Innovation That Matters

Wise Words with Stephane Marceau

Wise Words

We caught up with Stephane Marceau – co-founder and CEO of OMSignal, as well as a full-time hockey dad – to find out what drew him to wearable health tech, and how hard work, genuine passion and sanctuary from the chaos of starting a business are all necessary to success.

Wearable tech is undoubtedly the future of consumer hardware, and we’ve already seen the success of products such as Nike+, the FitBit and the Pebble smartwatch, which broke the record for the most successful Kickstarter campaign in the crowdfunding platform’s history. OMSignal is a startup that is taking great leaps in the industry and hopes to deliver the first bio-sensing shirt to help wearers keep track of their overall health. We caught up with Stephane Marceau – co-founder and CEO of OMSignal, as well as a full-time hockey dad – to find out what drew him to wearable health tech, and how hard work, genuine passion and sanctuary from the chaos of starting a business, are all necessary to success.

Stephane has had a varied business history which has seen him hold a vice-president role at Bell Canada, a CMO position at Yellow Pages, co-founder of MOBIVOX – a consumer software and VoIP company – and Theralive, a mobile health service business, and he has even found time to sit on the board of directors at a citizenship nonprofit, social gaming company and weather forecasting tech startup.

1. Where did the idea for OMsignal come from?

It came from a few personal experiences:

1) Frustation with healthcare’s opacity (the “black box” ):

A close relative was diagnosed with a life-threatening – but common – form of cancer. The four different (renowned) specialists he saw each recommended a different therapy (including immediate surgery). I wanted to understand the outcome stats and figure out which one was most effective, so I decided to research these treatments. To my surprise, I found very little comparative data, very little empirical information that one could leverage to make a decision. I realised in the process that, given the limited data available, modern medicine is very opaque and it involves a fair amount of guesswork. In many respects, health is a “black box”.

I’ve spent my entire career in digital media, communications and mobile tech. For the past 20 years, Internet and mobile advances have been so dramatic that our everyday life has profoundly and irrevocably changed. During the same period of time, there have clearly been many meaningful advances in medicine, but it all happens incrementally. Healthcare doesn’t progress at the same pace. Comparatively, the data-rich, immediate and transparent world of the Internet and mobile applications move at light speed, whereas the much more opaque and less data-rich medical world barely moves.

People, patients and practitioners should all have access to relevant and interpreted data, to manage their health or to treat their patients. There isn’t enough data-driven information to make many informed life-related decisions, from skipping dessert at lunchtime to maintain sugar level, to choosing a certain treatment over another to deal with your cancer.

It is time to “datafy” health. OMsignal will do its part to enable the development of a real-life physiology database. Who knows the personal and population insights generated when millions of people stream bio-data in the cloud, as they go about their normal daily lives?

2) First-hand experience with breathing as a stress management practice :

I started practising yoga and mediation some 15 years ago. When I first met my yoga teacher (I still work with her to this day), she told me my breathing was shallow and I did not exhale much. She assured me this was not a big deal and common among type A temperaments but that I should think of exhaling some times. Well, that was an important moment. Mindfully breathing and increasing my exhale time has helped me reduce my stress so many crucial times in my life I couldn’t count them.

This is an important insight on stress management, and we’ve applied it to our technology, as OMsignal also measures breathing patterns. On a physiological level, breathing is the only core process which is both autonomic (automatic), but which you can manually override and take control – it is the way in.

3) Serendipity:

In 2008, my co-founder Fred and I were advising one of the largest international communications companies (and mobile operator) in the world, helping them understand and experiment with “mobile health”. As part of this mandate, we travelled the world, speaking with pioneers and sensor developers. We also designed a bracelet that tracked activity and movement. Unfortunately, our client partner pointed out that there was no existing market at that time.

Since then, we have been anticipating that the world of “wearables” will go mainstream and evolve beyond activity and to ultimately focus on passive reading and interpretation of biological signals (i.e. counting steps is cute, but tracking physiology is where it will be at). To get a meaningful signal passively, you need body real estate – proximity to arteries, to the heart and so on. From an ergonomic standpoint, we always thought the most natural wearable was what you’ve been wearing since you were born – clothing. This is the intellectual journey that took us to bio-sensing apparel.

A few years ago, we were fortunate to meet strategic partners based in Montreal (for hardware, for textile design, textile production, etc) that allowed us to build OMsignal.

There was a lot of serendipity involved in creating OMsignal and getting the team together. One of many examples of who we found is our Head of Intelligent Textile – Joanna Berzowska, internationally recognised leading expert in e-textiles – and Ying Gao – world-leading designer of fashion technology garments, all through reading a book published in the UK on fashion tech. Both of these recognised leaders in their field happened to be based … in Montreal! We even had common friends!

You know how Steve Jobs, in his famous commencement speech, says you can never connect the dots forward, only backwards… OMsignal is a lot like that. We trust that the dots we’re adding now will connect in the future.

2. Can you describe a typical working day?

I can’t! And I’m not even trying to be cute – there is no typical working day at OMsignal yet.

We’ve got decent structure and recurring governance meetings as a startup but every day is truly different. The variety of the contents, issues and opportunities we deal with is nothing like what I’ve seen in the past. We have many domains and types of experts from a Phd in Neuroscience, to an emergency doctor, to textile engineers, software engineers, to UX specialist, to fashion designers, etc.. So my day could start by discussing the shirt’s conductivity, how it feels on the skin, or it could start with a meeting with a medical partner, or by testing a product feature, or anything else…

3. How do you unwind or relax when you’re not working on OMsignal?

I’m a dad, and that defines pretty much my downtime! I’m a hockey dad all year long, and also, for seasons at a time, a tennis dad, a hip-hop dance dad, a Tae Kwon Do dad, and about to become an African percussions dad this fall. This keeps me quite busy.

In terms of personal hobbies, I practice yoga and meditation on most days and I read Eastern and Western philosophy and Modern Psychology books. I’m also into superheros, starting with the Canadian Wolverine. But don’t tell anyone…

4. What’s the secret ingredient to success as an entrepreneur?

What comes to mind is the title of an amazing jazz album called Passion, Grace & Fire, by famous guitar players John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia.

Passion: Gotta bring your authentic self to work, really genuinely love what you do otherwise you just won’t survive the demands and the uncertainty (you can’t take a rest and look at the recipe book, there is none).

Grace: Gotta be able to manage your emotions. Find a place of perspective and quiet confidence as the startup tornado and continued effervescence (and not so infrequent chaos) is going on.

Fire: Gotta bring it, intensity, all day, every day (or almost). Get s**t done, ship, hustle, close. Bring enough fire for those who don’t have enough. Play honourably and respectfully… but play hard.

5. What drove you crazy when building your business?

The time it takes to build a great product with physical elements. As an Internet and software tech and marketing guy, I find the development cycles for hardware and textiles to be comparatively very slow. Even if we are iterating at ultra-high speeds (we are told by our partners) on all fronts given what we do, there is just less room for learning and testing. It sometimes tests my naturally limited patience.

6. What motivates you to keep going?

I’ve got the coolest job on earth! I work with awesome people. I learn tons every day. Our product has a chance of making a difference… And that ain’t bulls**t.

7. If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Take more risks earlier – at a younger age.

8. Where do you see your business in five years, and how will you get there?

OMsignal bio-sensing magic will be as common as zippers and buttons in apparels of all kinds… helping people become fitter, healthier and happier globally.

9. If you weren’t working on OMsignal right now, what would you be doing?

I had a few unbaked startup ideas but I co-founded OMsignal because this was, as my wife would say, “in me” and because I would do it with one of my very best buddies, Fred. The other ideas did not have enough emotional pull for me to leap.

Realistically I would probably be the entrepreneur or marketing executive with a large media or communications company. Half of my background is like that, corporate executive jobs tend to pay well, you work less (still a lot) and you operate with a lot more resources… but the rub is these are jobs: you operate in a defined sandbox, and you build at much slower pace, with a ton of constraints. Moreover, the license to create and to defy common wisdom in most big corps is generally very limited.

10. Tell Springwise a secret…

I must admit I did not know of Springwise a few weeks ago. When you guys published the article on OMsignal, I was away for a few days at a lake with my family. I came back and my inbox was full of enquiries (screens of emails) from your readers (businesses, entrepreneurs, tech enthusiasts, practitioners)! Springwise readers get OM. That is why I was happy to take this interview.

Here is a secret just for your readers: within five years, it will be standard when you buy a shirt, underwear or bra for the garment to have a bio-sensing chip in them (which connect with your mobile device and maybe with other wearable items such as your Google Glass).

11. Any final words for aspiring entrepreneurs?

You will work your ass off, irrespective of the startup you go for, so you might as well do something that gets your juices flowing, with people and investors you are happy to hang out with…and which has a chance of counting.