Vodafone xone Innovators Series: StretchSense's Ben O'Brien on taking science from the lab to the market

To mark the arrival of the Vodafone xone business acceleratorIdealog is interviewing a whole heap of established New Zealand innovators, as well as the founders of the 10 startups selected by Vodafone to receive mentorship, funding and the potential benefits of working with a global network. In this episode, Henry Oliver talks to Ben O'Brien, co-founder and CEO of StretchSense, an Auckland-based wearable technology company which recently secured funding from Japanese corporation Start Today.

Idealog: So, by way of background, what is StrechSense?

Ben O’Brien: StrechSense is a company that makes soft, stretchy, sensors for measuring human body motion. Our products are best thought of as rubber bands with Bluetooth. It's a soft, stretchy rubber band and when you put it on your body, it stretches as you move. The sensor picks up those precise movements and transmits them to a device such as a smartphone or tablet and can provide useful information about body movement, think new types of virtual reality, sports training, injury management, physiotherapy, that kind of thing.

Where did the idea come from?

We've been working in this space for a long time, it started academically about a decade ago at the biomimetics lab at the University of Auckland. We were working with this technology and after three or four years, around 2009, and people started approaching us and asking for custom electronic systems. They had basically seen what we had done at conferences and they liked it and they needed technology for themselves so they just, literally the phones started ringing and we started selling custom product which was a really cool experience as being part of a university lab.

Fast forward a few years and we had the entrepreneurial bug and spirit and we wanted to launch a company so we went around actually initially trying to sell energy harvesting, which is now a product that we have on our website, but back then that was kind of just an idea. While we were doing that people keep saying, "You know, energy harvesting's cool but what we really want is a precise way to measure the body."

It wasn't really an epiphany, it was just ... I like to say blunt force trauma. People keep saying, "Hey, we'd like sensor, we'd like sensors, could you do sensors?" Then one day we sort of said, "Ah, let's do sensors." That's when StrechSense as a concept was really properly formed. The company itself incorporated in 2012 and we went well from there.

What were the choices or decisions that you had to make to turn that idea into a business?

I think the very first decision is to quit your job. We started as a university lab and we had all the support in the world from the University and from those around us but until you actually form an entity and go out there and do it, you hit a brick wall with investors, with customers, simply because they don't know what they're investing in or buying from? The decision, or the realisation that we had to actually go out there and do it, that was probably the first one.

Quit your job and do it, is my number one piece of advice that I give to people. There's a lot of people kind of trapped in this half-way land. Whether it's a university environment, or a large corporation they work for, or just you know the status quo of their daily job. Yeah, quit your job is probably the first step.

How did you make that leap, and what was your motivation while you were leaping?

Yeah, what was the motivation? I think it was an awareness that you can chart your own course and control your own destiny once you do that.  Back then we were looking at a potential academic future versus running a business. From my point of view, an academic future, if you're really, really good at it, the end game is writing grant applications and being an administrator. The best academics, they are administrators that ask the government, or various governments, or various organizations for money. That's what you do, that's success. I looked at that and I thought that's kind of fundamentally finite, from my point of view. It has the advantage that you can create entirely new spheres of knowledge and do blue sky stuff and do things that were previously unheard of but it has the disadvantage that you're always kind of constrained in terms of the resources that you can bring to the challenge.

Whereas, if you start a company; yes – it's more specific; yes – it's more here and now; but the resources you can attract are just gargantuan by comparison. You can go really hard, you can grow something really fast, and you can do some really, really cool things. That awakening took some time but once we realized just how big this opportunity was and how hard we could hit it, that's when we decided to go for it.

You're one of three co-founders, all from an academic background. Why did you take on the role as CEO? Did you want to get away from a purely scientific or product role into the business role?

I think it was another awakening. When you're an engineer or someone working immediately on a technical problem, it's deeply satisfying when you solve it, right? That's essentially what an engineer is, is a paid problem-solver. They're someone who grew up loving puzzles of one shape, one way or the other and then they're getting paid to do it, right, you're solving puzzles. That's who I am at my core, I like solving puzzles but what you realize is that by coordinating other people you can solve bigger and more intricate puzzles and the whole gang becomes much more interesting.

For me, it was seeing that on my own I could do a certain amount of work, but with a team of people working for me, I could do so much more and achieve so much more. That's the thing, coupled by the love of selling things. When you are a technologist developing new technology you think that the greatest drug is the creation of new things, but actually the greatest drug is selling something to someone else and seeing them create something new, building on top of it. That is very, very exciting for me.

What were the early failures, if there were any? Where did you guys go wrong?

I don't know, 'early failures' kind of puts them on a separate pedestal and the whole thing is just one running crisis doing a start-up. In fact, you're doing well when there's so many crises at one point in time, they start to merge together and you're not really sure of where things are going wrong and where they're going right. It get's even better when there are people doing crises on your behalf that get brought to you once they've really been bubbling and fermenting after a while. It's not easy, actually, it's constant. Everything is always going wrong, but what you soon learn is a lot of the stuff goes right and you become robust, you get a thick skin, you become resilient and you start building people, growing people into roles, building processes and systems that are resilient to crisis. So I don't know like calling out a crisis as a single event is kind of, I think, heavily overstating it.

There are a few that sprung to mind, like we had a major battery recall early on. All our customers got shipped the wrong battery chargers which was a safety issue so we had to recall all those. We've had, goodness, there's just so many actually. That one was probably the one that scared me the most, actually, in the early, days was that battery recall. That was really something, but you know at the end of it all we recalled them all and the customers we reached out to are really happy we've done the right thing and as a result, we probably got more business from it. It's one of those backward things where you do something, you respond to a crisis and you get a better result.

Have you ever come close to giving up?

No, not really. Let me rephrase – before we started it, yes. That's probably, from my point of view, the biggest point of vulnerability and that's why the whole taking control of your own destiny and charging forward is so important. Yeah, before we started it there was a lot of uncertainty, there was a lot of dead ends that we went down trying to set it up. Once it was running – no, it's kind of just exploded. We've never actually had the point we've been able to accumulate stock because we've been selling stuff so fast and I think that's really cool. We're growing our production capability all the time and so the fact that it's just such a, I don't know, a wild horse we've grabbed on to is really exciting.

What's the one thing that you know now that would have made the journey easier?

One I often publicly talk about is getting a CFO. We got a virtual CFO from Deloitte, which I really really like. They came in and cleared up so much stuff, I mean you want to talk about crises, like the crises which participated their involvement was I installed, you know, we installed a layer of management as we were growing, as the company got bigger, and I didn't at the same time install financial control, and reporting systems, and budgets, and all those kind of things that you absolutely need in any kind of growing business. That became a very big headache for me and I responded by reaching out and we got, we interviewed some different providers and we got a virtual CFO in and almost overnight everything became really clear.

What that let us do was it let us make really educated and precise guesses about where to take the business, take calculated risks basically. Whereas, when you don't have control of your finances you don't actually have control of this rocket ship that you've built. When you don't control of the ship you can't make decisions about where to steer it. The biggest thing I'd say to old me is get a virtual CFO and even if it's just like one hour a month just get someone in who just knows that stuff inside and out.

What's the one piece of advice you'd give to someone with a really good idea that wants to turn it into a business?

I'm going to be a super cliché and say get a team. We came through the university system and they, uni services, put really great mentors in just to call out one name, Ralph Mueller who was one of our first and earliest mentors, worked with us for a long time. He then was the first investor in StretchSense once we set the company up. That kind of insight and wisdom from someone who has been there and done that, getting them with you and like same thing, like the virtual CFO, it's like get the team around you. When it comes to the continued growth of the company we got the Flying Kiwi Angels to invest. They're one of, I think, one of the best angel groups in New Zealand from my point of view, and again they provided great advice.

We had Heath, who came in as a sales support, John, who came in from manufacturing support, and like just these people who've been there and done it and they can give you advice, they can kick your ass when you need it, they can help you get through things. That team of people supporting you is probably the most important thing. Oh, and of course, definitely, last but not least your co-founders, like this is not a one-person show. Todd, the CTO, and Iain, chief scientist, and myself, we set this up as a team and again: team, team, team, team, team, team. You've got to do that, get a good team.