“Imagine an era in which cars didn’t have dashboards. If you were to drive such a car you wouldn’t know when your petrol tank is going to be empty, whether you’re cruising at safe speeds, whether your car is due for a service, or whether there’s something seriously wrong with your car. Today we’re still in an era in which we don’t have a dashboard for our bodies. A lot of companies are trying to provide a similar utility for our bodies, through a range of new products and services.”
That’s where LifeQ comes in. That’s the dumbed-down version for the everyday South African. That’s the elevator pitch. That’s what they’re trying to do: build a human dashboard.
In reality, though, what Dr. Riaan Conradie (co-founder of LifeQ) and his colleagues are doing is far more complex. They’re at the forefront of health care in South Africa, and changing the way wearables impact your life, beyond the free coffee or movie popcorn you get each week when you hit your fitness goal.
“Data without analysis and interpretation has limited to no value. The value that’s ‘trapped’ within the data can only really be unlocked after analysis and interpretation rooted in scientific methods,” explains Conradie.
“Our bodies generate a multitude of physiological signals at any given moment in time. These signals change during the course of a day, but also as you age or during the onset of disease. We tap into the appropriate physiological signals to measure where someone is on their unique health journey. Other companies can use these measurements to alert someone to a specific risk or threat, for instance.”
This technology has the opportunity to massively impact the price we pay for insurance. Previously, there were blanket penalisations for health markers. For example, if the data from a medical screening showed that you had high blood pressure despite you being in much better shape than other people and no one in your family having a history of high blood pressure, you would be charged a lot more and be deemed a higher risk.
Luckily, thanks to technology like LifeQ, risk analysis is becoming far more individualised; and the more data that’s captured and analysed, the better. They don’t just capture data like most wearables and health apps – they’re creating models and analytics that assist in assesing individual people’s health risks. It’s great for your wallet, and it’s even better for your health.
Essentially, they can find out what the data your FitBit or Garmin watch gathers is actually saying. And the big names are starting to listen. LifeQ is in partnership with Garmin, Striiv and TomTom; and they are set to expand, with several global product launches in 2019 making using of LifeQ.
Plus, in December LifeQ was named by Nedgroup Investments and Heavy Chef as one of SA’s Top 5 Most Exciting Start-ups. But LifeQ wasn’t always a top SA start-up with 120 team members across three (soon to be four) continents. It actually started years earlier: with a boy, and a piano.
“I remember getting a toy piano as a birthday gift from my parents, only to take it apart a couple of days later. I was much more fascinated by understanding how the little toy piano worked than by actually playing the piano.”
Naturally, his folks weren’t happy with him when he took his birthday present apart; but fortunately for him they got to understand and embrace his passions. His parents were always there to give him the necessary support when he wanted to pursue something, and for that he is grateful.
As a child, Riaan was drawn to understanding complex systems, whether it was the natural world we live in, how our bodies work or how people interact. As long as it required him to apply his mind to uncover the inner workings of things, he was game.
“As a child, I used to sit for hours (well, at least, when I was a child it felt like hours) contemplating how things worked,” he jokes. “Inventing has always been something I do naturally.”
But he wasn’t always indoors, puzzling over pianos and Pythagoras’s Theorem. He spent his days playing team sports, and loved it. “In retrospect, I realise this was much less about the specific sport and more about the joy of being in a team that had an aligned and difficult goal to achieve,” he reflects.
“LifeQ didn’t really start with a big ‘AHA!’ moment. Actually, we just dove in!”
Although he moved around a lot during the first five years of his life, he eventually settled for most of his childhood and teenage years in Durbanville. In school, his favourite subjects were biology, maths and physical science, which revealed his passion: the sciences.
When it came to university, he didn’t fly far from the nest, choosing Stellenbosch University. There he did a Bachelor of Science degree majoring in biochemistry, genetics, human physiology and microbiology. From there, Riaan did his Honours in biochemistry, and then specialised in a field called computational systems biology. Finally, he got his PhD in biochemistry, with his core focus being computational systems biology. Throughout all of this his work was published in several international peer-reviewed journals.
“I had always been drawn to business, but I thought I would most likely leverage my entrepreneurial qualities in academia as a researcher.”
With such a demanding degree, it seems absurd that Riaan would still find time to build a start-up and develop revolutionary technology. But in actual fact, it was the degree that introduced him not only to the knowledge but to the people who would eventually play a vital role in the creation of LifeQ.
The Big Break
LifeQ was founded by four people. Riaan met Kora Holm, co-founder and LifeQ’s organisational architect, during his undergraduate days at Stellenbosch University. He then met Dr Franco du Preez, co-founder and LifeQ’s chief scientist, at a bioinformatics course they both attended during his postgraduate studies. After that, Franco and Riaan met Laurence Olivier, co-founder and LifeQ’s CEO, at a business plan competition.
“And, as they say, the rest is history.”
“LifeQ didn’t really start with a big ‘Aha!’ moment,” he recalls. “Actually, we just dove in!” They started with four people, working from Riaan’s attic. Since then, they’ve added 116 team members, 3 continents, and a whole host of clients to LifeQ.
For people wanting to build a science or tech start-up, Riaan advises one thing: don’t overthink the business. There are so many scientific, technological and business-model question marks that planning can’t necessarily get you out of – in fact, they might give you a false sense of certainty and security. In the beginning stages, they focused on two things. They worked on building and validating their assets so that they were offering the best they could, and they surrounded themselves with extraor-dinary people who shared their vision and brought different skills to the table.
So what exactly is LifeQ’s passion, and what drives them? They believe we are at the cusp of a global healthcare revolution, similar to the digital revolution that took place from the late 50s to the late 70s.
But businesses need to use each other’s strengths in order to bring about meaningful change in health care. “Health care is a team sport,” says Riaan. Much like the team sports he played when he was younger, it’s all about aligning and achieving a difficult goal. Especially in South Africa.
Disease can severely compromise a person’s quality of life, and result in lots of suffering and pain. Sometimes this suffering can last for decades, and can impact your loved ones too. This compromised quality of life can have pronounced effects on most, if not all, aspects of your life. That’s why LifeQ is passionate about positively impacting health care across the globe, he explains.
According to Statistics South Africa’s annual Mortality and Causes of Death report, the top six ‘natural’ causes of death in South Africa are tuberculosis, diabetes, heart disease, cerebrovascular disease (strokes and aneurysms), HIV, and hypertensive disease. The fact that most of these are lifestyle diseases that South Africans can actively tackle by increasing or decreasing certain habits is worrying.
“Why wait for something to break, and only then fix it? It makes way more sense to rather be proactive and prevent disease and promote good health, as this will not only decrease healthcare cost, but also result in less pain and suffering.”
It’s no longer good enough to see our heart rate boldly displayed on our watch screens. We need to know what our heart rate should be, and whether there’s been an alarming change in our heart rate compared to, say, a few days before.
That’s why LifeQ is geared towards disease prevention and improved wellness, early detection of disease, disease management, clinical and non-clinical interventions, and monitoring whether an intervention had the desired outcome or not.
But this is just the beginnning for Riaan and LifeQ.
“Imagine if you had an accurate digital version of your unique body at any given moment in time, and full control of who had access to this digital version of yourself. Imagine you could see the short and long-term effects of hundreds of lifestyle changes (such as specific dietary changes) on your body before making such a lifestyle change. This is what we are working towards.”
*Photography by Gregor Rohrig