that are just waiting for you to release. Now, it’s always easier said than done. And honestly, most of the companies that we think have done really well and admire have verticalized really well. Companies in Europe, and the US as well, and in India, of course, these companies have done very few things, but have done those really well. And it’s not like we had this learning on day one. We also struggled with doing fewer things, because doing more things is always easy. You always have new ideas, and we often think that we are the ‘idea guy’ or that getting new ideas is the main thing but it’s actually the other way around. It’s actually about finding out what really matters and that’s the hardest thing to learn in life. Maybe it’s not just in one’s profession but also personally.

Vinay Rao: Correct. And also, philosophically very well put. This brings me to my last question for the day and it’s around org building. You’re a serial entrepreneur, this is your second entrepreneurial journey. Through the course of Runnr and now with Ultrahuman, what have you learned about org building that first-time founders in 2021 can benefit from? And what have you learned about yourself and your founding team now that you can look back and say – ‘Okay, these are the seminal learnings that I can transfer to the next breed of entrepreneurs who are starting out in 2021’. Would love to have you walk us through that.

Mohit Kumar: What we’re really trying to achieve is an org that does not represent a corporate org structure but represents a sports team. Sports teams are also orgs, after all. Let’s use the example of a soccer team. You have the midfielders and they are strikers, there are others on defence and sometimes people defending have to strike as well. Sometimes midfielders have to defend. And this is the fungibility that we need between people. If I’m striking today, maybe I’m getting a lot of limelight, but I need to know how to defend. And I need to take that step back and defend as well, sometimes. There is a specialty, which is striking, defending, midfield, but there is also that flexibility between different types of roles. That’s the type of team we want to create. Is there a hierarchy in that team? Yes, there is. But only because of decision making, not because of years of learning or because of position in the company, but only to actually solve for faster decision making. With everything else, we feel that it should work like a sports team, that is what we want to achieve. This is what we’re trying to achieve. 

And we feel that that’s a very good answer because people generally want to do a lot of different things in life. And this is our personal thesis now. Why should people just do one thing, there are so many things that people can do, why shouldn’t people experiment with different things and learn new things in life. And they ought to experiment within the same team, the same company, because then they can plan a long-term journey for themselves in that company. So that’s the philosophical answer. In the practical real world, the way we make it happen, to some extent, is by actually finding really painless people. And just like cool, painless is a thing to be understood at our company. It’s about people who actually don’t really complain about the circumstances but always find a way through because they’re here by choice. Like with martial arts, when you’re in a fight, you can’t really complain about the fight. You have to either fight or quit. If you run away, you might survive, if you fight, you might survive. But if you’re somewhere in the middle, maybe it works, maybe it does not and it’s usually an easy recipe for death. So it’s the same thing in life. You either make up your mind, and basically, chill out. And basically, be a painless person.

The type of friends that you want to have are painless people, not people who keep iterating that ‘this will not work and this did not happen and I’m suffering in this case.’ You want to hang out with people who energize you. I’m spending around 80% of my life here, so that’s what we want. It’s very easy to ask questions, hard ones. But it’s harder to actually find answers and then come to the table with a positive criticism mindset. So those are the type of people that we aspire to and want to work with. Most of the people who join us essentially have to go through a reading process, they would read through some literature in this space. They tell us what they felt about this and what was their review of a particular piece of research. It really helps us decide. It’s not an assessment test. It’s more a display of the fact that they will be able to talk in the same language.

Vinay Rao: What’s does that reading staple look like? What books would you push your people to read and what materials do they go through? 

Mohit Kumar: So there is a book called ‘Why We Get Sick’. It’s a book by Benjamin Bikman, definitely a very good read. It changes your perspective about how you look at disease and sickness and health. And there’s another one, which is my personal favourite and it’s called Microbe Hunters. It’s a book on scientific curiosity. The second one is a little dated as a book, but it’s certainly very, very interesting. It’s more applicable in a philosophical sense, and it’s also from a mindset perspective. So there are two books that we generally request people to read, and then have a conversation with them around these two. But the right term for this is a jam, right? When you jam in a band, music happens. So music should happen.

Vinay Rao: Absolutely. And I will definitely check out those two books. So personally, one book that I keep going back to, even though I’m not an avid runner, is this book by Murakami called ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’, which is a fantastic book. In it he draws parallels between running and writing and how both of them are endurance activities in the truest sense. And if you want to achieve, if you want to hit the apex of any human endeavour, then the only way to do it is to put your head down and to grind it out, basically just run the marathon. So someone famously once asked Murakami about how he writes and he said, ‘I get up at four in the morning and I just write; because there’s nothing else to the process, you get up, and you put in the time, you do that.’ So I’ll definitely make it a point to check out these two books out. My last question for the day, and I just have to ask you this, what’s your personal fitness mantra? And what’s your fitness regimen like? You strike me as this David Goggins kind of guy, the kind to push your body to the limits in order to be able to accomplish a goal. So yes, I would love to learn more about that.

Mohit Kumar: I’m definitely the opposite and I really like chilling out. Basically, I want to do the least amount of work for the most amount of gains. So David is definitely on the other side of the spectrum, he does the most amount of work for the most amount of gains. But usually, it includes a bunch of kettlebells. Like the 10 plus 10 circuit, which is pretty cool. So for 10 minutes, you do 10 swings every 10 seconds. So basically, it’s a 10-minute circuit and sometimes they get to 20 plus 10. 

And then the other one that I like is doing a little bit of heavy lifting, depending on the day. And then the third one that I like is a boring one, which is walking. Just started doing it more often now. And interestingly, a lot of top performers have started talking a lot about walking as a sport, and the health effects of zone two training with walking as a key activity, but it’s not sexy enough because people want to run. But I personally feel amazing when I go on long walks and I do it with a certain zone in mind, like a heart rate zone in mind. 

So the science behind that is also quite fascinating. It’s not just your body composition and everything else, but it’s also about the neurobiology and how your brain also works. So walking is very, very healthy as well. Maybe health is not the word, but it’s a way more useful activity compared to anything else. So those are the things I prefer and then I try to not exercise too much control over food because food is very important. You should love food; food has no karma.

Vinay Rao: What you said about walking is very interesting because I love walking, and not that I do a lot of walking daily, but the few 000s of steps that I manage to get in during the day, feels nice. Some of the best work ideas I’ve had have come to me when I’ve actually walked and a lot of people also advocate walking, right. Even in popular culture, Steve Jobs very famously said that walking is very important for thinking. He was notorious for his walking meetings. So when Steve said, ‘come, let’s walk’, it either meant he’s extremely happy with you or he is terribly miffed with you. So great. This has been a fantastic conversation Mohit. And thank you so much for taking out the time to talk to us. It’s been a pleasure to say the least.

Mohit Kumar: No, I loved the conversation too, I really enjoyed this. Really kicked about what comes out and yeah, I would love to chat in the future as well.

Vinay Rao: Fantastic Mohit. Thank you so much. 

Mohit Kumar: Thank you. Bye-bye.

Vinay Rao: Bye! 

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