Fitbit CEO talks up healthcare applications, smartwatch aspirations in Q3 call

By Jonah Comstock

On Fitbit’s third quarter earnings call yesterday, the company shared that, between spending cuts and the launch of the its long-awaited smartwatch, the company is pulling out of the earnings slump it’s been experiencing. The call also saw CEO James Park talking more than ever about the fitness wearable’s clinical applications and the ways in which those ambitions are coming to fruition.

This quarter, Fitbit saw $393 million in revenue. The company posted $113 million in loss. It moved back to a positive EBITDA of $6 million and ended the quarter with $659 million of cash and no debt — a move from a cash consumption in Q2 to a positive cash flow in Q3. And this is, in CFO Bill Zerella’s words, “before Ionic has been shipped in earnest”.

“The launch of Ionic not only enables us to enter the faster-growing smartwatch market, but it is also a platform for us to deliver our most powerful health and fitness tools into the market, furthering our mission to make the world healthier,” Park said on the call.

During the Q&A, Park clarified that Ionic will not be Fitbit’s sole entrant into the smartwatch market. The company intends to offer multiple side-by-side offerings as it does for its traditional trackers, not just consecutive generations. He added that more than 1,400 developers have signed on to build apps for the new wearable.

“Our goal is not to have the greatest number of apps, but the quality ones that bring increased purpose and utility to our devices like weather, streaming music, or payment, in addition to specific vertical health care innovations like being able to see your glucose level on a clock face without opening an app,” Park said.

He also noted that Fitbit still sees devices as a means to an end, and considers data collection and delivering of coaching services to be the major growth area.

“In October, we launched Fitbit Coach, which rebrands and improves our FitStar premium offering and provides us a platform to deepen user engagement by leveraging data and compelling audio coaching content across a variety of exercises,” Park said. “While still immaterial to our financial results, premium customers grew 75 percent year-over-year in the third quarter, and we believe we are just getting started.”

Over the years, the company has gathered 90 billion hours of heart rate data, 5.4 billion nights of sleep, 167 billion minutes of exercise data, and over 85 trillions steps, Park said.

“Not only does this data allow us to deliver personalized health and fitness coaching and guidance, it also has the potential to help us detect more serious health conditions, which affect hundreds of millions of people worldwide and are the source of huge healthcare costs,” he said. “We believe our data gives our advanced research team, comprised of scientists, doctors and health care experts, a clear advantage to develop algorithms and advanced sensors to detect these health conditions on a scale not previously available.”

Park pointed to two recent studies, one showing that the Ionic’s SpO2 sensor can detect sleep apnea and another, from MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, showing that Fitbit’s PurePulse heart rate sensor can detect atrial fibrillation with 98 percent sensitivity and a false positive rate under 1 percent.

During the Q&A, Park went in-depth on the opportunities Fitbit sees in the diabetes management space. One, that the company has already begun to implement, involves partnering with Dexcom and Medtronic to display glucose monitoring data in the Fitbit app or on devices like the Ionic. But Park wants to go further than that.

“I think, secondly, the bigger opportunity might come in the form of programs and coaching on top of the data in the devices that really guide people to changes in either their nutrition, their activity, or other lifestyle behaviors that have the opportunity to keep people from moving from prediabetic to diabetic or even the possibility of reversing diabetes itself. So I think there’s a lot of exciting opportunities here. And I think our partnerships, along with our FDA pre-certification acceptance, really lay the foundation for a lot of cool things to come.”

Park described the pre-cert program as “a big deal” and said he thinks that companies including Fitbit will start to see the fruits of the program faster than many people would expect.

“I can’t give exact timelines, but what I can say is that the FDA is pretty committed to providing a really accelerated pathway for approval, and we’ve been in conversations from the very early days with the creation of this program to try to make that happen,” Park said.

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