The road trip that changed it all

Episode introduction

Episode Transcript

Josh Clemente: I was about to turn 30, I felt like I had spent a lot of time. It was now a year from the moment that I had that maple syrup idea, and I felt very convinced that this idea was what I wanted to make a reality, but it felt very dejected because I had been turned down, again, by literally every network I could get in touch with, and it just did not seem like for whether you want to call them regulatory reasons, or compliance reasons, or just business fundamentals, reasons I could not make that arrangement happen. I was at kind of rock bottom, April 2019, thinking this isn’t going anywhere, I might have to wrap things up and go back to the engineering world.

Ben Grynol: I’m Ben Grynol, part of the early startup 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: So it was early 2018, it was a winter in 2018 where we had left off and at this time Josh had just started to explore continuous glucose monitoring and what it actually meant to be able to do this at scale. So he started taking the necessary steps to say, “Hey, what do I have to do to bring this technology to the wider population? What can I do to bring this to the world?” And he realized a lot of it came down to not just doing research, but building network connections. He realized that he needed a physician network, needed infrastructure, and he needed all these things that he didn’t have immediate access to.

Ben Grynol: At the time he was living in LA and he had just started this journey back to Philadelphia where Kate, his girlfriend at the time, had started nursing school. He thought, “Hey, I’m going to go meet her.” So he packed up all his gear, was ready to go live there, and it was on this road trip back that there was a serendipitous encounter that led him from what was at the time, Maple Biometrics, to eventually turn it into Levels. It was something that changed the growth path and trajectory of Levels as it is, and has become. In this episode Josh and I dig in keep unpacking the onion one layer at a time.

Ben Grynol: So, where we left off was the tail end of this story where it was the end of 2017, or end of 2018 winter, and you just started experimenting with CGMs and you thought, “I got to bring this thing to the world.”

Josh Clemente: Yeah, that was early 2018, just had that light bulb moment of Maple Biometrics, this is the thing, it’s what I need, and because of the scope of the problem, it’s what actually a lot of people need, but I’m not going to be able to convince people that they need it for this underlying problem that they don’t know about. It was like, there’s this complex situation where I didn’t know I had any problem going on. Ninety million adults don’t know they have a problem going on because 84% of that ninety million don’t know they have a problem. So, how do you sell to someone who doesn’t know they have a thing that they need to worry about? Then it became clear if you just make it a really compelling product in and of itself, better information is typically better.

Josh Clemente: I kind of initially got into this because I just wanted better information about myself, I was trying to figure out what was going on, to find an edge, and eek out a little performance and work. So that felt like if you can build a compelling offering that solves that problem of accessibility of the new technology, actionability of the data it produces making it super insightful, and immediately value additive rather than needing to go down some rabbit hole of research, this is the thing I want and it could be super compelling as a consumer product to many people. As a result, if you can maximize distribution of this thing, you’ll end up getting to those ninety million people or some fraction of them who don’t know they have a metabolic concern just as a byproduct of having a really successful mainstream product.

Josh Clemente: Anyway, all that sort of clicked at one time when I was deep in the research, but then I was just finishing up my other project, the SWAT Vehicle Project, and it came together at the prime moment. I was considering going back into another engineering gig and it just hit me that this is what I actually want to do and it’s such a prime opportunity because I’m so into it, and also it’s such a huge opportunity, in terms of the market space and the potential to have all of these interesting components at once hardware, software, research, breakthroughs, and bio-science, it was just felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity. It kind of all came together in one moment. I think we touched on how I immediately started an LLC, I just wanted to sort of put a stake in the ground, basically just to start charging my time to a self-employment project, cover my bases, and have something that I could print some business cards out for and start going to conventions to talk to people who knew more about this stuff than me.

Ben Grynol: Is that the first step to good business, printing business cards?

Josh Clemente: Well, I think it is. People won’t answer your questions if they don’t know who you are or what you’re doing. There were many steps before that, but that was one of the first things to make this legit, to make this official. One of the cool things about this project is that it felt so tractable from the very beginning because the hardware problem is not the problem that needs solving. I definitely spent a huge amount of time when I was doing this whole research thing, thinking about all right, I’m going to have to design the garment of CGMs. That is what needs to happen, because it will remove the stigmatization of the medical device, it will be approved for a general wellness rather than for medical indications, it can have exceptional software that does all the things I want to do.

Josh Clemente: Then as I got deeper and deeper into that vector, it became obvious that that comes with five years minimum of development, if you’re lucky, and you’ll get through clinical trials, whether or not you want this for medical indications, the science is just not ready for a noninvasive CGM. As long as it’s invasive, you’re going to need to get FDA approval it seems. So, maybe I can take on a noninvasive CGM hardware project, and then you’re thinking about essentially solving the hardware miracle that no one else has solved yet, and it’s basically a hope and a prayer to ever get to the point where you could start to commercialize what you ultimately want, which is a behavior change product. Once the idea clicked that we can just use the hardware that exists, but build the interfacing layer with the end user, build the operating system on top of it, it felt really freeing. More than half the work is done, the technology is out there, the wheel has been invented, now we just need to build the horse drawn carriage, that’s kind of how it felt.

Ben Grynol: So you said Kate was relentlessly supportive of maple syrup, what she called it, and so you took these steps, you started experimenting, you started researching. When was it that you said, “Okay, I can’t go at the solo.”

Josh Clemente: Well, it went on for some time. So 2018 was a tricky year, I had that initial moment of realization in, I think it was March, I had already put together a ton of background research, but I started to compile it into essentially a business plan, bringing together all of these disparate ideas into the area of focus, increase accessibility, and increase actionability through software. I was very familiar by now with Roe, Hyms, and some of the others that were doing sort of a direct to consumer tele-health play. So, that business model fit right on top here, that’s the access pathway for CGM, and then the actionability means software, but I was thinking we can punt that the software part, if I can just focus on getting access to the CGM technology, that’s kind of the first step in my mind.

Josh Clemente: So, that was early March, I was winding down my other project. Kate was starting her nursing program in Philadelphia, and so I’m out in LA at the time, still doing engineering work, still traveling a little bit for the SWAT project, and by summer of 2018, Kate was already in Philly and essentially I wanted to move to the east coast and just like make things easy on us. I had no real reason to be in LA anymore, and I wanted to work on this project and it felt like this project is going to be a solo operation for now, I can be anywhere. I don’t really need to stay in LA, even though I love my friends out there, I love the area. So, I was kind of doing a lot of research, a lot of reading, digging into tele-health regulations, trying to understand the implications of this business model.

Josh Clemente: It was a very protracted process, it took several months, I’m uprooting my life, getting rid of a bunch of stuff, I drove cross country in August out to Philly. So, once I was settled again in Philly in late 2018, well, actually there’s an interesting anecdote here, this is a good one.

Josh Clemente: So I decided to move to Philadelphia, had a lease set up in the beginning of August, and I think I left August 1st. I was driving cross country and I had an opportunity to stop at this little event of a couple people that I knew mutually with Sam, and Sam was at this event. It’s just a weekend getaway type thing, and I was able to get an invite to pop in.

Josh Clemente: So I’m driving cross country, and this is outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’m on my way across country with all my stuff, Sam and I had spoken, somewhat recently, a few months prior, but he and I met up at this little getaway retreat thing and we caught up real quick. I hadn’t seen him in probably a year, we’d been in touch, but I ran this idea past them. I was actually wearing a CGM at the time, I was telling a couple of people, and I was just like, “Yeah, man, I’m moving cross country and I’m going to do this CGM startup.”

Josh Clemente: I remember he was still in the Car Dash mode and was like very preoccupied, I think, and I just recall him being like interested, but we only had a few minutes to chat and I wanted to pick his brain deeper. I just remember not having enough time to dive deep, and I saw his eyes light up momentarily and then got distracted by something else. I thought I definitely got to chat with him more because it seems like he’s interested in other stuff besides car dash, it was just that recognition that he’s looking for other projects, I can’t describe it.

Ben Grynol: You got the nod. How did you get to know Sam before that? You knew him before this Albuquerque stop off?

Josh Clemente: Yeah, so, Sam and I have known each other for, I think five years now. He and my dad actually met first, my dad was attending a conference where they were both speaking. My dad’s former FBI, Sam did a presentation on cybersecurity, anyway, they mutually kind of started chatting because I was working at Space X at the time, and Sam’s brother, Chad, I believe had an internship at Space X at the time, so they just connected about that. My dad said, “Oh, you definitely got to meet my son,” put us in touch, and Sam and I hung out in LA a couple of times and just kind of hit it off. He invited me to his salon dinner program and I think he added me to his spreadsheet of 1000 people that he wants to stay in touch with, which I guess is not that big of an honor, given that there’s a thousand people.

Josh Clemente: So we were in touch for a few years and would always keep each other in the loop on what we were doing. He was working on Car Dash while I was at Hyperloop, and actually he extended an offer for me to come and work at Car Dash while I was at Hyperloop looking for other stuff. We we’re always in the loop about what we were up to. I got some fundraising ideas from him for the SWAT vehicle. We were pretty well aware of each other’s whereabouts and projects kind of at all times over the past five years, and I like quickly updated him in person as I’ve got my trailer load of stuff and my motorcycles in the bed of my truck, and I’m literally camping by the way in the backseat of my truck, because I wasn’t planning on making this stop over and I just slept in the parking lot in the back of the truck, it was not luxurious.

Josh Clemente: So, I just ran that by him and then continued out to Philly and got there late August and then started the process. By that time I understood the regulatory requirements pretty well for distributing CGM hardware, and I needed to establish a partnership with a physician organization. That process was very onerous, I had to write a very lengthy white paper as part of it, which I didn’t anticipate, but generally just started the ground game of getting in touch with physician organizations and tele-health networks to just see if they were interested in partnering with me on this idea. Kate was in school and I was still solo at the time on this project, I just focused a hundred percent on this one piece, I need a physician network, and if I can’t establish that engagement this idea doesn’t have legs because there’s no way to build out from there. I felt like it was a prerequisite to sort of growing the concept and bringing on more team.

Josh Clemente: So that process continued well into 2019, March or April 2019 and I remember after being turned down by every tele-health organization I could get in touch with. It was April 2019, I was about to turn 30, and I felt like I had spent a lot of time. It was now a year from the moment that I had that maple syrup idea, and I felt very convinced that this idea was what I wanted to make a reality, but it felt very dejected because I had been turned down, again, by literally every network I get in touch with, and it just did not seem like for whether you want to call them regulatory reasons, or compliance reasons, or just business fundamentals reasons I could not make that arrangement happen.

Josh Clemente: I was at rock bottom, April 2019, thinking this isn’t going anywhere, I might have to wrap things up and go back to the engineering world. I had my 30th birthday, which my family surprised in Philadelphia got a lot of my friends together. It was an awesome weekend and two weeks later, Sam calls me out of the blue just to reconnect, and that’s where I kind of caught him up and things changed.

Ben Grynol: Everything’s good with you, man?

Josh Clemente: No complaints, I’ve just been diving into research stuff, which has been cool. Definitely feel interested and motivated by it, but also like I am not a researcher.

Ben Grynol: I knew you were going to do something like that.

Josh Clemente: What word should I use here, because I know the word I picked is not the right one.