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Wellness as a currency – Learnings from the 2013 Quantified Self Conference in San Francisco

After a wonderful experience at the Quantified Self Conference in Amsterdam earlier this year, my expectations for the Global version on the big stage in San Francisco were quite high. The program looked very promising and with the arrival at the beautiful Golden Gate Club in the Presidio of San Francisco, I couldn’t wait for it to start.

N=1: A “movement” of self-quantifying individuals

Whereas other conferences often open with an awkward get-to-know-each-other ceremony, a Quantified Self event feels more like an informal gathering of like-minded fellows. Recognizing many familiar faces from Amsterdam, I felt welcome from the beginning and it felt only natural to befriend the still unfamiliar ones. In the opening plenary, QS co-founder Gary Wolf once again shared his vision of Quantified Self as a n=1 movement of self-observing individuals (n=1 referring to studies with only one subject). Quantified Self simply is not about large scale research with control groups. Or as fellow blogger Whitney Erin Boesel put it: “It’s about adopting what “works” (for you), and ignoring what doesn’t.”

QS-Conference
http://www.flickr.com/photos/krynsky/

Nothing for passive listeners, go mingle!

The event was set up in conventional Quantified Self format with many simultaneous sessions. Next to the Plenaries, there were Show&Tell Talks, Conversations, Breakouts, and Office Hours providing lots of information to be shared during the frequent breaks. With all this material floating around, QS events come to life in the exchanges with others. Anyone just sitting in and passively listening would have a hard time getting his or her money’s worth.

My Thursday highlights

“If it’s relevant to you, it’s relevant!”

The first talk that caught my attention was given by Ian Eslick on “Doing Great Personal Experiments.” Ian contrasted clinical research with self-experimentation and highlighted the significance and value of both. Even though personal experiments might be flawed and statistically insignificant on a clinical level, they still might carry very important personal significance for the individual.

Meeting Linda Avey, Co-Founder of 23andMe and Curious, Inc.

My spit hasn’t found its way into one of 23andMe’s tubes yet but I am very intrigued by the powers of genetic testing. The company offers an affordable genetic screening that provides individuals with reports on their inherited health conditions, traits, and lineage. Linda then left the company in 2009 and established Curious, Inc., a platform that allows people to analyze and interpret their personal data and share it with their community. I was excited to discuss the combination of biomarker and genetic testing with this impressive and very approachable entrepreneur.

Rejection therapy: “Could I buy only one M&M?”

One of the funniest talks was given by AskMeEvery’s Mark Moschel who overcame his fear of rejection by… well… getting rejected every day for 30 days straight! During this month of social challenges, Mark confronted people with mostly silly questions such as if he could borrow money from a grocery store clerk to if he could visit the storage facilities of a warehouse. Even though Mark noticed a sharp increase in confidence during the 30 days, the newly won courage almost dropped to the starting point shortly after he had stopped the experiment.

My Friday Highlights

A crush on a guy called Zip

Highly entertaining was Kitty Ireland’s exploration of her grandma’s diary from 1942. Her grandma Pat painstakingly maintained a diary where she logged everything from meals she consumed, locations she frequented, and (quite a few) boys she had dated. Kitty then correlated her findings with patterns in her own life and identified several parallels. As engaging as this detailed look into a past life was, we were spared a happy end. Grandma Pat’s apparent partner of choice, a guy called Zip as highlighted decoratevily on several pages, disappeared from the log after some time.

A black market for sensor-less clothing and wellness as a currency

Most breakout sessions that I attended were either too crowded or too disorganized, or both. However, the session “QS in 10 & 100 Years” by QS co-founder Kevin Kelly had some very interesting visions of the future of QS. When everything we do is tracked and measured, we might become civilian scientist of our own biology. Our environment would then react to all of our immediate needs: sensors will tell us at all times when we should eat, run, sleep, work, and socialize to optimize our well-being. The information would then be shared with friends and families but also with doctors, employers, and insurance companies. A world of endless possibilities for easy self- enhancement might then turn into a scary rat race with wellness and privacy as a currency. The healthier and more transparent you choose to be, the less you pay. Someone even proposed that instead of reading about Forbes Magazine’s wealthiest people, we might find a list with the world’s biggest “healthionnaires.” Another fascinating vision was an overly transparent, technology-ridden world with black markets for sensor-free clothing and under-the-radar items.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/krynsky/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/krynsky/

Pitching my project Biotrakr to Dave Asprey, the Bulletproof Executive

What a wonderful feeling to get positive feedback on what you’re working on from one of the field’s greats. Dave Asprey, supposedly the first person to ever sell anything on the internet, cloud computing expert, long-term biohacker, and founder of The Bulletproof Executive brand, really can be considered a pioneer in the field of QS. When I presented him with my idea for Biotrakr, a web-based and intuitive health coach that provides personalized health recommendations based on biomarker diagnostics, Dave was intrigued and shared with me some of his learnings as an advisor for WellnessFX. Moreover, Dave called Vitamin D the “most important biohack” and described eagerly how he prepares and smokes his own bacon at his home on Vancouver Island.

A meal tracker, a breath-taking shirt, and Finnish QS domination

In comparison to Amsterdam, I really liked that we had a separate room for companies showing off their newest gadgets this time. And there were many very cool ones!

AIRO – The next generation wristband

It’s been only a couple of weeks now that I’ve received my UP band replacement (as in so many other cases, it broke after about 3 months) and restarted tracking my activitiy and sleep… Activity and sleep? How basic! AIRO is now working on a spectroscopic tracker that not only tracks activity and sleep but also stress levels and calorie intake. Automatically! Preleminary release is set for the end of 2014 so we’ll have to wait a bit.

OMSignal – The future of clothing

OMSignal is definitely making some noise. They just took home the DC to VC People’s Choice Award at the Health 2.0 conference in Santa Clara three weeks ago and they also were one of the major attractions at QS 2013. Their prototype shirt allows continuous tracking of biometrics by monitoring heart rate, breathing, and activity. The consumer can then display the data in real-time on a mobile phone.

Ambro – The 20-ingredient meal replacement

Amazing, how the Finnish constantly come up with great ideas in the QS space. Ambro is only one out of three of my personal highlights (the other two being Beddit and Health Puzzle’s app YOU). What I really like about Ambro: they don’t claim that you can entirely live on it like their most famous competitor Soylent does with its product. Instead, they offer a highly nutritional drink for the occasional cooking inertia.

Beddit – ZEO 2.0

The team around Lasse Leppäkorpi had presented its sleep tracking sensor that is placed under the sheet already in Amsterdam. This time, I had the chance for a lengthy conversation with Lasse about the origins of the company six years ago, it’s takeover of the ZEO team along the way and its upcoming move to the Valley. Subscribe here for updates, sleep trackers!

There were plenty more captivating ideas, apps, concepts, and services that I’m not going to list. If you want to find out more, visit some of the other blog articles on the conferences listed below. I also added a link to a youtube video of the talk by Zipongo, a company that makes personalized healthy meal plans based on your eating preferences.

Did the event eventually meet my expectations? Right after the event, I wasn’t sure. It didn’t flash me as much as my first QS conference. But now, after gathering my thoughts and looking over my notes, I say: definitely! There certainly were aspects that can be optimized such as the temperature (it was freezing inside), the organization of some of the sessions (a simple agenda would suffice), and the coffee refills (ran out several times). Other than that, hat’s off to the organizers! I hope to see all of you in Amsterdam next year!

On a side note, I loved the healthy, organic, gluten-free, vegan snack bars as well as the large plates full of cooked eggs!

Final words: turn up the heat and see you in Amsterdam!

Maximilian Gotzler

This is a guest post from Maximilan Gotzler, Founder of Biotrakr and supporter of the Berlin Quantified Self Meetup

Talking 20 – Take a Look Inside

This is a guestpost from Winslow Strong, author of the blog Biohack Yourself. Winslow was one of the early backers of the crowdfunded startup Talking20 and describes the service and his experience of taking his blood sample.

Talking20 is a recently founded direct-to-consumer biomedical testing company. Their mission is to transform useful biomarker diagnostics into do-it-yourself at-home tests. As a biohacker, I love this idea. It allows me to get enormous amounts of useful data on how my self-experiments in diet, exercise, sleep, supplements, etc impact my biology. Plus, it saves me a moderate amount of time and a ton of money (I wouldn’t be able to afford it) compared to getting these tests done in a doctor’s office or lab. Furthermore, a doctor will probably only give you results on a printed sheet, and probably only upon request (after looking at you strangely). Talking20 will give you a web-accessible graphical presentation of your values over time, which is much more convenient, especially for those of us who tend to move around frequently.

T20 raised some initial crowdfunding via an Indiegogo campaign. What particularly caught my eye, and I ended up purchasing, was their Gold Card package of 36 cards, each of which will give you results for every single test in their catalog at the time when you use it. You can use each card whenever you want – e.g. use one weekly as you intentionally overtrain yourself, in order to get a signature for the hormonal changes that occur, so that you can ID them more easily in the future. Or use one once a year if nothing big is changing in your life, and you just want a nice complete blood panel done at a fraction of the price. It’s your choice, but you can take as long or short as you desire to use your Gold Cards.

What you get

My initial package contained 6 Gold Cards, (the other 30 will be sent as needed) 6 addressed envelopes for mailing them, instructions, 14 lancets (for pricking your finger), and a bunch of alcohol swabs and band-aids. They rushed these packages out to the Indiegogo campaign funders, so we have to wait a bit longer for the storage box that will help us keep all our supplies organized. This is fine with me, as everything needed to get started was in this initial shipment.

At the time of this writing (March 2, 2013), the tests that Talking20 offers in various packages are:

  • Heart biomarkers – Total, HDL & LDL cholesterol, homocysteine, CRP, & HgA1C
  • Hormones – Cortisol, estradiol (the most important of the estrogens), progesterone, testosterone, and Vit D3 (the 25-OH test)
  • Vitamins – A, B6, B9, B12, C, D3 (25-OH), E

They say on their website that they hope in the future to add:

  • All Hormones: including cholesterols, cortisol, testosterone, DHEA, estrogens and progesterone
  • All Vitamins and Minerals: including all fat and water soluble vitamins, and circulating minerals, amino acids, and electrolytes
  • All Disease Proteins: including current and future indicators of cancers, including colon prostate, breast, kidney, and lung cancers
  • All Organ Function related proteins: including current and future indications of organ function, including liver, kidney, pancreas, and autoimmunity problems
  • All future biomarkers discovered that we include in all new retail panels

Gold card holders will receive the new tests automatically as they become available.

Collecting the sample

The technology that T20 uses only requires drops of blood on the absorbant thick-paper cards they supply. There’s no need to stick a large needle into your arm, as often happens at the doctor’s office, so no worries there. They request 5 drops of blood to fill the 5 circles on each card. Their instructions are rather minimal, so let me provide you with some elaboration that I found helpful after some experimentation:

  • Middle finger – Talking20 advises either using the tip of your middle finger or the outside of your ring finger. Visually, my middle fingers look like they carry more blood, so I chose them.
  • LARGE drops of blood. The drop should be so large as to be about to fall off from your downward-facing finger. It was surprising to me how large a drop could become before it started to look unstable enough that it might fall. To facilitate this, it’s advisable that:

    • After washing your hands thoroughly with soap, soak the collection hand (and wrist if you can fit it) in a large pot of very warm water. This will help dilate the capillaries of your finger with blood, and keep it coming as you squeeze it out.
    • After drying your hand thoroughly, use an alcohol swab to disinfect and clean the collection finger.
    • Prick your finger with the lancet, pressing firmly. The lancet is spring-loaded, so when you push your finger sufficiently into it, a spring releases, generating enough momentum for a prick. I found that I had a natural flinch instinct to overcome, because I knew I was pressing my finger into a spike. But the lancets are very well-calibrated, not particularly painful, and to get a deep enough prick, I found I really did need to press quite firmly into it.
    • “Milk” the finger. Use firm but not ferocious pressure to squeeze your finger as you simultaneously slide down it from the base towards the tip. I found it better to not actually squeeze right around the prick site, as this mimics the “apply pressure” advice you hear for wounds to get them to stop bleeding. It worked best for me to apply pressure up until I approached the prick site closely, but was not quite bracketing it. Repeat this many times and your blood drop will grow in size.
  • As the blood drop starts to hang unstably from your finger, try to delicately let the center of it touch the center of one of the circles.
  • You may need multiple pricks. I only got two circles out of each prick, so I had three pricks in total.


Summary

If you haven’t taken your own blood before, then you might need some trial and experimentation at first to get it right. Hopefully, my advice above will prove useful. I would rate the difficulty of this procedure as moderate for first-time users, but that should change to easy by the second or third time as you get the hang of it. It’s not rocket science, nor is it very painful. Overall, I’m pleased with the blood sample collection process.

This product is currently one-of-a-kind and is more convenient and potentially much cheaper than a trip to the doctor’s office to get the same results, depending on your insurance coverage. I’m really looking forward to having a huge array of biomarkers available through Talking20 in the future. I’ll cover that part of the T20 service when the analysis is ready, projected to be in April.

Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with Talking20 at the time of this writing, March 2, 2013.

This is a guestpost from Winslow Strong, Entrepreneur, Biohacker and Organizer of the Zürich Quantified Self Meetup. For more information about Biohacking visit his blog Biohack Yourself.

Further information

Talking20 website

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Twitter: @Talking20tweets

Indiegogo (completed)