Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Chalisa Prarasri is CEO and co-founder at Opter. She has a B.S. in Neuroscience from UCLA. Previously she was Editor-in-Chief of UCLA's health magazine, Total Wellness, as well as a researcher in the W. M. Keck Center for Neurophysics and the Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research.
What is the idea behind Opter and how did you come up with it?
I had used pretty much every health tracker available on the market and had found them all unhelpful because all they did was give me graphs and numbers. When I was working as Editor-in-Chief of UCLA’s health magazine, I had to delve really deep into the science of healthy living — UCLA is a research university, so all our articles were backed by science and reviewed by experts. With all my health science knowledge, I didn’t know what to do with the graphs... so how was anyone else short of an MD supposed to figure it out? I knew that in order to build a better device, we would have to innovate on every single front — the look, the capabilities, the battery life, the user experience, the business model, and most important, the way the data is used. So we set out to build something that would be better in every way, and came up with Opter Pose, a stylish smart necklace that can track posture, UV, sleep, ambient light, exercise, and a lot more. It looks better, does more, lasts longer, and uses all the health data it collects to take you through interactive 1-month lifestyle change programs designed by some of the world’s top experts. Right now, we are close to releasing sleep and weight-loss plans, but soon we’re going to add more programs that make use of all of Pose’s tracking capabilities.
When did all start and do you have other members in your team?
When I graduated from UCLA and left the magazine in 2015, I got really lucky. I had the opportunity to work with some of the world’s best engineers — men who built one of the world’s first WiFi chips, whose technology has revolutionized every industry they’ve touched. They were transitioning out of designing futuristic hardware for the US military and looking for a new opportunity. I was helping them explore market opportunities, and I guess my passions were steering in the background, because I ended up convincing them to work on health tech, solving the problem I was dying to solve: lifestyle change. Since then we’ve brought on a lot of other talent, from seasoned manufacturing experts to our board of medical advisors at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
We’ve been doing this for 2.5 years now. It sounds like a long time, but hardware is hard! We needed the knowledge gained from a lot of massive failures to help us get here.
What was the biggest obstacle?
Weirdly, it was the business model. We’re watching other companies start to stagnate as they find that the traditional wearables business model is unsustainable. I’ve known we needed to innovate on it from the beginning, but it took me two years to figure out exactly how we were going to do that. Our new model is Wearables-As-A-Service, with the idea that the hardware is a facilitator to the service (interactive programs made by health experts) that actually guides you to a healthier life.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
The big ones are:
- Building a wearable that looks better, costs less, does more, and has a longer battery life than anything we’ve seen in this space.
- Oversubscribing our Kickstarter campaign and finding out that there actually are people out there who really need what we’re making and that we’re not crazy.
- Being called “The New Must-Have in Wearable Tech” in Forbes.
You recently had a very successful crowdfunding campaign. Tell us little bit more about that. What advice would you give to all those who are considering running crowdfunding campaigns as a way of getting funds for their hardware businesses?
I would say, spend as little money as possible on making your campaign (video… etc.) and put the money into getting quality eyes on it. That will be your biggest hurdle. Be very wary that there are a lot of companies that prey on inexperienced founders — look for partners that make money when you make money. One surefire way to succeed is to throw a lot of money at your campaign— I’ve spoken to many founders who raised $200K but spent $100K+ on marketing. While that’s great if you already have funds, I would caution founders with limited cash to have realistic expectations for how much you’re going to raise and realize that the hugely successful campaigns also often had huge budgets. If you’re low on cash, look for marketing companies that will take a cut of your campaign as compensation, and (I can’t emphasize this enough) leverage your network. Your personal friends and family will be the ones giving you the initial momentum you need to succeed — don’t take them for granted.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in? How about being a female founder / entrepreneur?
It’s really hard to meet people who have done what I’m trying to do and can give me advice — we are pioneering something new in a space that has largely been monopolized by just a few big players. That can be really confusing because different industry experts will give us contradicting advice on the same strategy. There aren’t really any footsteps to follow, so we’re just making it up as we go. As for being a female founder... it was a rude awakening to find sexism still exists in modern day America. I had heard about it and even noticed it, but never truly acknowledged it until I stepped into the male-dominated tech world. It has really forced me to recognize all the unconscious bias — especially all the bias in my own mind that was holding me back.
Is #WomenInTech movement important to you and if yes, why?
Oh, definitely. As a kid I wanted to be an inventor-hacker and was always engineering weird solutions to my daily problems and tinkering with electronics. I’ve always had a propensity for tech/STEM as well as sports and so I’ve been at odds with traditional female stereotypes for most of my life. Proving those stereotypes wrong is now an engrained part of my personality.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?
If you haven’t already, pour 100% of yourself into whatever you’re building. You’re going to need undeniable, unstoppable passion to fuel you through all the inevitable rejections, failures, and mistakes. That is absolutely the only way you will make it through the hard times.
What will be the key trends in the wearable tech and fashion tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
Intense personalization on the verge of creepiness. We’ve already seen this a bit with social media advertising and privacy scares. Companies are going to start getting really scary smart about how they can help you in your daily life, which I predict will make the industry boom — but only if those same companies are really careful about how they walk the line between privacy and personalization. At Opter, we intend to do that but being extremely transparent about how we’re using your data.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech and fashion tech?
- Katrina Lake, founder of Stitch Fix, the first ever woman-led tech IPO.
- Naomi Kelman, CEO at Willow, a smart wearable breast pump company. Raising money for a women-centric tech product is no joke.
- BellaBeat co-founder Ursula Srsen — technically competition, but I think they’ve done an incredible job with branding and marketing, and I love that they specifically target women with their wearable.
LinkedIn: Chalisa Prarasri
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.