Did you know that there are over 330 million women affected by burns? Are there more than 2.5 billion people dealing with stress related issues? And over 1.5 billion people have trouble sleeping? This year at CES 2020, CEO of EMBR Labs, Elizabeth Gazda wants women and everyone to know how the latest technology surrounding thermal wellness can help minimize all of this.
EMBR Labs is a success story at MIT. Its founders, Sam Shames, David Cohen-Tanugi and Matt Smith, are graduates of MIT. Shames graduated in 2014, Smith completed his Ph.D. in 2012, and Cohen-Tanugi completed his Ph.D. in 2015. The trio incorporated the company in 2014 after winning the MADMEC competition the year before “Wristify”, a staff a thermostat that you wear like a watch.
Like most inventions, a need or personal passion work can lead a company’s efforts in a whole new direction. Shames literally froze in the school’s labs and became determined to develop something, with his roots in science and engineering, that would allow people to control how they experienced temperature.
Many field wins, a Forbes 30 under 30 in the Shames Engineering class in 2015, and a recent $ 6M Series B funding round combined to put EMBR Labs on an upward trajectory. This is the company’s third appearance at CES, but marks the first time it will show. Grit arrived at Shames daily as he and his team prepared for CES 2020.
Grit Daily: Thank you for taking some time with us today, Sam. Did you have any idea that you would follow a business path while studying at MIT or evolving during your tenure there?
Sam Chams: Yes and no. When I joined MIT in the fall of 2010, I didn’t really get the word “entrepreneur” or have any idea that you could start your career looking at your own business. But I knew that I didn’t want to work for anyone else. I didn’t even want to apply for a job after work and work for a large business.
The commercial application of technology has always been more attractive to me than the development of new specialty materials. After meeting with Matt and David, our course became very clear and we began a course to create and launch the EMBR Labs.
My grandmother, who just retired from her own market research firm last year at the age of 89, inspired me to think differently and focus on what the client needs, not wanting to. Together, we had many interesting discussions comparing notes on what we experienced starting and launching new businesses and products.
GD: Does EMBR mean anything, what’s behind the name? And, have you redesigned “Wristify” as “Wave” or is it a new product?
SS: EMBR is an acronym for “Environmental Body Consciousness” that represents the idea that technology can help us feel better. Yes, we rebuilt our own thermostat as a “wave” to expand into our future range of products and services, rather than confining ourselves to something that was literally tied to one’s wrist.
Now, at the time when we first had our technology branded, we were still in school and I didn’t spend much time thinking about the brand. As our company evolved, we began to embrace a larger vision of personal, thermal wellness, and we did not want to limit our scope.
‘Wave’ looked like a natural brand because it describes how the sensations of heat or cooling come in pulses or waves.
GD: That’s a great segue to my next question, how do you explain your technology to someone who didn’t go to MIT?
SS: Wave does not change your body temperature. it just changes how you feel warm or cool. Our bodies have heat receptors, which are specialized nerve cells designed to detect thermal properties. They send signals to our brain every time a difference between ambient temperature is detected.
The heat receptors are closer to the surface of our skin, while the cool receptors are deeper to the skin. We have more receptors on our hands and face than we do on our thighs, stomachs, or other parts of our body. How hot or cool we feel it affects our physical and emotional well-being which affects our productivity, mood, sleeping ability and so on.
Our technology is a thermoelectric unit that you mount inside or on your wrist, a highly sensitive area of our body densely packed with heat receptors. We use a semiconductor material that uses the electricity flow to change the temperature of this material up or down.
The experience is very similar to a shower, where you can control how hot or cold the shower is. We all know how uncomfortable and hateful a cold shower makes us feel if we were hoping for a nice, warm shower. If we cannot control our personal, thermal experiences, we do not have the same level of restorative benefits.
People have adjusted their perception of personal temperature to shape their comfort level for a long time. We do it in many ways from cakes to stripping, eating cold beers or hot tea and so on. It was largely subconscious, so we decided to formalize personal temperature comfort by creating a new class, thermal wellness, where consumers can now consciously adjust their level of wellness.
GD: Is your technology regulated by the FDA?
Sam Shames, co-founder of EMBR Labs
SS: No, we make no claims. We conduct studies with Johnson & Johnson to evaluate the impact of Wave on hot-pulse women and Dr. Hui Zhang University of California Berkeley was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to study how technology affects thermal discomfort.
Our clients regularly post comments on how Wave helps them sleep better and relieve stress, but we have not yet documented these results with scientific studies that could support such claims.
GD: EMBR Labs only sells in the US, but has many reviews from customers living outside the US. Tell us about it.
SS: We ran a Kickstarter campaign that made Wave available to anyone around the world who supported our effort. And we’re glad to see that many people buy Wave from our site, but send our technology to their friends and families who live elsewhere.
GD: In an interview you did INC., January 14, 2019, you mentioned some lessons from entrepreneurship that most founders fail at so early in their careers.
Your advice to other founders was: 1) to create something that people need, don’t want; 2) Engage your customers early and often; 3) be okay with the mistake; 4) And keep learning.
Just a year later, are you going to change that advice?
SS: I’m not going to change it, but I’d like to add some context around it. During the summer, I worked for my grandmother in her market research business and was inspired by the value of understanding your customers and the market before you make any moves.
MIT offers in-depth training in entrepreneurship and an extensive network that you can leverage to get advice, and all of these resources respond to the “talk to your customers” message to become part of my thinking.
The tips I will add with one more year of experience leading a company are to look carefully at how and when to grow. You must be prepared to outsource tasks so that you can be free to focus on company development.
It is very easy to find yourself in the vortex to do the job of the person you need to hire, but you are too busy writing the job description. That’s exactly what happens when you have to stop, look at what you’re doing and make changes.
In the past year, we have doubled the size of our company with strong recruitment in engineering and product development. As a result, it’s amazing how much more we could achieve and now we’re really growing. Another tip, if you want the perfect icebreaker at a networking event, ask someone if it feels warm or cold in the room.
GD: What surprised you about your journey as a COO and co-founder?
SS: There have been many surprises. Every year, I do a different ‘day job’ where my responsibilities and the work I do change the focus.
Today, I am more focused on the financial aspects, raising money, developing businesses, establishing SOPs and the like. With start-ups, you can wear a lot of hats that can be daunting because you know you’re not fit to play that role, but you have to understand it. Learning while doing it is so exciting and rewarding, so I really enjoy the way my role evolves every year.
GD: In addition to redesigning and launching “thermal wellness” as a new category, has EMBR Labs made other pivots?
SS: Our biggest axis was the change from temperature management so that plant managers could be attracted to our product as a means of reducing energy and costs, but all the market research we did showed that we didn’t understand the seriousness of the problem and it was about the customer’s personal perception of the temperature that mattered.
We had everyone in our team read the transcripts of market surveys to maximize what we could learn from them. Once we felt what our customers really needed, we were on our way to thermal wellness with the development of an even cooler gadget and more technology.
GD: What is the biggest obstacle that EMBR Labs have overcome so far?
SS: For any hardware shipping company, inventory management is always difficult. In 2018, they were ordered for four months and we lost our original promotion. Inventories and cash flows are obviously accompanied, so it’s important to do it right. We learned a lot from these mistakes and improved our results this year with a 3-week back-order rate.
Now that we have launched a Wave Rose color in addition to the existing silver wone, we are learning how much complexity we have added to inventory management by simply choosing to offer a second option. So we have some new challenges by 2020.
GD: How does Forbes Top 30 Under 30 name change your life?
SS: On the one hand, this recognition is exciting and offers a stunning tag for Linkedin. On the other hand, it’s not like the phone started ringing the next day.
“Overnight success” is never overnight. The Forbes summits offer tremendous networking and learning opportunities, so it’s been an incredible experience. However, all these aspects are lagging behind the main indicators. So, it’s almost the end of the road in any way, it’s just the beginning!
GD: How do you think age and gender influence business success?
SS: One of the things that we (my two co-founders and I) were very aware of from Day 1 was the EMBR Labs perspective. We knew very well that three white guys, fresh college grads no less, were designing a product that could help menopausal women feel more comfortable. People would probably view our efforts as selfless. We have seen the technology industry evolve to realize that diversity and inclusion are a natural part of any business, so we started to create a team that reflects diversity in our market.
On the other hand, as white people at MIT, to make appointments and get people back, our calls were not as challenging compared to what you heard from other founders, women, women of color and men of color when describing their experiences with raising money. We certainly never had prospective investors ask us if we were “really committed” to the business or planned to get maternity leave and distance ourselves from our children. While the industry has made progress, there is still room for improvement.
We want to be part of this next generation of technology companies, where managers make a conscious effort to understand how their employees feel and how they want to manage. Employing and managing people in the right way is critical for us to address some of these inequalities that we continue to see when it comes to the impact of age, nationality and gender on business success.
GD: Is there anything else you want to add?
SS: Whenever I see a post from a happy customer that Wave makes them feel better, it’s the ultimate reward knowing that your product makes a difference in someone’s life. Add to that the motivation and reward of being one of the first to solve a problem that others couldn’t solve, and it’s easy to see why founders are 100% in their business.
We have clarified our message, we are ready to scale, ready to grow and help others achieve thermal well-being. Technology is not always bad for us. Sometimes, it can make us feel better.
GD: Thank you, Sam, for your time today and for introducing me to your personal thermostat technology. We’ll see you at CES on stage at the Sands Expo all day from Tuesday 7th to Friday 10th at booth # 41131.