Athlete Driven Innovations Feed Investment Boom in Wellness Sector

An op-ed for Sportico

Today’s guest column is by Brian Reilly, Isaiah Kacyvenski and Kirby Porter of Will Ventures, an early stage venture firm focused on identifying the next wave of sports-centric innovations.


We’re living through unprecedented levels of innovation and capital concentration in the human performance sector. Consumers have become reliant on technology to manage their health across nutrition, sleep, recovery and more. Products and services in the market have increased personalization, provided unprecedented access to data and enhanced convenience for users.


These trends have completely reshaped how we think about managing our everyday health and empowered us to take guesswork out of how we train, recover and optimize our overall performance. This accelerated adoption of human performance in the market is reflected in the numbers. In 2020, startups related to health and wellness raised a “record-shattering” total of $14.1 billion in venture funding. And there’s no sign of a slowdown in sight—Q1 2021 closed with $6.7 billion in sector funding, “the most-funded quarter to date.” We believe that what we see unfolding is a democratization of the elite athlete experience, and despite the records, we’re still in the early innings.


We’ve been tracking the human performance market for a decade as athletes, researchers, entrepreneurs and investors. And over that time, we’ve identified athletes as pioneers of health and wellness. Whether it’s innovation in exercise, nutrition, prevention or recovery, elite athletes are frequently early adopters of consumer health technologies. Due to the demands of elite sports, they’re incentivized to test the latest and greatest technologies to maximize performance and minimize risk of injury. This pressure cooker has made sports the ideal proving ground for scalable, innovative tech beyond the field of play.


This trend isn’t new. Gatorade, initially created for elite athletes at the collegiate level in the 1960s, has gone on to transform how millions worldwide fuel themselves. Nautilus’ fitness machines, which were first built in the 1970s to train professional athletes, ushered in recreational exercise and the existence of mainstream gyms. Fast forward to the present day, where we continue to see history repeating itself. The innovations athletes are testing within sports broadly affect how we as consumers manage our health and day-to-day wellbeing. The quantified athlete now extends to the quantified self, as everyone—not just an elite athlete—is empowered to take the guesswork out of how they feel.


Despite these advancements, we’re still in the early stages of proactive care. Today, the majority of healthcare dollars go toward treating preventable, lifestyle-based illnesses (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, obesity). That’s why health and wellness presents an outsized investment opportunity; it has massive implications on our overall health, but it doesn’t face the same regulatory hurdles as traditional healthcare.


One particularly interesting vertical we cover within health and wellness is nutrition. It plays a significant role in our overall health but isn’t sufficiently integrated into the traditional healthcare system. The largest companies in the world—along with investors—are covering this dynamic market, searching for services and products that can capture significant market share.


To identify opportunities in nutrition, we look to sports for inspiration. The best startups in the segment will democratize what athletes have had at their disposal for decades—personalization, expert guidance and products backed by science.


  • Personalization: We call this “precision nutrition,” or personalized nutrition, based on an individual’s physiology, using data to prove what works. Our portfolio company Elo is an example of this. Today, they’re leveraging biomarkers to formulate supplements and food products uniquely tailored to each consumer’s needs. Consumers who sign up for Elo will receive a same-day blood test to help determine any deficiencies, and Elo will use that information to ship personalized supplements that address those deficiencies. This level of personalization is sticky. Companies that know their consumers on this level can foster a deep brand affinity that results in switching costs that are extremely high.


  • Humans in the Loop: Technology allows us to democratize the knowledge of highly specialized experts in the healthcare system, such as dietitians, physical therapists and primary care providers. Companies that facilitate connection between these sorts of experts and their consumers will tap into one of the most powerful behaviors of all—accountability.  Without it, interventions fall short, and even the best datasets yield limited progress. Expert coaches who can build rapport and encourage consumers are essential to long-term compliance. That’s why we believe the human-in-the-loop model will transform not only the nutrition market but consumer healthcare more broadly.


  • Real Science: Consumers are getting smarter. They have more information at their fingertips, and demand has increased for nutritional products that deliver results.  As investors, we see this shift as a need to evolve from snake-oil marketing, and we believe the change begins with real science. Our portfolio company, Fitbiomics, embodies this approach. The company utilizes next-generation genomic sequencing to isolate beneficial probiotic bacteria from elite athletes that can be used as ingredients in science-backed food and beverage products. To date, Fitbiomics has been published in peer-reviewed journals like Nature for its work in food research. Health and wellness has historically been laden with bogus advertising, fad diets and unregulated supplements. But the shift in the consumer’s mindset has raised the bar for new entrants to market, and we believe real science will distinguish the winners.


Whether it’s consumer, health or media, the sports industry is a proving ground for innovation beyond the field of play. In health and wellness, athletes are uniquely positioned to serve as catalysts for the next wave of innovative startups. In media, the hyper-engaged audiences that sports command provide a unique place to test novel technologies. We believe this trend will persist, and some of the next great startups will be proven by sport. That’s why we leverage this market to identify what will come next.


Will Ventures is led by co-founders and managing partners Brian Reilly, a technology product manager and investor with deep sports technology expertise, and Isaiah Kacyvenski, an NFL veteran turned entrepreneur and investor. Kirby Porter, a Harvard women’s basketball alum and a brand marketer with sports industry expertise, is the firm’s director of marketing.


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