The Scoop on Whoop
While making a solo 1,100-mile drive from Hilton Head, S.C., back to his home in Austin, Texas, in early July, professional golfer Nick Watney had plenty of time to think. One thing he didn’t want to consider is what would have happened if he hadn’t checked the data from his Whoop Strap two weeks earlier. On June 19 — three days after testing negative for COVID-19 and one day after playing in the first round of the RBC Heritage — Watney awoke that morning ready for Round 2 and feeling fine.
The data on his Whoop app, however, told him otherwise.
His number of breaths per minute (18.4) had spiked considerably overnight, rising about 25% from his typical range. Watney, who had heard that an abrupt rise in respiratory rate measured by Whoop could be an early indicator of COVID-19 infection, called PGA Tour officials and soon underwent another test. He went to the Harbour Town practice range to warm up while social distancing when he received a call informing him that he tested positive.
“I was stunned,” said Watney, 39, who immediately withdrew from the tournament and self-quarantined for nearly two weeks with what he deemed a mild strain of the virus. “I really think if I didn’t have the Whoop Strap, I wouldn’t have gotten tested that morning and I would have played in the round.”
Within days of Watney’s positive test, the PGA Tour announced it would provide every player, caddie and “essential personnel” a Whoop device. And earlier this month, the University of Tennessee partnered with Whoop to offer the current version, dubbed Whoop Strap 3.0, to its entire athletics program, becoming the first school to do so.
Both moves are part of the company’s impressive growth, which has been accelerated by the pandemic. Whoop said in March that it had seen its user growth increase sevenfold over the previous year, and it has since experienced a marked increase both in new memberships and overall usage. It has also seen more high-profile people wearing Whoop than at any time in its history, including Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who was seen wearing one on social media earlier this month.
Late last week, Whoop was expected to announce a partnership with the Premier Lacrosse League, which has procured straps for all its players and staff. The company is also in ongoing talks with almost every major league about supporting player safety and performance, and it currently has relationships with almost half of MLB teams and is the officially licensed recovery wearable of the NFLPA.
And while its deal with Tennessee is its first department-wide partnership, Whoop already works with individual student athletes and teams at dozens of universities.
“Whoop has definitely been ahead of its time,” said Dan Wirth, UT’s director of Olympic sports performance. “Whoop has had angles and has found angles where it works best for athletes. It has had a huge impact on the industry.”
That Whoop’s data could indicate the onset of the coronavirus even when an individual is asymptomatic has been a profound revelation, one that underscores the product’s broader value to its users: Whoop touts that its data can tell you secrets about your body that you can’t feel.
Long before the Boston-based company, founded in 2012 by three Harvard undergraduates, raised more than $100 million and hired more than 200 employees, it sought to help the world’s best athletes use sleep and recovery to maximize human performance at a time when the industry was abuzz about devices that counted steps.
Now it has become a 24/7 life coach that can provide early warning signs for illness and inform both elite athletes and fitness novices when they are sufficiently recovered to take on more strenuous workouts. It has been worn by prominent athletes including Sue Bird, Gerrit Cole and LeBron James. PGA Tour pros Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas are endorsers.
In the vast world of wearables — which includes brands such as Apple Watch and Fitbit, and whose overall revenue is projected to eclipse $50 billion by 2023 — Whoop has carved out its own category as it seeks to own the human performance space.
“Sleep has become the new steps,” said Will Ahmed, the company’s 30-year-old founder and CEO. “Do you want to understand what is happening to your body physiologically? Or do you want some artificial number that is fun to watch grow? Whoop was the first fitness product to actually say not to exercise on a given day.”
What Whoop offers are metrics on sleep performance, recovery scores, heart rate variability and respiratory rate to provide a roadmap for how much strain a person can handle. Its nondescript strap weighs 0.64 ounces and is about one inch wide.
Emily Capodilupo, Whoop’s vice president of data science and research who has written all of the product’s consumer-facing algorithms, said: “We are doing stuff no one has done before. We are rejecting a lot of the things that people expect wearables do to. We don’t have a screen. We don’t count steps. You can’t text from your Whoop. We’ve been trying to forge our own path.”
Whoop announced last November a $55 million Series D fundraising round, led by venture capital firm Foundry Group with participation from Two Sigma Ventures, among others. Wray Thorn, venture partner at Two Sigma Ventures and a board member at Whoop, said they started tracking Whoop in 2014 as an attractive data company.
“The product and the use cases have evolved quite a bit, from elite performance to health and fitness to sleep monitoring to a disease early warning system, if you will,” said Thorn, whose Two Sigma Ventures led a $12 million Series B fundraising round for Whoop in 2015. “One of the compelling things about Whoop is that this data set has a wide range of uses that can expand the horizons for the company over time. You see that not only in the growth of the user base but also in the retention of those who use it.”
Ahmed traces his contrarian view in the fitness world to his years at Harvard, where he says he would routinely overtrain as the captain of the squash team. While most in the industry devoted more time to studying training methods, Ahmed focused on how an individual’s body was performing the other 20 hours of the day, reading hundreds of research papers on physiology while working toward his degree in government and economics.
In the early days with Whoop, the staff would sit around a table and brainstorm in the Harvard Innovation Lab, an incubator for students and alumni that gave Whoop free office space for 18 months. There’d be about 10 employees, including Ahmed and co-founders Aurelian Nicolae and John Capodilupo. Whoop immediately rejected counting steps and instead focused on a metric that captures how hard you make your body work.
“People used to ask us, ‘Oh, it’s a step counter?’,” said Emily Capodilupo, who is married to John. “We’d be like, no, very adamantly. And it is not because we haven’t built it yet or are getting around to it. We have no intention of ever counting steps.”
The first Whoop product was available on a limited basis in 2015, then Whoop 2.0 launched in November 2016 for consumers. It introduced a membership model in May 2018 and its current edition arrived in May 2019. Ahmed said they always knew they wanted to get to the consumer market, but it took an enormous investment to create the product that was both precise and simple to use. For now Whoop is sold only online, and the strap comes free with a $30 per month subscription and a six-month commitment.
The company’s hallmark, Ahmed said, is moving at an “uncomfortably fast pace.”
That proved useful in the early days of the pandemic. Whoop was the first consumer product to add COVID-19 tracking when it went live in the app March 14.
In collaboration with scientists at CQUniversity in Australia, Whoop developed a novel algorithm that has been shown to detect 20% of COVID-19 cases in two days before the onset of symptoms, and to correctly identify 80% of symptomatic cases by the third day of symptoms. The study has been submitted to a medical journal for peer review. Whoop is the only consumer wearable device to validate the accuracy of its respiratory rate during sleep in a third-party study conducted by the University of Arizona and published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
“We were very early to the sleep and recovery movement,” Ahmed said. “Now it’s as popular as ever. Culture has caught up with the initial vision: There are secrets your body is trying to tell you that you can’t feel. This is permanently changing people’s consciousness around health.”