Q&A with David Newns, Prevayl: “clothing can be a data point to improve mental and physical wellbeing”

David Newns (LinkedIn profile) is the chairman of Prevayl, a new enterprise offering clothing that gathers “enriched biometric data” (website) to provide personalised performance and healthcare data to consumers, business and sporting institutions.

David is a serial entrepreneur, and the 36 year old has already started and sold two companies for more than £150m to FTSE 100 companies. His third venture, Prevayl, has won Start-up of the Year, 2020, from BOC; and the company’s CEO, who David mentors in his role as chairperson, was awarded Entrepreneur of the Year.

BB: Please describe how you developed the idea for Prevayl – yours is an unusual progression from smoking cessation products to kidtech to health tech/wearables.

I don’t see myself as someone chained to one particular sector. I anticipate how to live in the future and what that looks like for consumers. I don’t really mind which sector, as long as I believe that I will have a meaningful impact and make a positive change in consumers’ lives. That’s how I like to spend my time.

With Nerudia, I saw an opportunity in smoking cessation and harm reduction. My business partner, Chris Lord and I were looking for new technology innovations in China. At the time, reduced harm smoking products weren’t available or even discussed in the UK. But we saw this nascent technology and I believed that, you know, there’s a version of the future where we can have a massive, positive impact on health by reducing harm from smoking and even stop it. So bringing that sort of futuristic, meaningful innovation to market has become a driving force for me.

And when it came to Prevayl, I was again looking at where to be ahead of the curve and how I could create value.

Would it be fair to describe the Prevayl product as a range of biometric garments?

I think about it as fashion first. Prevayl is such an interesting business, and the technology is ground breaking but we have to make it accessible to the mass market.

So the garments are first and foremost beautifully designed. They feel and look amazing. But on top of that, they give you actionable insights about your mental and physical health. And this lets you decide to make positive choices and actions that improve your wellbeing. Other fabrics just don’t offer that.

This is really important in the world of fast fashion, where clothing has become transient in the wearer’s life. So our idea was to make clothing that does what you normally want it to do (function and fashion), but actually delivers far more to the consumer.

I know you are in the R&D stage, but do you foresee a point at which clothing could be monitoring us in an invasive way, as opposed to simply collecting vital stats about our health?

At Prevayl we’re coming at it from a positive point of view. We’re focused on how clothing can be a data point to improve mental and physical wellbeing, and to prevent health problems.

But I can’t speak to what others are doing. At the moment, as humans, everything we do is creating thousands of data points per day, with our consent. Public CCTV on the one hand and on the other your smart watch, phone, car, supermarket visits, shopping, loyalty cards all create data points that build an accurate picture about you, what you might do next (e.g. what your next purchase will be) and even what the future is for you.

What if the technology gets harnessed by agencies that want to collect data without our explicit consent? And store/use the data in a way that the consumer hasn’t given a specific (or even informed) consent for? What are the safeguards?

At Prevayl we only collect the customer’s data to translate into actionable feedback for them as individuals. It’s similar to you letting the doctor take your pulse to get a heart rate data point or allowing a personal trainer to measure your VO2 Max to get a cardio fitness data point. We gather the data to give back to the user in the form of personalised feedback they can use to improve their mental and physical health. So it’s a personal relationship. And of course, this is done explicitly with each consumer’s informed consent.

In effect, the consumer is our customer, and we put them at the absolute heart of our business. But it’s true that our approach is more consumer-centric and personal than what you might be used to compared to certain large tech companies. For example those whose model is entirely different to ours and is instead about selling billions of individuals’ data wholesale to advertisers.

In their case, people are referred to as ‘users’, not customers. That’s because the real customer is an advertiser, not the consumer themself. So the commercial data relationship is between the tech company and the advertiser, which is a very different model from Prevayl’s. And that’s why consumers feel vulnerable about their data being in the hands of these companies selling it to advertisers; they might not feel that they gave informed consent to use the data, and they might not even know what their ‘data’ is, who is using it or why.

So to really derive this point home, when it comes to data discussions, for Prevayl, we have a different model. We treat informed consent, safeguards and trust as critically important to us, because the consumer is our customer. And our business is focused on making a positive impact on their individual health, not an advertisers’ balance sheet.

What are the main positives of the technology Prevayl is developing?

We’re giving the mass market fashion first clothes, with incredible technology that was previously only available to elite athletes, to improve their health and wellbeing. Our new smart clothing can read highly accurate data and turn it into precise insights and actions.

I think what’s exciting about it is – compared to a smart watch – with clothes we get more abundant data from the body, in more depth and at a greater accuracy than any other kind of wearable technology. And this is important because the human body is so nuanced. Small differences in your heart rate, core temperature or heart rate variability can actually be significant.

A good example would be physical strain and recovery. Recovery can be hugely underestimated. We’re able to give people a recovery score, which takes in all sorts of data points in the body. So the insight might be that you know, today isn’t a good day to work out really hard because the data is showing that you need more recovery otherwise you could do more harm than good.

This means you can now make a truly informed call on how to proceed, in this particular case about switching to an active recovery programme instead of something more intense. So the accuracy of data is absolutely crucial to ensure the machine learning insights and advice are precise.

That’s just one example, but it gives you an idea about how this can begin a new era of preemptive healthcare.

“If you think about what we’re doing at Prevayl, actually helping people, making positive actions and positive changes in their life, that’s what inspires me.”

Is there a path to investing in tech start-ups for individual investors (as distinct from VCs)?

Angel investors invest in things for different reasons. Some want to invest in people they know or entrepreneurs that they believe in. Others want to invest because they want to create some financial return in the future and start-up investing might be very tax efficient. Some, you know, have big visions to change the world and invest to have a big impact. So you can’t put all individual investors into one box, or on one path to invest. But whatever your motivation, there are many ways to find investment opportunities like online platforms and regional networks that you can get involved in.

It’s really exciting to get involved with because you get to meet so many amazing entrepreneurs. Personally, as someone who is focused on innovating the future and solving our big problems by disrupting the old solutions, just being part of that network really opens my mind. It helps me see where the world’s going, what can be done, what the big challenges are. So even if you’re not investing in many companies being part of that community is super exciting.

What do you invest in? Apart from your own start-ups, what other high growth tech industries?

It’s about how we imagine the future. I’m really interested in companies that can have a radical, positive impact in the world. So for example, if someone said to me, “we want to set up an amazing coffee shop.” It might be a good idea, but as it’s probably not something that is going to radically change the world it’s not for me.

If you think about what we’re doing at Prevayl, actually helping people, making positive actions and positive changes in their life, that’s what inspires me. It’s a massive area, especially around mental health and COVID. You can see that wellbeing picture deteriorating, so we can step up to that challenge and help people understand their mental health, their stress levels and be in a position to help improve it. Rather than people soldiering on as their mental health deteriorates, Prevayl can intervene and suggest people pull back from it.

So, for me, it’s about investing in big ideas. They tend to come with big risks, but also big rewards and I find that exciting.

Are investors looking for Scalability or for Exclusivity, or for scalable exclusivity if that’s not an oxymoron?

As I said before angel investors or venture capitalists invest for different reasons. I don’t think everyone’s got the same playbook. What’s interesting is when you meet venture capitalists or angel investors, figuring out what it is they actually like to invest is super important because it might be that you’re just not in their kind window to invest. Many funds now have very specific targets, for instance green energy, or re-imagining financial services or healthcare.

Individual investors you most admire and why?

For me, it’s not about an actual individual but more about a type of investor. I really admire entrepreneurs that have built, then sold, amazing businesses, and then they go and radically invest in startups. They’re different from the people running most venture capital companies, who are typically professional investors who can be too much about the PowerPoint and the spreadsheet. But entrepreneur investors are more action oriented and want to build the future. So they tend to look at how inspiring the people are in the business, how big their idea is, what the opportunity to make an impact is, and how they can change the future for the better. And this makes them more open to taking risks, in my view, which can yield better rewards in all kinds of ways.

Is machine learning a force for the common good or a giant monitoring Machine?

I think machine learning has such an unbelievable opportunity to help humanity. Computers can make decisions way faster than we can, they can come to conclusions that we humans are reaching the limit of being able to do at the same speed. So we have to really harness the power of computing to crunch mass data points and actually bring them together to give us data that can help us automate positive choices. It’s a huge opportunity.

Take healthcare startups, for example. They’re seeking to answer how we get these health data points from people and use them to predict the sorts of illnesses and diseases they get. And then work with healthcare pros to develop interventions. With this information, at scale, we can then give people all kinds of better lifestyle choices. On the one hand you can extend life and on the other make society better able to afford its globally aging population. So therefore machine learning can massively help with the likes of healthcare, globally. It’s incredibly exciting.

You’re quite right to point out there is a flip side to this or even a dark side. Governments are grappling with the legislation of how data companies manage data. The EU is actually quite interesting because they do try and take a lead on kind of data policies and security policies, above and beyond other governments.

But it’s a really difficult one. Companies have to be incentivised to work on this and to invest in this. But they to be regulated. We need to harness it yet equally, we need to have the right legislation and governance in place to make sure we do it correctly. So there’s a balance we need to get right.

In the absence of regulation, how do we avoid becoming the product? Is it even possible to do so in the 21st century?

I said before that, some tech companies consider people users, not consumers or customers. To them users are the products. So, that has already happened.

What’s really interesting now is that governments are recognising this and you see them scrambling to impose regulations. Some of this is motivated by big geopolitical moves, with Europe possibly taxing US tech companies and putting more onerous policies in place.

But Britain is at a crossroads. With Brexit, it can reign in big tech companies like the EU, or it can opt to go the US route of being less regulated. Regardless, we’ve already gone past the point of no return. What we’re really talking about now is how we can kind of put safeguards in place retrospectively.

But if you think the data points that make people the product are large in Europe and America, they’re miniscule compared to China. They are way bigger there for two big reasons. One, consumers love technology. So they’re happy to have more and more tech products in their life and are connected more than here. Two, the government uses more surveillance capabilities than anywhere else in the world by a huge margin. Add all that together, it’s a lot of data points.

But in China, citizens just accept that and go, okay, well, there’s a net positive to it. That’s how they think about it.

In Europe, we’re far more circumspect, and in some cases suspicious. As a result, we have far fewer data points in comparison. So it’s really something interesting to watch out for.