Stress testing: How added customer discovery led a budding startup to unexpected growth
This is one in an occasional series looking at the journeys of startup teams that have come through H4XLabs.
By Ellen Chang
For one military helicopter medevac Commander, on-the-job stress is an understatement. He describes regular 72-hour shifts, falling asleep while operating a helicopter, and being in situations of persistent gunfire -- targeted at him. He has medically evacuated more than 6,000 Soldiers in multiple deployments, and has had to relieve medics who were mentally unfit to perform. He says he wishes he could have known and recognized the warning signs with his people and himself earlier. “You don’t have to be ‘real done’ to take a break,” he says.
A budding startup out of Stanford is developing a solution that could help the medevac Commander and others in his shoes. Known as NeuroSmart, the team came together during a recent Hacking 4 Defense (H4D) cohort with a passion for measuring and reducing stress and stress impacts. During their H4D coursework, they began working with Army Research Lab to test and modify their concepts through the high-intensity environment of Army combat training. They ended the semester with a potential solution to stress measurement and management that could enhance one’s ability to think clearly and maintain optimal decision-making skills. Now they are on their way to launching an innovative startup. Here’s a look at their journey through the class and a summer cohort of the H4XLabs enterprise accelerator, which helped them expand their understanding of stress and stress management into multiple industries; reimagine the diverse applications for their products; and prepare to launch NeuroSmart.
One key takeaway from their experience, they say, is that founders should never stop talking to and learning from customers.
NeuroSmart: making stress measurable
Melis Yilmaz Balban, Emily Casey Brown, and Chris Fritz, who make up NeuroSmart, left H4D believing they understood the problem of stress management and the common pain points for Special Operators within USSOCOM (US Special Operations Command). These included high attrition during intense selection processes, costing time, capital, candidates and performance, as well as difficulty with training at elite levels. The team felt that after conducting 100+ in-depth interviews throughout the class, including the medevac Commander mentioned above, they could focus solely on building the hardware for their stress-measurement sensor.
The NeuroSmart sensor can detect changes in stress levels and alert commanders if anyone is getting close to the "red zone," or a danger point in stress management. It can also help special operations commanders self-regulate their effort levels and take strategic breaks or naps to reduce mistakes and optimize performance.
“We went in there thinking, OK, we got it. What more can we learn from our customers? Let's just dive in and start building and start writing these grants. However, throughout H4XLabs, we were encouraged by our advisor, Todd Basche, to continue customer discovery, pay more attention to interview insights, and put more time into making mockups before actually writing code to develop the final products,” Yilmaz said.
Never stop the cycle: Added customer discovery sharpened NeuroSmart’s business model
The team again delved into customer feedback loops, conducting 15 new interviews in medical, athletic and law enforcement markets. This helped them unearth ideas to define their positioning, discover differentiating factors from potential competitors, and identify new opportunities in dual-use markets, such as first responders, surgeons, police forces, elite athletics -- even gaming.
Yilmaz said the feedback channels opened their eyes, and their imaginations, to a broad new application to better understand and measure stress, which could decrease common pitfalls associated with heightened mental and physical strain, such as job turnover, attrition and human error. On an individual level, she explained, their solution has the potential to heighten personal awareness and improve the ways professionals mediate stress. On a grander scale, the solution could potentially save lives by reducing unnecessary mistakes. Within law enforcement, for example, this means that officers can receive reminders to take small breaks when their stress levels get too high, potentially saving their own and others’ lives.
Their continued customer discovery pointed to extended growth potential. “We noticed a big opportunity in measuring stress during the handling of multiple streams of information and when decision-making at the leadership level. As we test this technology and develop it more, it’s increasingly clear that we can be more useful in management situations, increasing someone’s ability to think clearly or keep themselves in the optimal decision-making zone,” said Fritz.
They found other potential applications, too. “The biggest, and most positive surprise during the time with H4XLabs came from the athletics community,” Yilmaz said. During one interview with a division-one tennis coach, the team realized the relevant and timely need for a tool of this kind in the sports community.
Though NeuroSmart had hoped to optimize off-the-shelf technology for their solution, they realized that available options weren’t useful. None currently measure certain factors nor do they provide access to the important data for assessment. The team has begun to develop its own hardware, software and analytics suite. The idea of their unique sensor, the team explained, will measure skin conductivity which is an output of the sympathetic nervous system activity or the “fight or flight” response.
In time, the team plans to partner with the military and law enforcement, applying for grants from DoD and the National Science Foundation during the technology development phase of their business process. Later, they hope to expand into athletics and aerospace.
With the struggles of the medevac commander they interviewed and many others they spoke with at the forefront of their minds, the team believes this type of innovation is a step in the right direction for America’s defense capabilities.
“Bridging the gap between the DoD and Silicon Valley is critical to defense innovation and the advancement of our national security agenda, and to the extent we can play a role in that with support from H4D and H4XLabs, that is extremely important to us and a constant source of motivation for our team,” said Brown.
Chris Fritz and Melis Yilmaz Balban share a moment with L.A. Police Sergeant Thomas Datro during a site visit to test the team’s technology.
Team Neurosmart enjoying a break -- from left, Melis Yilmaz Balban, Emily Casey Brown, and Chris Fritz.