From selling cars, to building rockets

Episode introduction

Episode Transcript

Josh Clemente: And as I’m in the shower I’m just like, this is it. I just have to provide that system, better accessibility to these devices. To people like myself who may not know but want to try to do things better. And I’ll just start doing this. This could be a game changer.

Ben Grynol: I’m Ben Grynol, part of the early start up team here at Levels. We’re building tech that helps people to understand their metabolic health, and this is your front row seat to everything we do. This is A Whole New Level.

Ben Grynol: The path to building anything isn’t fast. Something you often hear about, the overnight success that actually took 10 years. And although Levels is early in its journey, it’s very much the case where there was exploration for years before Levels became what it currently is.

Ben Grynol: Josh Clemente, founder of Levels… A few years ago, he started digging into his own metabolic health. Getting data, getting feedback, getting insights from a continuous glucose monitor and really recording that information in a spreadsheet. Something as simple as that so that he could understand his own metabolic health. And when he realized what it unlocked, all the insight, all the changes in behavior that it made for him, he thought the only way to do this is to actually bring this to the world. To let other people know about the benefits that he was realizing. So over the course of a couple years he explored the space. He tried to bring the technology to market. And it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fast, but it’s something that he was passionate about.

Ben Grynol: And so this is the story of how Levels came to be. Didn’t start out that way and we still have a long way to go in the path that we’re on. But the goal is to help as many people as possible in the world. Impact a billion people through what we’re doing. The goal is to create a movement for Levels. A community. One in which people can connect with each other. One in which we’re invested in and our members are invested in. And in this episode, the first episode of this podcast, we’re going to hear more about how Josh brought this technology to the world and how Levels came to be.

Ben Grynol: So let’s dive into this, man. We’re going to go way, way back. Walk me through… You’re in grade 12 right now. So you’re in high school.

Josh Clemente: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Ben Grynol: Take me there, what’s going on?

Josh Clemente: So, it’s funny, I was actually home schooled all the way through grade 12. So my mom was my teacher, I didn’t step foot into a classroom meaningfully until college which… Well actually given that this was grade 12, I started to do some community college classes that year. So I was driving up to northern Virginia and taking just a couple core style classes to get familiar with what it’s going to be like when I go to college.

Josh Clemente: And these classes were mostly math, I was on the track to start an engineering degree in my freshman year of college. And so I wanted to make sure that I had the college level introduction math work out of the way. And yeah that was my initial introduction to the college world and classwork and having somebody teach me that was not my mom. As funny as that sounds.

Josh Clemente: But the reality of it is I actually did not really have a teacher for most of my coursework growing up because my mom… I’m actually one of nine kids, and so my mom, she home schooled all of us all the way through grade 12. And so by the time you’ve got multiple kids that are at different grade levels you’ve got to focus on the youngest ones so that they’re grokking the most important stuff. And you got to teach the older ones to teach themselves.

Josh Clemente: And so that was kind of how I did things. I just used the textbook and dug in, read what I could, skimmed it. And then I would usually start at the problem set. And so I’d go to the problems at the end of the chapter and start reverse engineering them, try to figure out based on right answers what the concepts were. And I would just do that a bunch of times. And that was kind of my approach to learning all the way through college, was using the textbook. Not so much relying on in class lectures, more so on the principles that I can do on my own time.

Ben Grynol: And so are you… Where do you fall in the pack of your siblings?

Josh Clemente: I am the second oldest. I have six sisters, tow brothers. I’m the oldest boy and the second overall.

Ben Grynol: And so you’re doing this, you’re being schooled but you’re… I’m assuming you’re almost like the teacher too, in a way.

Josh Clemente: Yeah, I mean in a sense. My mom definitely relied on us to help out here and there. But she did a pretty unbelievable job just keeping people moving. So I really didn’t spend too much time… I mean I was definitely babysitting and holding down the fort pretty often given that I’m home anyway. But beyond that, most of us were taught to do things independently when it came to coursework and then my mom would… She’d have grading sessions with each of us, so she’d go through everything that we had done that week. Make sure we’re on track, make sure we understand the concepts.

Josh Clemente: Some of us did better than others. There was definitely a fair bit of exploitation of the rules.

Ben Grynol: And siblings.

Josh Clemente: [crosstalk 00:05:55] Oh yeah and siblings, no doubt.

Ben Grynol: And so then you finish, you’re 17, 18 at the time?

Josh Clemente: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Ben Grynol: And well I guess you went to university a little bit earlier, community college. But you decide to go into engineering, and how did that come about?

Josh Clemente: So when I was in high school I had not really ever given thought to a career. My dad… He’s the type of guy, he’s done several different things. And he started out as a master home builder, so he had a construction company. He built houses and apartment complexes in California. He was a carpenter. And then he became a police officer when I was in high school, he was at that point in the FBI and became a SWAT team leader and was doing a lot of international travel for narcotics and weapons of mass destruction. And obviously the early 2000s were fairly crazy for a variety of reasons. But he spent a good chunk of that decade traveling and in the Middle East.

Josh Clemente: And so I kind of learned from him that careers are not something you necessarily have to commit to forever. It’s something that he showed that you can basically do anything you want, as long as you’re willing to put in the work. And so I hadn’t really given much thought to it, I was just like I’ll figure it out.

Josh Clemente: And the one thing that was consistent was I loved machines. I was utterly obsessed with cars and motorcycles and four wheelers, like throughout my teenage years. And had them wallpapered all over the place. And spent tons of hours just researching both projects that I could do and then the pinnacle of automotive engineering. And I actually became pretty obsessed with Tesla in the pre-college days. I thought that electric cars were the coolest thing ever, and so it became clear to me that the only thing I actually care about is these machines. And if I ever wanted to work with those, I would have to be an engineer. So it was basically that was the transition, was just I like building stuff, I particularly like cars and motorcycles. And automotive engineering is the way to get into that.

Josh Clemente: So it was kind of a no brainer. I mean I don’t even remember the moment when I was decided that engineering was what I was going to pursue, it was just at some point it became obvious that I had to submit an application. And I just obviously applied for engineering because there was no second choice. So yeah it’s kind of funny to think back on it. I really don’t remember even talking to my parents about it, it was just like, yeah that’s what I got to do.

Ben Grynol: You decided in your own mind, you’re like well if I want to be a builder… In fact you want to be able to build things officially where people don’t think I’m some crazy person that’s not credible, I need the degree, I need the ticket. And you go to university, you go through engineering. And then what happened after that?

Josh Clemente: So my engineering program was not one of the better ones. And I was very familiar… I was very aware of that, it was a small school. I got a decent scholarship there, which is one of the main reasons I went. But I was pretty aware that the job market was going to be intense and I needed to do something before graduation to set myself apart if I ever wanted to get into a place like Tesla. And so senior year, for most engineering schools you have to do a large milestone project. Kind of varies depending on the program but this is typically called a senior design program or a thesis. And for mine it was only supposed to be analytical. So you had to come up with a concept, design it out with your team, perform all the analysis. Essentially do anything necessary to prove out the concept on paper.

Josh Clemente: And I just decided that that wasn’t interesting or impressive enough to… This was going to be my masterpiece, this was what I was going to rely on to get me a job. And I just did not feel that a piece of paper or a slideshow was going to get that across the finish line. So I actually decided to build the concept that we had specced out, which was a… it’s basically this four wheel steering, tube frame dune buggy type thing. And the concept was that Hurricane Katrina had recently happened, and there was all this debris and rubble and ambulances were having a hard time getting through these tight and fairly debris strewn roads to get to people who needed to be evacuated. And so the idea was that this all terrain vehicle with four wheel steering would be able to navigate very tight spaces and it would be able to crawl over all this stuff and get in there and get a few stretchers out.

Josh Clemente: So we specced it out, we designed it. The school wouldn’t give us any money to build it. And so my roommate and I basically financed and spent 40 extra hours a week, every week, in the shop building it. And initially our teachers told us this is crazy you don’t need to be doing this. We’re not even going to grade it, we don’t care what you build. Ultimately what matters is whether or not you finish the project.

Josh Clemente: And so we did it anyway. And it ended up winning the overall project award for the engineering school that year, and I was able to take that same presentation and apply to all of my dream jobs. So I applied to Tesla, I applied to several defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing. Kind of the big names that I knew at the time. And I was applying for basically roles on cars and fighter jets. I never thought I had anything in me beyond that. And I actually got a job offer at Tesla. And that was… it was basically an internship. But it was at the design studio, which was at the time in Michigan. And so I was super stoked about this, I was getting ready to go, finishing up my summer job and I was going to go take this internship.

Josh Clemente: Actually I need to back up, I hadn’t yet graduated. So I got this internship, it was going to be over the summer between my senior year semesters. And so I was really amped up for this. And what actually ended up happening is that Tesla got a big loan, or they got some financing, and they ended up shutting down that design office in Michigan and moving it out to Fremont, California. And what they said… I think what happened is because the design offices had no location they didn’t have a job for me. And so that was totally devastating, but the recruiter said, “You should just apply to SpaceX.” And… “They’re our sister company, they’re looking for engineers. Maybe you can go there and then pop over here when we have a job again.”

Josh Clemente: And I had never considered aerospace because I honestly didn’t think I had what it took. And I assumed that aerospace was for people who had gone to space camp and graduated MIT and were the top 1%. So I took him at his suggestion, I applied. And ultimately I got the callback. And it’s funny I was… in the interim I was turning down jobs, other engineering jobs, because I was like I only really want to work at an Elon company at this point. And I remember I got a callback from Lockheed Martin to go work on the F22 program and I was just like I’m not doing it, I can’t go take a government job when this opportunity is still out there potentially. And so I turned down that job and instead I sold cars, I CarMaxed for the summer.

Josh Clemente: And I remember eventually the call came through from SpaceX, and I used that same project that we had built senior year as my presentation. And that was what it took. It demonstrated that I can take theory and actually build something. That’s what SpaceX needed, they didn’t need the MIT crowd necessarily, they just needed people who could come in and knew how to weld, knew how to actually not just design but also build and test. And so yeah, ultimately I got the job on the spot. And started I think that same week. I flew out to California, interviewed, and was working four days later.

Ben Grynol: And so what year is this, when this is happening?

Josh Clemente: That was August 2010, is when I started at SpaceX.

Ben Grynol: Yeah that’s what I was thinking. So you’re at this time, you finish up college. You’re in Virginia at this time.

Josh Clemente: That’s right.

Ben Grynol: And you’re like the small town guy in your mind, right? You’re just some person from Virginia that’s like I’m dreaming of taking the leap. Going to… Well at the time it was, “I’m going to go to Michigan.” And so when Tesla moved to Fremont it’s because they bought NUMMI, which was that old GM factory. I think that’s where they are right now.

Josh Clemente: Yeah that’s right.

Ben Grynol: So… Yeah that was like the 2010 era. And when the Michigan factory closed, what were you feeling? What were you thinking, right? Because it’s like everything you’ve dreamed of and then next thing you know it’s like, go build a rocket.

Josh Clemente: I think I was supposed to start at Tesla, I was supposed to do an internship in my senior year and then I was going to hopefully get the full-time job. And I remember there was a lot of murmuring that Tesla was actually going to go under. That they were bankrupt, it wasn’t going to happen. And it was kind of bittersweet, because what happened is they got this massive loan from the Department of Energy. I think it was the winter of 2009, so it was December 2009, the company was going to shut down. I had this internship but I’m reading all this devastating news that they weren’t even going to be around. And then the loan came through and I was super stoked, I’m like this is amazing, everything’s going to be great. I’m going to go walk into an even better station than I had imagined. But then they say, “Oh because of this loan we have this…” I think they were relocating to NUMMI. And so they had this new opportunity, they were going to… “It’s going to be great, but unfortunately you can’t come work with us.” And that was… “Or at least not now, you can reapply when we have anther slot.”

Josh Clemente: And so that was just crushing. I can remember that pretty vividly, finding that out. And then the recommendation to go to SpaceX, I didn’t really know much about SpaceX because I had this obsession with cars. And even though I knew Elon was doing this side project, it was much more under the radar. Again like I said, I just didn’t consider myself to be aerospace material at the time. The idea was sort of a reach in my mind.

Josh Clemente: And so when I did apply I started to just obsessively catch up on what SpaceX had accomplished. They were doing some amazing stuff out in Kwajalein, so they were on these islands in the Pacific Ocean launching small rockets and they had actually not made it to orbit at this time. So they hadn’t… They were not a successful space flight company yet.

Josh Clemente: And so they’re basically bootstrapping an orbital rocket on this tiny little island where people are essentially commuting to it by boat or by helicopter, airplane. And it’s outrageously corrosive. They’re failing to get to orbit, three rockets had blown up. It sounded like this insane novel. And it was really exciting, the more I read about it the more obsessed I became with this team and the underdog mentality they were taking.

Josh Clemente: So they… Just before I got the job they made it to orbit. And then they made it to orbit with their larger rocket the Falcon 9 shortly thereafter. And so I was… At that point I was so convinced that this company was going to be just like none other that I had decided to just pass up on all opportunities and either get into Tesla or get into SpaceX. There was no alternative I was gunna make it happen. So…

Ben Grynol: You were burning… What’s that saying? Burning the boats? Pulling up on shore and burning the boats?

Josh Clemente: Burning the boats.

Ben Grynol: Yeah.

Josh Clemente: And I was raving about it to all my friends, and sounded kind of crazy because I was actually working at CarMax making something like $12 an hour selling minivans. But it was… I learned a lot at CarMax too just about… It was a sales job. And I spent the summer after graduating, I had this engineering degree. My parents wanted me to get out of the house and go start my life. And I was like, “Just give me a few months, I got to get the job I want otherwise I’m going to go crazy.” And so it was a good opportunity to learn something new. I mean I had to sell used cars, and that’s actually pretty tough I think to just get in the mindset to do so. I loved it actually, because I got to drive the cars too. And it was fairly short lived. It got me my three months of income while I waited for the call that did come.

Ben Grynol: Yeah. Plus I mean doing something like that, you have no choice but to build a lot of trust and empathy. Right? You’re not… You’re selling a product that is already inherently hard to sell when it’s new because of the stigma that comes with car sales people. But then take the used approach, it’s like that… That alone I can imagine has its own endeavor.

Ben Grynol: So to get back for a second, the funny thing about SpaceX is… You said it was a side project, which it was. That’s how it started out. And you were looking at SpaceX before anyone even really was thinking about it. Right? It was sort of like you were either in that world or you weren’t. But it wasn’t a household name the way it is now because of exactly what you said. Right now it’s this mecca that people aim to go be a part of because of what it is, what it stands for, and really the impact. Right? It seemed like some wild dream of a project and now it’s come to fruition where it’s like, no this is happening. There are rockets that are going into the sky and landing back on this earth. That is really hard to wrap one’s mind around.

Josh Clemente: Yeah I mean it was nothing like that at the time, that’s for sure. So it was… The goal was just to catch up to mainstream aerospace, to be able to build a rocket that puts something in orbit and falls back and disintegrates in the atmosphere and you build another one.

Josh Clemente: So that was the dream at the time, was just to be a part of that underdog story. And looking back on it now, or looking at SpaceX now, I mean it’s a very different beast. It’s like you’re saying to me, it’s paradigm shifting. The technology that’s being developed there, both the reusable rockets but also the star ship. Like heavy lift capability and then star languages, kind of provide broadband connectivity for potentially the entire globe. So just a lot of secondary effects I think from… or just outcomes that couldn’t have been predicted from my vantage point back then. I had no idea that it was going to go that direction, I don’t think anyone really did. So I’m just obviously very grateful to have had that recommendation from that recruiter Erin.

Ben Grynol: Thank you Erin. So you then worked at SpaceX for… What was it, six years I think?

Josh Clemente: Yeah so I was there until 2016. I started in 2010 and it was… Yeah I was employee 678 I think. And by the time I left there was over 7000. And I stated out doing manufacturing work, so I was a manufacturing engineer. Basically I would take a design and get it scaled for production, get it built onto… integrated into the spacecraft or the rocket. So the spacecraft was Dragon and the rocket was Falcon 9.

Josh Clemente: I was just working on a variety of projects, there would be some mechanism… the exterior structure that supports the fuel tanks for the spacecraft was one of my projects. This composite carbon fiber cap that sits on the top of the spacecraft and prevents it from… Well it eliminates aerodynamic forces and heating or protects the rocket or the vehicle from them during assent.

Josh Clemente: A whole number of similar scattered projects that I was responsible for getting up to production scale. And so I did that for several years. And then I moved into a role called a Responsible Engineer, which is basically the design side. Design analysis and all the way through to flight. So you, it’s sort of… You can kind of think of them as project managers, or product managers maybe. So you take a blank sheet idea and make sure that ultimately that idea solves the design objectives and flies.

Josh Clemente: And so I did that for basically the rest of my time at SpaceX, but moved from structural systems into thermodynamic systems. So pneumatics, pressurized gases, pressurized fluids. Systems that are mechanized and typically move, detach at some stage of flight. And then ultimately I spent the last two or three years doing life support systems designs. So similar pneumatics and thermodynamics, but breathing apparatus primarily. So developing really the first life supporting systems at SpaceX. I think I was the fourth person to go into life support team.

Josh Clemente: We first developed a platform that would send mice up. And so that project, I think we sent 60 something, 60 mice on the first flight. And it was basically a test bed to see if our carbon dioxide scrubbers, our oxygen injection systems, our fire suppression if necessary, all of these systems, see if they function, see if they kept the mice in the livable regime inside the vehicle.

Josh Clemente: And then from there ultimately was promoted up to run the pressurized life support systems team. So that was the group that was developing all of the same apparati, so everything from the breathing apparatus to the system that controls the cabin pressure. So when you’re in the vacuum of space there’s no air pressure outside the vehicle, but the inside has to be at 14.8psi, the same that it is at sea level. And so there’s a whole complex valve mechanism and pressurization system associated with that. Fire suppression, the systems that connect to the space suits to continually purge air through them to keep the astronauts cool. All that stuff. And that’s what I did up until my final days there.

Ben Grynol: And so what were your… Because that doesn’t sound like it’s a ton of responsibility either.

Josh Clemente: No, no.

Ben Grynol: No big deal. But so you talk about your final days. What was the catalyst for moving on?

Josh Clemente: Well it’s interesting. The environment was extremely stressful all the time. And in some ways you really get addicted to it. Everyone’s in it together, everyone’s at the same point in their career. Or at that time we were all similarly along our trajectory. And we kind of all got into this almost race to the bottom, in terms of the way we were living our lives. We were spending every hour at work. We were eating all of our meals there. We were sleeping there. And we also were constantly… The environment was extremely entrepreneurial. So there were two factors involved at once.

Josh Clemente: One was this draining very stressful experience where you’re not entirely sure how on you can physically maintain the rate that you’re trying to execute at. And in the other is, you’ve been exposed to a really amazing success story. You’ve been a part of it. And you kind of… Some of us just have this entrepreneurial thing inside of us that you just want to go and do it yourself. You want to try to do something similar somewhere else. And so I spent just a huge number of hours with my friends, we’d be working and just talking about what else we could do. What could we build? What could we start? And I finally got the point where felt I was… I got through the critical design reviews, my team did. They were doing all the hard work at that point. But we finished up the design package for that life support program and had gotten through a ton of acceptance tasks and qualification tasks for all of the components that were being designed and developed. And it was just a big moment. And that was the final approval by NASA to proceed and essentially build these systems and start to integrate them into the vehicle for flight.

Josh Clemente: And that was a huge moment. Design was locked down, it was done. Now you build it and fly it. And I kind of decided, you know what, it’s going to be a few more years until this system flies. And I can stay here, I can keep hacking it and I think I’ll do really well. Or I can go out and see if I can really cut it as an entrepreneur and do this thing that’s just been in the back of my mind forever. I didn’t really have any start up idea, I just kind of felt that if I don’t separate myself from the essentially all encompassing SpaceX environment I won’t ever give myself the time to come up with the idea to seize on what I want to do.

Josh Clemente: And I just wanted to be sure that I gave it a shot. I wanted to take some time off, try something different. Different work life balance experience. Just see what it’s like, see if I come up with something that I wanted to pursue. And honestly in the back of my mind it was always if I don’t, if this fails I’ll just come back here. Because I know that I love this and I could definitely do it for longer. So it was interesting, it was just a very bittersweet moment where my responsibilities that could be handed off at that point and it was just a good inflection time. I had to either leave then or stay several more years.

Ben Grynol: And so then you decided to leave, but you didn’t go do something right away I don’t think. Right?

Josh Clemente: So actually for a few months I did, I… Well I took three months off and I traveled all over the place. So I went actually around the world. I went west to east, and headed out to Indonesia, Singapore, I spent some time in Europe. And then came back. And during that trip I started brainstorming this concept that my dad had. He was in the FBI, he was on the SWAT teams. He designed a very early… He’s very mechanical guy and he designed a concept that could help essentially people, rescue teams or SWAT teams get into second, third, fourth story windows, into airplanes that are on the ground. Into elevated situations quickly and effectively without exposing themselves to the danger. And this design, it’s called an Elevated Tactic System. He patented it in the ’90s and it was a very… It was a pretty basic design but it was really successful. And he wanted to revisit this project and essentially produce the evolutionary design for it.

Josh Clemente: So I spent some time right after SpaceX… Essentially I was going to go straight into this and start a company and try and get some funding. But there was no real design and in order to get some traction it was clear that there needed to be a little more groundwork. So I spent some time designing, just in CAD, starting to put together an idea for what this design could be. But I decided that I was going… Rather than just do this full time, which could take up to a year, I was going to take this other opportunity which promised much better work life balance but would help pay the bills, which was Hyperloop.

Josh Clemente: And so my good friend was over there, he and I had worked together at SpaceX. And Hyperloop was essentially a space vehicle inside of a tube which is actually a train. So you take a tube, connect two points hundreds of miles apart, pull all the air out of it, and you put this little levitating pod in there. And it uses magnetic levitation similar to the trains in Asia. And because there’s no air in the tube it has very little aerodynamic resistance and it’s extremely power efficient, energy efficient. And so I decided to go take my space craft development expertise and use it at Hyperloop, and on the side I was going to moonlight and do this elevated tactic system design.

Josh Clemente: And that is ultimately what I did. I spent a year there and it was a really interesting experience. I got some more exposure to the world of business and start ups. And it was a very well capitalized company, definitely had some unique experiences there. It was not like SpaceX. But we did some cool stuff. And at the same time I was able to get a design cranked out which I then left Hyperloop to go pursue full time after that.

Ben Grynol: So this is like you did it independently but your pops was the one who had conceptualized this thing. And you’re like, “Hey I’m going to go build this.”

Josh Clemente: Yeah so my dad, he was involved. He started a company with one of his old business partners, and they… Like I said he patented one way back, but it was like the garage version of it. I mean it was really an awesome design when you look at it now, really well conceived of. But it wasn’t optimized. And so what he wanted was to achieve a much better set of capabilities, and it needed professional engineering to get there.

Josh Clemente: And so yeah, so I designed that system. There’s a patent pending on it, which maybe at some point will come through. But it’s a very weight optimized design. So you can get 10 people with body armor into and out of a 28 foot elevation point of interest in seconds. And it can mount on top of an armored vehicle. And so this allows you to very quickly and without exposing yourself by say climbing a ladder, get a whole team up to a point. And whether it’s for hostage rescue or anything similar, it can be done in a much more tactically efficient and effective way.

Josh Clemente: And so yeah that was a really cool project, it’s actually still ongoing. There are some international contracts for it, and my dad is doing that as one of his many careers.

Ben Grynol: So you did this and then was the goal to raise money around it? Like how are you thinking about… like the actual go to market for it?

Josh Clemente: Because there was already a bit of awareness that these types of things are out there, the design that my dad produced back in the ’90s was bought by the French special forces. And so he felt, based on his contacts, his Rolodex, that he could easily find customers. But it was more a matter of just building a prototype. So his business partner ended up actually bankrolling that prototype which we used pretty effectively, we shipped it to a few conventions. One’s called Milipol, it’s the largest defense convention in… probably in the world but certainly in Europe. And so we unveiled this project in 2017 in Milipol in Paris, and ended upsetting quite a few bites that ultimately started to… I think several of those have turned into pending contracts.

Josh Clemente: And so it was really cool, because rather than having to raise a large sum of money you can demonstrate a prototype that meets certain requirements and then get a letter of intent, and then get essentially advanced payment for the contract terms and proceed into production. So that was the business plan there.

Ben Grynol: And so you do this and things are going forward. And then what were you thinking as far as your next move? Like you stayed at Hyperloop for a little bit and what were those next steps? Like you’re trickling along in this journey to what we’ll get to in a bit, which is where we are now. Current days, Levels. But what did that look like?

Josh Clemente: Yeah so by the time I was working on that Elevated Tactics project I already had… my ideas were percolating. And it was due to-

Ben Grynol: Idea being Levels, you were saying.

Josh Clemente: That’s right. The Levels idea was percolating. And the way it played out was while I was at SpaceX I read a pretty fascinating paper… actually there were several of them from Dominic D’agostino. And he’s a researcher, a ketogenic researcher in the University of South Florida. And so I was designing an oxygen breathing system. And this would never happen on the SpaceX vehicle, but I was thinking about worse case scenarios where you have a high pressure, high oxygen environment. Which is dangerous because it’s flammable, but it’s also dangerous because it can cause a central nervous system toxicity where basically the reactivity of having all that oxygen present causes seizures and potentially death. And so I was just thinking about this failure mode, and I read this paper from Dom which talks about the scenario, it was… I think specifically being targeted towards divers who could also see this happen.

Josh Clemente: But the paper touches on how when in a ketogenic state these rodents… These were mice or rats I think the study was done on, but when it in a ketogenic state meaning their bodies are primarily running on ketones, which are a form of fat, they can live five times longer in these high oxygen high pressure environments without central nervous system toxicity. Or without seizure. And that study totally stunned me, because it seemed impossible. And there were a few follow ons that were done to show that effect as replicable. And the reason it stunned me was because I had never believed that nutrition or that dietary factors had made any difference in organisms. My understanding was that every calorie is the same. A calorie is a unit of energy, and the food you eat has some number of units of energy in it. And no matter where that energy comes from it’s all the same.

Josh Clemente: And this was the first time that I’d seen something that said, actually just a simple change in where those units of energy are coming from completely changes the physiologic nature of this creature. It is no longer responding to its environment the same way, and in fact it has these super powers now. And of course the study wasn’t in humans but it got my wheels turning, I started thinking, that’s pretty unbelievable. I would like to make sure that I’m optimizing myself for super powers if that’s possible just by eating the right foods.

Josh Clemente: And so I was at SpaceX at the time, I was…I can… I have many pictures of me sleeping under my desk because I’m pulling 50, 60 hour stints at the office. And I was very much burning the candle at all ends at the time. Eating whenever I could, sleeping whenever I could. Working out as often as possible and as hard as possible. And so I was just in this really elevated state of stress and I was not feeling healthy. Like I… This really played into my decision I think ultimately to leave SpaceX, was just I felt so overwhelmingly fatigued all the time, mentally and physically. Like my family refers back to that time and apparently I was just a different person. Just my mental faculties were so focused on my work and I was just not… My personality had changed, I was not… I didn’t have my sense of humor, I just was very I think mood effected by what I was going through.

Josh Clemente: And I also just felt horribly unhealthy despite being physically fit. So all of this stuff is happening, I’m reading this paper which blows me away. And that got the wheels turning, like maybe I’m doing something totally wrong. I had at the time asked my doctor, I basically walked into the office and said I have a terminal illness, please help me find out what it is because something’s totally off.

Ben Grynol: Cognitively you felt off? Physically you’re trying your hardest to work out, and-

Josh Clemente: Yeah.

Ben Grynol: You’ve convinced yourself at this point that something is not right?

Josh Clemente: That’s right. Yeah and so I basically told my doctor, “Something’s got to be wrong. Can you help me figure this out?” And so around that same time I read the study. And my doctor had taken a bunch of blood, blood work, and everything came back… I think the one recommendation was your vitamin D levels are low so you should get more sunlight if possible. Which wasn’t surprising, because I was indoors literally 23 hours of every day. And the one hour I was outside it was dark.

Ben Grynol: And sleeping under your desk.

Josh Clemente: Exactly. And so that experience got me thinking a lot about the other elements of health besides physical fitness. And so anyway I moved onto Hyperloop. And the entire time I was at Hyperloop I was designing that system, that side project. But I was actually more interested in reading papers on human physiology metabolism. And it became sort of this side thing and I just started to get fascinated by it. Which was very interesting because I never… I loved chemistry growing up, but I wasn’t much of a biology person.

Josh Clemente: And I think the reason was it was very detached. I was reading about single celled organisms and stuff. But reading about how the human body works was this really fascinating thing, and so I threw myself into it. And I started experimenting while I was at Hyperloop with… I mean I actually started this at SpaceX but it continued through Hyperloop. It was about a year that I was pricking my finger to measure blood sugar and I was getting continuous blood work from my doctor. And I didn’t really have much figured out. I wanted to try a ketogenic diet, I wanted to try a vegan diet. I wanted to try basically every diet out there and find the right one for me and make sure that I was basing that decision in objective data.

Josh Clemente: So that was happening while I was at Hyperloop. And then sometime late 2017, around the time that we bought the tactic system out to Milipol I read a book called Wired to Eat that had just come out from Rob Wolf. And that book talked about eating for a balanced blood sugar. And so I had already been pricking my finger with a blood glucometer based on just reading something or a friend recommending it but I hadn’t figured… Nothing had come to light, it was just a bunch of points of data that were scattered. They were not informative.

Josh Clemente: But I read this Wired to Eat book, and the idea is that you design a diet based on your blood sugar. And in the back of the book there’s this mention of a continuous glucose monitor that you wear all the time and it gives you a full time data stream. And I was like oh man that would be awesome. My fingers are black and blue from this pricking thing I’m doing. And so I think I called the next day called my doctor, set up an appointment and asked if I could get a prescription for a CGM. And I was totally shocked when he flat out denied me. It was just like, “Definitely not, that’s kind of ridiculous to even ask for. It’s for people who have an advanced condition of diabetes. Honestly you’re concerned about something that does not even need to be measured until you’re sick. Until you have this condition. And not only until you have it but until it’s really bad. Until it’s poorly managed.”

Josh Clemente: And I left that appointment very surprised and frustrated that… For two reasons. Firstly it made no sense to wait until a system is totally broken to start tracking the metric that defines it, that defines the illness. And that just did not make any sense to me. And second, why was I being prevented from getting access to my own body’s data? Now I understand the patient physician relationship, I understand and embrace the healthcare system and healthcare workers and doctors. I think it’s really important that the expertise exists and helps people navigate sickness.

Josh Clemente: But it is confusing to me that something along the lines of a CGM, which is just telling me what’s happening in my body would be, A would have this gatekeeper situation where I’d have to ask for it. And B, where I’m not the one giving access to the data. It seemed to me that I should be the one saying you can look at my blood sugar data as opposed to this person saying I cannot look at my blood sugar data. So that appointment experience kind of triggered something in me, and I started to look into the healthcare side of things. How rampant is blood sugar dysfunction? Is this something that more people should be worried about?

Josh Clemente: And that unearthed this huge can of worms where I started to realize that this is actually a really huge problem, and diabetes is nowhere near as rare as I would have believed based on the appointment with my doctor. And so I became increasingly interested in getting my hands on a CGM. And ultimately I did get one from a friend of mine who had… He had gone to Australia and bought some back in his backpack, because they’re over the counter there.

Ben Grynol: Gray market.

Josh Clemente: Gray market situation, yeah. I mean I had tried everything. I was looking on eBay. They were… Every once in a while they’d be listed on eBay, I would try and buy them and then it would not come with a reader or something and I wouldn’t be able to… It wouldn’t be useful. I was trying for several months, better part of a year really, to get a CGM.

Josh Clemente: And so it was like early… I think it was early 2018, like January or something. I got a CGM. I put it on. And at this time I was still struggling with a bunch of fatigue issues. I was working a much lower stress job, I was definitely doing multiple things at once. I was spending my extra hours designing the side project. But I expected that I would have felt better and I was not. I basically needed to take a nap every day. I had at least, and this is no joke, 10 cups of coffee per day. This is on a Mr Coffee.

Ben Grynol: [crosstalk 00:44:07]

Josh Clemente: So I was drinking a full pot of coffee ever single day essentially. And so I was just not feeling good at all. And I got the CGM, and all of a sudden a light bulb clicked week one.

Josh Clemente: So I had been experimenting with diets. This was… I was actually trying a vegan diet at the time, and as a total noob to the vegan diet I assumed that what I was eating was very healthy. So it was brown rice, it was vegetables, it was sweet potatoes, bananas. A lot of very healthy foods. Avocado, quinoa. It hadn’t made a difference in my feeling of fatigue. And I put this device on and I saw that every single meal I was eating I was spending several hours, and in some cases upwards of three hours, in the pre-diabetic blood sugar zone. Often times in the diabetic blood sugar zone.

Josh Clemente: And there was a not a single meal decision I made for the first two weeks that was different. So every single thing I was eating was causing just total blood sugar disruption. And I’d be able to connect these crazy highs and then this reactive crash that would come multiple hours later to my feelings of facial… Like I would get this flushness in my face, my hands would get tingly. And then a few hours later I’d be crashing, I’d be… That’s when I would want that nap. I’d be getting more coffee. And I’m seeing this pattern almost instantly.

Josh Clemente: And so within that first two weeks I had enough pre-existing knowledge of the ranges, the concerns and the statistics around pre-diabetes, the ranges that are associated with them. I knew pretty quickly this is a problem. I ended up talking to my doctor about it. He was pretty surprised but essentially was skeptical. Was saying, “Yeah you might be borderline pre-diabetic, but you know honestly you just need to…” Something along the lines of you need to just eat better and work out more. And at the time I’m a cross fit trainer, I’m working out every day, I’m eating a vegan diet of all home cooked meals. That was clearly not cutting it.

Josh Clemente: And so it was that early January, February timeframe. I had just used the CGM. And the moment that it kind of all came together, this is going to sound lame, but I was actually in the shower and I was just like… I sort of envisioned what the ultimate experience would be for me. What I needed to make better decisions. And it was this system, the CGM. But the form factor was terrible. I had to use this third party device that I carried around in my pocket. It didn’t connect to my phone at the time. The device was monochromatic. I couldn’t zoom in on the data. I was tracking what I was eating in this separate Excel spreadsheet. Everything was a mess, but what I needed was just one central place where I could track my blood sugar, how is it effected by these decisions, and make iterative improvements. Close the loop between everything I was doing and the way it was causing me to respond.

Josh Clemente: And so I’m in the shower and I’m just like, this is it. I just have to provide that system, better accessibility to these devices to people like myself who may not know but want to try to do things better. And I’ll just start doing this. This could be a game changer, it’s exactly what I need. I am in example of all of these people that I’m reading about that are out there, they have no idea what to do. This could be a really interesting project.

Josh Clemente: And I was like I’ll call it Maple Biometrics. And that was a play on words, because Maple being maple syrup. It’s like this sweet substance in the tree. I was like this is tracking the sweet substance in our blood. So this is kind of silly idea, but I got out of the shower, told my girlfriend I’m starting this company it’s called Maple Biometrics. I’m incorporating it right now. I actually sat down and filed an LLC ten minutes later. And started putting pen to appear on what a business plan could look like, putting a slide back together to just get my thoughts down.

Josh Clemente: And a friend of mine convinced me Maple Biometrics is a terrible name, call it something like Frontier Biometric. So I was like, “All right fine, I’ll do that.” So I then switched the name to Frontier Biometric, because it’s like cutting edge. It’s talking about the future, it’s like the beginning of a very new era where people have access to their own data, they have access to the information they need to be healthy. So it felt like a good name. And yeah that was it, I basically… It was right around the time that I had finished up the design for the other system. And I was not super interested in pushing the government sale cycle for that tactics vehicle. So it was kind of a clean break, I was able to step away from that project and throw myself into this one.