A Fitbit for your blood: this infrared spectrometer analyzes your health at home


Do you need a Fitbit for your blood? One of the key engineers behind Apple Watch and Apple Health has a new fitness product. It’s an infrared spectrometer that measures your blood health and how the food you eat and the exercise that you engage in impacts it. The first product of its kind, COR was created by a former Apple Health exec who wanted to know: is my diet good for me?

Because everyone’s response — even to theoretically healthy foods — is different. Even genetically identical twins don’t have the same metabolic response to things, recent studies have shown.

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So the idea with Cor is that you analyze your blood at home via infrared spectrometry about 4 times over a 3-week period, and you get specific data and recommendations back about what’s good — and what’s bad — for your health.

The result, CEO Bob Messerschmidt tells me in this episode of the TechFirst podcast, is potentially the ability to have another 15 years of healthy, productive life. Scroll down for full video, audio, and transcript, or check out the Forbes story here

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TechFirst podcast: Would you use this Fitbit for your blood?


Transcript: this infrared spectrometer measures your blood health at home

(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

John Koetsier: Do you need a Fitbit for your blood?

One of the key engineers behind Apple Watch and Apple Health has a new fitness product. It’s an infrared spectrometer that measures your blood health and how the food you eat and the exercise that you engage in impacts it. In other words, if you’re wondering if that sugar high is real or if your keto diet is actually good for you, this new product might be able to tell you. It’s called COR, and here to chat is the CEO and founder, Bob Messerschmidt. Welcome, Bob.

Bob Messerschmidt: Thank you, John. Pleasure to be here.

John: Hey, it is great to be here. Let’s kick it off. What have you built?

Bob: We have, as you very accurately said, is an infrared spectrometer that we can put into people’s homes.

And this has never been done before.

We started out with that question, that was our overarching question. What could we learn if we could have big data coming from thousands, tens of thousands of infrared spectrometers in people’s homes? Could we even build them at a consumer price point that would make it a consumer value proposition? And then what could we know?

The big breakthrough came a little while after we had the hardware well-developed and we were getting lots of nice data from it. The big breakthrough came when we realized that we had a new kind of data here, and with that, we could show people what their response was to very well-validated nutrition and fitness strategies. And so what we realized at that point was that this is data that’s not available to anyone anywhere at any cost based on blood spectroscopy.

So, we could see … we noticed in the research literature that there’s a huge range of response in any clinical trial that’s done. For anything that ultimately is shown to be an effective nutrition or fitness intervention, there’s always a range of response. So, some people in the clinical studies get lots of benefit and some people in the clinical studies get no benefit.

And so that gets recommended out to people by Big Wellness, right, that clinical studies have shown something to be beneficial, but is it beneficial to you? And we realized that this personalization piece we had a technology platform that could show people that and, you know, you can dream from there about what people can know and how important that’s going to be ultimately. We think it’s, you know, absolutely huge.

John: So, contextualize this for us a little bit. When you get COR, what do you get? Do you get something that plugs into your phone? Do you get a box? What is it… What do you get and how do you use it?

Bob: Yeah. Yeah, it’s a hardware device. It’s an actual spectrometer, a very research-grade, in fact, infrared spectrometer that we had to do a lot of clever engineering to get it to a consumer cost and price point. You set that up in your home, it’s a Wi-Fi-connected device.

So, it sends data up to the cloud in a very secure manner. There’s end-to-end encryption and all your data is anonymized and private. And we use that data to build big models of what’s happening when people do very specific nutrition and fitness interventions.

We do that first in a research study. We have hundreds of spectrometers in the homes of research participants, and these are IRB-approved research studies.

And we find a pattern, a molecular fingerprint of what actually is occurring when people do a specific nutrition or fitness thing. Let’s say it’s eating salmon or eating pistachios or choosing to walk 10,000 steps in a day. Those all cause very specific pattern changes in the blood spectroscopy. And then we can tell you, personally, how much, if you then replicate that study that we’ve done in the research, we can tell you whether you’re at a high-end responder or a low-end responder.

And that’s really what’s new.

John: It sounds like you have some very happy birds in your office [laughing].

Bob: Sorry about that. Yeah. I imagine they’re not muted.

John: They are not.

Bob: It’s springtime here in Menlo Park. Well it’s springtime everywhere.

John: [Laughing] Exactly. Hopefully, they can be happy quietly as we continue, but it’s all good.

Bob: Yeah. Apologies.

John: No worries. So, I get COR, I bring it into my house. What do I do? Do I… I know that, for instance, an Apple Watch and some other products like an Oura smart ring, those sorts of things can see through your skin, see into your blood and make some assessments of things based on that. I mean, at the very basic level, what’s your heart rate, those sorts of things. But there’s the oxygenation, those sorts of things. Is your device like that or do you actually take a sample?

Bob: We actually take a sample.

There’s about a three order of magnitude sensitivity disadvantage of trying to do blood chemistry measurements transdermally across the skin.

I’ve spent…

John: That’s significant [laughing]…

Bob: Yeah. 

John: Three orders of magnitude.

Bob: And I’ve spent a lot of my career developing technologies like that and there’s some very successful ones, of course, like, pulse oximetry is the classic, right? You can measure blood oxygenation across, actually transmitting right through a finger.

But they’re kind of few and far between the applications that you can do successfully transdermally just because of that sensitivity limit. So, we said the next best thing, how can we really reduce the friction of getting a very tiny blood sample? And really, what it comes down to is volume, you know, if you can get it down to a microliter or in that range, there are a number of ways to get a blood sample now that are effectively painless.

People with diabetes do it every day, multiple times a day for blood glucose measurements. But we get a lot of user feedback because we are launched now and we get feedback from users. And that’s not the biggest pain point for them is getting the blood sample. The bigger pain point is sticking with the programs, just staying engaged and where those are problems that we’re good at solving here in Silicon Valley. So, you know, we try to make it an engaging experience for people.

John: So, I take a tiny little sample. I prick my finger and we get some blood out of that. You do some analysis. Do I see almost instant results? So, Sunday is my cheat day. Every other day I’m pretty careful about what I eat and Sunday is my cheat day. I can eat anything. And I often do, [laughing] including something that I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t, way too much sugar. Would I see that almost immediately?

Bob: So, there are really two cadences that are important with blood chemistry data. And we’re following the data, right? So, we want to know how long does it really take to evoke the changes that are of significance in blood chemistry?

If you go to your doctor, the doctor is looking at biomarkers only really once a year. We find these nutrition and fitness loops take some time to be evoked, they take several weeks. So, we run these COR programs for 21 days.

And during that 21-day period, we take 4 finger sticks: one at the beginning, one at the end, and two in the intermediate weeks. And so that’s a cadence that is acceptable to a lot of people. It’s not too many finger sticks. And that gives us our data set that we need.

You’re also at the same time you’re accessing the app every day to check off and make sure that you’re continuing to do the program steps. So, there is basically a list of seven things in a to-do list that you check off that you’ve decided to do when you enrolled in the program. So, did I eat salmon today? Did I walk 10,000 steps today? Did I get seven hours of sleep today? That sort of thing. And these are all things that we’ve started with because there’s medical evidence behind them. 

John: Mm-hmm. 

Bob: So then … you get the first data from COR at the end of that 21-day period.

John: Okay. Interesting. That’ll be interesting to see if you keep that. I mean, you’re going to learn as you go and you’re going to see what works and what doesn’t work. It would be interesting to see if you keep giving data after 21 days or you change to give data immediately after the blood sample is taken and analyzed, or next day or something like that.

Bob: Like I say, we have to follow what we see in the blood chemistry change. It just doesn’t happen instantly, there’s really nothing to see. After a day there’s, you know, the one thing that you can see intraday… Well, there’s several things you can see intraday, but the one thing sort of metabolically interesting is glucose.

John: Yes. Yeah.

Bob: And, you know, there are CGMs for that. We’re not focused on that at the moment. We’re focused on these pattern changes which are due to things like… Well, it’s anything in blood that can have an impact on long-term health and longevity. So, it takes a while to develop.

John: Do I have to keep track of what I eat then and how I exercise? And do you get that data from other apps via Apple Health or Google Fit or something like that?

Bob: We don’t. We don’t. We are linked with HealthKit, but we’re not pulling in data from it at the moment. That doesn’t mean we can’t in the future. You know, I was at Apple.

I learned… Well, I learned a few things at Apple, and we started out with the strong belief that nobody is going to input a lot of data. I mean, in general, there’s a community of people who are very willing to input a lot of data into their apps, but for the most part, people aren’t going to do it.

And so all we ask for is you first sign up for a program. And what a program is, is really just seven practices that you want to try out to see whether you yourself are responsive to them or not. And then all you have to do is click a checkbox every day to let us know that you’ve done it. And that’s it. There’s no real typing or data entry.

John: I have tried to do the quantified self thing with food and failed. And I’ve tried multiple times and it’s a pain in the ass. It just is.

Bob: Yeah, it is.

John: It just really, really is. Now, if somebody ever comes out with the app where you can literally snap a picture of whatever you’re eating and it’ll automatically know how much it is, what it is, and the caloric density and all that, the composition, all that stuff, they’re going to be a billionaire because that’s the easy way to do it. So, let’s talk about what COR tells you. What does COR tell you that you wouldn’t otherwise know?

Bob: Right. So, it tells you on a personal level your responsiveness to any of the myriad nutrition and fitness guidances that are out there. I mean, there’s … Big Wellness has a lot of claims. A lot of it is unvalidated, and we stay away from that. But, you know, a lot of it has medical evidence behind it, and so we focused on that part of it.

We have our medical director and his team look at any possible nutrition or fitness intervention and says, “Okay. Can I and my MD buddies look at this and say, ‘Yeah, this is something that there’s strong evidence that it’s going to impact healthiness over the long haul’?” And like I say, the evidence is that there’s a big range of benefit that any given person is going to get.

There was a study called the PREDICT study that looked at genetically identical twins, looking at their metabolic responses to various inputs. And believe it or not, genetically identical twins don’t have the same metabolic response to things. 

John: Wow.

Bob: The paper concluded that it’s really only 20% genetics and 80% environment. And what environment means in this case is the way you’re living your life. So, that’s good news, right, because that means that we all have the opportunity to have an impact. If we do the right things, if we assume the right practices, we can live longer, have a longer, happier life. But the piece of data that we bring to it is that we can tell you whether you are, you know, we can help you sift through the myriad of choices that you have and see which ones you are indeed most responsive to, and therefore which things you should keep doing the rest of your life.

John: Interesting. So, give me some specific examples. Can you tell things in my blood chemistry about my diet and my exercise? Which is good? Which is bad? What’s the specific recommendation that you would give me if you analyzed my blood for multiple 21-day cycles?

Bob: Yeah, absolutely. So, very specifically, we have one program called the Okinawa Plan, and it basically has elements of the lifestyle in Okinawa. In Okinawa, there’s a huge…

John: Centenarian.

Bob: …community of centenarians, right, as one of the, as it’s called Blue Zones. And so why is that? So, the people of Okinawa are genetically indistinguishable from people in the rest of Japan. And Japan has a lot of longevity, too, but Okinawa has a ridiculous amount of longevity.

So, what is it? It’s not genetic. So, what is it? It’s their lifestyle?

So, research has identified a whole number of things that people are doing in that community which can have an impact on blood chemistry. And so we’ve put together a package of seven of those things which are on average high impact, and then we can tell you which of those things you are particularly responsive to.

So, you know, you might find that salmon really causes over 21 days, it causes a huge response, blood pattern response in your blood. And so you might want to keep doing that.

And there’s also, there’s a type of mushroom reishi tea, a mushroom tea that was also very functional in our research study. But again, you might be at the high-end or you might be at the low-end of that functionality. So, at the end of 21 days, you’re basically over the months, you’re developing a ranked list of your highest response nutrition and fitness practices.

We take the top 10 of those, actually, and we add them up into a score because we think people like the idea of a number. There’s a segment of our community that is very highly competitive. So, you can build up your score month to month. You can… And it’s scaled somewhat like a FICO score. So, you can be at 100 or you can be at 400, right? And which do you want to be? So, month to month as you do more and more programs so you can build up your COR score.

John: I’m assuming you’ve used it yourself? Did you learn something about yourself?

Bob: I did. I did. I did find that I was very responsive to salmon. I need to eat more salmon in my diet and I do that now. And also pistachio nuts. I think I mentioned pistachio nuts before, and my team gets pretty bored with me talking about pistachios all the time.

But, I mean, it lowered my fasting… so, at the time we would do blood panels, you know, medical blood panels alongside the doing of the intervention. And it caused huge changes in my blood triglycerides, fasting triglycerides. And of course, we saw the same sort of pattern changes in the COR fingerprint.

John: Interesting. So, you’re now available, you have launched. How does somebody get it? How much does it cost?

Bob: We launched and we have units. They went out of stock for a while, but they’re coming back into stock because the timing is impeccable. We have a limited number of units. We have a blended model where we charge $199 for the initial spectrometer and that goes into your home and you set it up. You then pay a recurring membership fee to keep doing the programs and getting more cartridges that you need in order to run the experiments. And that’s $19.99, $20 basically per month. Multiple people in the same household can use the same console. So, you could have your whole family using it, the adults in your family using it. And everybody pays a membership fee, but there’s only one console fee.

John: I gotta ask, can you hack the spectrometer? Can you use it for other stuff and discover other material compositions? [laughing]

Bob: Funny you should mention that. There’s, you know, a lot of the literature data in the field of spectroscopy uses the same type of spectrometer and the same wavelength region that we’re using for doing quality analysis of food and medicinal products. One of the big hot areas right now is understanding the legitimacy of olive oil, you know, you got a bottle of olive oil. Is it really olive oil or is it canola oil? And…

John: I’ve heard. I’ve heard.

Bob: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. And near-infrared spectroscopy is one of the primary means of authenticating olive oil. We don’t offer that as a product offering, but I thought I’d make that connection with the technology. Another one is measuring the protein concentration in wheat. So, for wheat farmers, it used to be that you would sell your wheat based on weight, you know, just how much does the crop weigh, and you would get paid based on that. But now you pay based on the protein content, which is a more fair way of compensating farmers for their crops. And that’s all because they all have near-infrared spectrometers hooked up to the place where you deliver the grain.

John: Well, it’ll be interesting to see if this is something that, you know, after you’ve fully launched and you’re up and running, you find other ways to use the same platform that you’ve put into houses, now the houses that have a spectrometer. Hey, what else can we do there? That sounds pretty cool. Let’s … couple things left. I want to talk about what you’re seeing in terms of results who are people who are using this, but maybe before we get there, you got a round of funding. Talk about that briefly.

Bob: Yeah, we’ve raised a total of $15 million in our history. We’ve raised $12 million from two top-tier VCs in two different rounds. So, we raised first from Khosla Ventures, and then a second raise — both Series A raises — we raised the second raise from Founders Fund with Khosla Ventures also participating in that round. And so, they’re hugely helpful to us and we really appreciate their support. So, that’s gotten us where we are, and now we’re in a go-to-market phase. So, within the next six to nine months we’ll be raising money again. But, I mean, what else can I tell you, that having two top of the top tier VCs as backers has been game-changing for us and we can’t thank them enough.

John: And you said you’re in Menlo Park. I mean, that can’t be a bad place to be raising money. I mean, [laughing] it’s kind of the place to go for the VC community. Maybe… 

Bob: I’m a real sort of believer in Silicon Valley. I think it’s different now, you know, you can raise money in a lot of different parts of the country, but there probably won’t be another Silicon Valley.

John: Yeah. So, you’ve had people using this, testing it. You’ve used it yourself, you’ve eaten your own dog food. What are the results? Can you quantify that for us in some way, shape, or form?

Bob: Yeah. To me, it’s really all about empowerment for somebody to be able to know that they can be in control of these decisions. And it’s almost like… sometimes when I’ve come up with technologies, other people look at it and they say, “Well, why didn’t anybody think of this before?” Right? I’ve had this multiple times in my career. B

ut there’s a real missing link. I mean, you want to be able to improve your nutrition and fitness and there are lots of great ways.

In fact, there’s a recent study out in the literature that says that if you do all the right things, from a nutrition and fitness perspective, you can add 15 quality years of life to your life, on average, across the population. I mean, that’s just crazy, right?

And so the ability to have a new tool that gives you this deep, personalized information to know what things are good for you and what things aren’t good for you that’s… or less good for you, that’s very validating and very empowering. And, you know, to me, this is the future. This is the ability to actually take control and with an understanding from a piece of data that… I mean, anybody could have built this, but, you know, it’s…

John: You happened to [laughing].

Bob: We happened to do it. So, you know, I think every home is going to have a COR spectrometer in it someday, because this is going to be the way people understand their own metabolism and their own response to food and fitness.

John: That’s a really interesting statement, actually, because if you look back… sheesh, I don’t know how far you need to look back… not that far. A decade? Two decades? Maybe three, but probably two. And you said, you know, a significant percentage of the population will wear something on their body that analyzes how they move, what they do, what their heart rate is, a variety of other factors, and will give them some kind of score, right?

I mentioned Oura. I have the Oura ring here. I get a score from that. I get a sleep score. I get a wellness score or a readiness score. A couple other things like that. Activity score. I have the Apple Watch, right, and I’m getting data from that. Most people 20 years ago would say, “Are you crazy? Are you nuts? It sounds like science fiction.” And when you say right now most people will have a spectrometer in their house, they’ll be able to analyze their blood and see how healthy they are … that also has a tinge of insanity to it, but also has something, you know, that would be just normal.

I mean, like, health is going to be delivered, like many other things, digitally.

Bob: That’s right.

John: And it’s going to be delivered over the cloud, and your doctor is going to be an AI that gets your data from your Apple Watch and from your Oura, and now your blood samples — imagine that! — and now your blood samples, and will just see when things are out of whack or whatever, a little interesting, inform an actual physical human doctor occasionally who might give you a call and give you a stern talking to or say, “Attaboy,” right, or whatever the case might be. So, that is really an interesting vision.

Bob: Yeah, here’s to the crazy ones, right? I mean, that’s what my ex-boss promoted. This is really, in some ways, consistent with that vision from Apple that if you have enough bandwidth on a device in your pocket, like an iPhone, with enough computing power, and you have technologies like the cloud, I mean, what are we going to be able to manage ourselves, right, that were previously the domain of experts that we had to hire to give us the understanding. So, yeah, that’s very much the path we’re on.

John: It’s also interesting because health is very personal, but the way we pay for it is very social.

So, I happen to live in Canada and we have national health care, right? It’s delivered provincially, but, you know, it’s just some sum is taken off of your paycheck and you go to the hospital, you don’t think twice about it, you go to the doctor, you don’t think twice about it. Very different in the States, but you may pay for health care again via your paycheck and you get services.

Most countries in the world are socialized or general health care. If you’re adding 15 healthy years to people’s lives, there’s an economic and financial benefit to that, not only from having more productive years, but also having fewer degenerative diseases that you struggle with for 5 years, for 10 years, for 15 years, and fewer doctor’s visits and fewer hospitalizations, and all that stuff.

There’s a huge benefit here that a country and maybe a healthcare system might want to get this in people’s hands.

Bob: Yeah, yeah. It’s really hard to compute sometimes. It doesn’t connect in the brain exactly right, because in the United States, the healthcare system will pay for an intervention, a medical intervention, or a therapeutic, so, either a surgical procedure or a pharmaceutical if it’s cheap enough so that it can provide one additional quality year of life to one person for less than $150,000.

And now you’re talking about these things related to nutrition and fitness, can provide 15 quality years of life? It just doesn’t add up, right? It doesn’t make sense. It’s like two different worlds. And of course, you know, it’s the idea of preventing rather than becoming chronic or critical, right? And it’s just so much harder to see at that point. But, yeah, I’m a firm believer it’s the future. I think medicine is… I mean, there’s never been a better time to be alive if you have cancer, for example. I mean, the survivability is just phenomenal.

And so, not to take anything away from all those interventions, it’s just what gets me up in the morning is thinking about nutrition and fitness and how do we keep people on a healthier track and keep them away from those other endpoints?

John: Super interesting. We have to cut this, we have to come to an end. We can’t go on talking forever, but there’s so much more to think about here.

We hit on AI in healthcare. We know that in the U.S., healthcare is not delivered equally. In other countries, it’s not either. We know that in China, rural China, there’s one doctor for thousands and thousands and thousands of residents and there’s no way they can deliver healthcare, which is why in China they already have AI health care systems that are managing some of that stuff. So, we’re going to see that globally as well. Being able to get this kind of data in there … absolutely huge. Bob, I want to thank you for your time. It’s been super interesting. Thank you.

Bob: Thank you. It’s been great. I appreciate your time.

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