People who struggle with losing or maintaining weight have a new ally in their ongoing battle against unwanted pounds: Lark Chat, a personal and virtual weight loss coach.
Lark Chat is the product of Lark Technologies Inc., a five-year-old California-based company with roots at MIT Sloan. Lark has attracted some $12 million in venture capital financing since winning the mobile track prize in the 2010 MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition for its wristband sleep monitor. But in the last couple of years the company has shifted its focus from hardware to software and broadened its attention to weight loss and disease prevention.
The new direction for Lark began in October with the release of its first iPhone app — simply called Lark — which transferred the sleep-tracking wristband’s function to a portable device and added fitness tracking by monitoring a phone’s movements. In addition, Lark provided sleep and activity charts along with feedback (“You’ve increased your walking total every day this week. That’s outstanding,” the app may inform its user, for example.)
Then, in April, Lark took the concept a step further, with the release of the Lark Chat for Apple Watch app, which the company is touting as “your own personal weight loss and fitness coach.” The app—also available for the iPhone—added other interactive features that make Lark a virtual personal health coach. Lark Chat offers users the option of submitting information on what they’ve eaten, via voice or text, so that they can then receive instantaneous responses suggesting healthier alternatives or validations.
“Our goal was to make it as friendly and fun as possible,” says Lark co-founder and CEO Julia Hu, who founded the company while attending MIT Sloan. “People don’t call Lark a monitor or a tool; they call it a friend who understands or their ideal boyfriend. Lark has taken on kind of a lighthearted buddy kind of role in people’s lives.”
It might seem that people could accomplish weight loss goals on their own, but Hu maintains that research suggests otherwise. Much of that research comes from doctors Cheri Mah of Stanford University and Jo Solet of Harvard Medical School and the work they’ve done on sleep. Hu says that Mah and Solet have shown how personal health can be improved by collecting detailed data through monitoring and providing personal coaching based on the data.
“We found kind of a formula that we really believed in: Personal data, plus teaching people about the issue at hand, plus behavior-change methods are really the three pillars of how to impact people’s health,” she says. “The interface of empathetic coaching and chatting, having a conversation with people, is a big part of that.”
Mah and Solet are among a panel of health experts who advise Lark and provide a database of information that is the source for the coaching responses to users.
“We basically cloned tens of thousands of conversations and interventions that these health experts knew would be effective in helping people get more active and eat healthier and sleep better,” Hu says. “And then we created a personal health assistant—but it’s more like a health buddy who chats with you any time during your day and just helps you be a healthier person.”