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Interview with Sky Christopherson about Biometric Hacking

Sky Christopherson has an impressive list of accomplishments. He is a former member of the U.S. Cycling Team and trained in the top-secret ‘Project 96′ Olympic training program for the Atlanta Olympics. Sky is also a successful entrepreneur and filmmaker. He is the founder of Vicaso, an Internet start-up company involved in producing high dynamic range (HDR) imaging primarily for real estate markets. He authored and directed the film The Greater Meaning of Water, an award winning story of a man who finds an escape from chronic lung disease through free diving. At the time of publishing this interview, Sky currently holds a world record in sprint cycling. He is a founding partner of Optimized Athlete (OAthlete.com), a firm engaged in using genomics, self quantification, and bioinformatics to improve human performance. As if that where not enough to keep one busy, he is also currently finishing production on a feature length documentary about the US Women’s Cycling Team’s journey to Silver in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.


Here are my 5 questions talking with Sky and his answers:

1. In a Quantified Self presentation you joked about Kashmir Hill’s term describing self-tracking as “Extreme Navel-Gazing”, which subtly highlights that in its present state consumer quantifying is far from reaching the masses. However, it does appear that momentum is slowly building. For instance in the past few weeks AliveCor, a heart monitor for the iPhone, just received FDA approval. With that in mind, what do you think it is going to take to cross the chasm regarding mass adoption of biometric hardware?

Things are already moving at an accelerated pace. First, the market of available devices is exploding. Every time you go in the Apple Store you see a new device on the ever-growing wall of digital health devices. Gone are the clunky, difficult to use remnants of the ‘Telemedicine’ era, and in are trendy, colorful, well designed devices of the consumer digital health movement. Products with good design and usability will lead to much better consumer adoption. Second, influential athletes are increasingly becoming early adopters, which is going to increase exposure. Something important to note about biometrics being adopted by my clients is that they’re not using these tools simply to improve performance – what they are actually doing is maximizing their baseline health, something we call ‘Health Performance’. When you think about it in these terms, improving baseline health is a benefit desirable by almost everyone. While athletes can create exposure for these types of devices, people are going to view these products as an integrated medical solution as well… especially now with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act placing more accountability in the lap of the consumer. The potential impact of self-empowered consumers on the medical field can be profound, as Dr. Eric Topol discusses in his recent book The Creative Destruction of Medicine

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2. A criticism of biometric hardware is that most devices are just improvements on what people have already been able to do (for over a decade) with standard preexisting devices and a spreadsheet (ex. pedometers, blood pressure monitors, scales, etc.). You’re a Board Member of Zeo Inc. which is a notable exception. What else excites you out there regarding the changing landscape of tracking that is completely new?

The innovations around integration and correlation are particularly exciting. Usable products, products with a focus on great UX, mean more users will be willing to collect more data. Armed with more data – and more importantly data from multiple sources – we can do exciting things with convergence using mathematical integration. Increasing strides in processing power and programming mean we can find correlations and new insights that were not there before because… these things have been too cumbersome up to now to extrapolate with now antiquated technologies… this will soon change… it is already changing. We will see unprecedented insight into individualized, multivariate health and wellness factors. Once you see more clearly what factors are leading to which outcomes in your life, you can act to better influence them.

3. You have presented about personally using the Dexcom Glucose Monitor to make real-time glucose adjustments that positively impacted your well-being. Personally I use the Motorola MOTOACTV to dynamically adjust my music selection while running to songs that increase my performance. What other tracking innovations have you witnessed, where through data feedback, users can make real-time modifications and see immediate impact?

At Optimized Athlete, we are using a mixture of off-the-shelf and proprietary sensors to optimize athletic performance. Working with one athlete, we discovered a substantial Vitamin D deficiency through a blood and genetics test. After reviewing the data, we not only modified the athlete’s skin exposure to sunlight, we were even able to recommend eye light exposures at select times of the day to influence circadian rhythms, resulting in many benefits including better quality sleep and enhanced recovery. An example of a device we used was the Dexcom continuous blood glucose tracking sensor. I can personally attest that monitoring of blood sugar is very insightful. It forces you to think ahead about everything you eat and drink. You no longer think of blood sugar levels as static points… they become longitudinal vectors in your mind. Also, since dietary intake has a delayed impact, it becomes like playing a game of ‘future telling’, which you can get quite skilled at after longer term use of the sensor. Through this type of learned discipline I was able to reduce cycles of drowsiness after meal consumption that had affected me up until that point. As a result, I now have much more sustained energy throughout the day without the use of caffeine.

4. With the first three questions in mind, what is your vision for Optimized Athlete adding to this narrative? How did Optimized Athlete help the US Women’s Cycling Team win Silver in this year’s Olympic Games?

The challenge was significant. The U.S. Women’s Cycling Team was 5th place at the World Championships just a month before, and with only two months until the Olympics were not expected to medal. When we arrived in Spain we met a team that was basically underfunded and only had one coach, while comparatively their competition were well funded and had experts staffed full-time: sports physiologists, psychologists, video analysis, you name it. Without any of this, we had to figure out how to ‘boot-strap’ a performance plan with almost no money. We started with a genetic test for each athlete to provide context to the design of the tracking and intervention strategies. Then, we used a mixture of off-the-shelf and proprietary sensors to track performance and used some pretty powerful math behind it all. What unfolded was amazing. The team became self-empowered by the data. We were able to make dozens of small adjustments to routine, environment, etc. The data was also a driver for inter-competition as well as a driver for improved performance. The team broke a national record just weeks before arriving to London, much more confident they were Olympic contenders. None-the-less, analysts professed the team had an extremely low chance of placing. In the end the American girls beat heavily favored Australia in the semi-finals, and won a Silver medal at the London Olympics. The story was so fascinating, we are making a documentary film about it, due out sometime next year.

5. You currently hold a world record on the velodrome which you were able to do at the age of 35 after a departure from competitive sport. On a personal level, how much do you attribute tracking to the success of your comeback?

I have been asked this before, and the assumption is that tracking might have made me mindful of my past experiences and therefore somehow can be attributed to getting me back to my historic baseline. I’m confident it did much more than that. For starters it helped fill gaps in understanding that were not there in the previous Olympic preparation programs I participated in. In prior efforts we did not have the ability to formulate such a complete picture with data amassed continuously 24/7. This time around I benefited from genetic testing, sleep data, glucose tracking, etc. Armed with my data the breadth of personal insights were now richer and more insightful than before. I was finally able to close feedback loops. Furthermore, and this is an important point, with data in hand I was able to optimize my outside support. By sharing my data I could say to people (direct and indirect influencers), “Hey, look at this. Can you help me?” As Rajiv Mehta points out in our documentary film, we do not exist in bubbles. Our behavior depends on our close circles of supporters. As a result, it improved my support network and allowed me to take an evidence-based training approach. Therefore, I believe modern tracking concepts not only helped me go beyond performances from ‘Project 96′ to break a World Record, but also help me maximize my long-term ‘Health Performance’.

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