Kelvin Kwong leaves Jawbone for product VP role at Big Health

As Jawbone continues to work towards a pivot, the Up device maker also continues to talent that may not be core to its future. In the latest departure, Kelvin Kwong, who had been the Jawbone’s director of product management, has joined Big Health, maker of the Sleepio sleep improvement program, as VP of product management. Alongside that, Dr Jenna Carl is now the startup’s medical director.

The additions come on the heels of Big Health raising $12 million last year from a notable list of investors that included strategic backer Kaiser Permanente. It’s been primarily selling its product through to businesses or health services aggregators to offer on to employees, and says that there are some 800,000 workers now able to use Sleepio. (Customers include Comcast, LinkedIn, Boston Medical Center and the Henry Ford Health System.)

Big Health is coming at the health and wellness industry, and combatting specific disorders, by bypassing drugs and instead looking for cures through behavioral changes.

It’s a disruptive approach. Taking just the sleep industry, there is a whole section of the pharmaceutical world dedicated to sleep medication — approaching $12 billion by 2021 and worth around $10 billion today, by one estimate. But Big Health’s approach with its first product, Sleepio, is to use a form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), delivered by way of an app, to steer people to more sleep-filled nights.

This is where the two new hires will fit for the startup. Kwong’s role at Big Health will be to help the company not just fine tune existing product Sleepio, but also look at what other mental health issues Big Health might next tackle using its app-based approach, and how. The “how” is a big thing, since some argue that CBT and other therapies like it only work through persistent, live sessions. Big Health believes it has found a way to democratize that and make it more widely available.

Behavioral science has been around for a while now, but it’s largely been used for commercial and business purposes. It has helped, for example, supermarket owners understand where best to stock things on shelves, and online stores when to recommend certain products. “The last three decades we’ve learned a lot about how and why consumers do things, but those who have made best use of that data are retailers,” Kwong said. “That is all UI design. But in the last five years, we have started to use the same understanding to help us with our own lives, how to live more healthily, use less energy and so on. Big Health is an amazing platform to do just that.”

This would be an interesting progression from what Kwong did at Jawbone, where his role was to “drive behavior change” — in other words, how to position the startup’s products not just as health tracking gadgets but how help consumers understand the wider benefits of using them, and conversely how to use that to better shape the development of the products themselves.

But considering our report last week about Jawbone’s shift to a clinical market, it makes some sense that Kwong would leave, as the wider focus on consumers would be removed in place of a more targeted enterprise strategy, where clinicians might be prescribing use of wearable devices, rather than consumers having to come to the conclusion that wearables are essential.

Dr Carl, meanwhile, will be bringing more medical and clinical experience to the team, after nine years of working in the field and training at UCSF, Harvard Medical School/Mass General Hospital, and the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, as well as doctoral training in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Boston University — one of the leaders in developing empirically supported treatments for mental health, which sits alongside CBT as a route for using less or no drugs to solve certain issues.

“Dr. Carl’s background in developing evidence-based cognitive and behavioral therapies makes her a phenomenal asset to the Big Health team,” said CEO Peter Hames, who co-founded the company with sleep therapist Colin Espie after Haims used a self-help book by Espie to cure his insomnia and believed the book could be turned into a bigger business. Hames had been leading product prior to Kwong taking on the new role.