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Investment thesis: Human performance, and how technology can make us better

What is human performance?

When we watch elite athletes they seem like super-humans. They have a unique combination of genetic talent, decades of skill training, a physique that is honed to perfection, and a mindset that enables them to excel under pressure. For ordinary humans, all of these seem out of reach.

But what if they weren’t?

This is the category called human performance. It is about expanding the upper edges of what is possible for humanity. It relates to both our physical performance and our mental performance. Who wouldn’t want to run faster, lift heavier, be injury free, sleep less, have more energy and, perhaps most compellingly, live longer? Similarly, if you could concentrate better, be smarter, think more creatively, and solve ever more difficult problems, wouldn’t you want to?

As an athlete I’ve been obsessed with improving performance my entire life. Now, as an investor I’m rethinking this space. If you’re also an investor then remember that the focus here is not on products and ideas that improve the world around us. Instead, it’s a focus on improving us.

Why now?

For thousands of years the main way to improve your performance was practice.

Now, technology advances in a number of fields including genetics, nanotechnology, computers, neuroscience, and biology have opened up a host of other ways to improve human performance – in whatever area you want to be good at.

Additionally, there are three societal trends which means there is mass interest in this field, making it of interest to investors:

  1. First, at no other time in history have we idolised the top 1% as much as we do now, whilst at the same time preaching a doctrine that anyone can achieve those results
  2. Second, the quantified-self trend is gaining incredible traction – where individuals measure everything about their human performance they can.
  3. Third, in affluent countries the majority of people are suffering or dying from degenerative and lifestyle diseases. The science that will solve these health problems will also lead to performance enhancements. For instance, if you solve Alzheimer’s disease, it’s likely the same technology could be modified to improve memory performance in healthy individuals.

There are 8 ways technology might address human performance

It would never be the case that technological innovation would replace the benefits of training to improve performance. However, technology can definitely increase the effectiveness of training, our access to it, and the maximum levels that we are able to reach.

Here are the 8, with greater detail on each below:

  1. Speed – improving the rate at which humans increase their performance
  2. Top end performance – increasing the maximum possible performance for individuals
  3. Consistency of performance – bringing up the bottom-end of performance so that an individual’s range of performance is smaller
  4. Game day performance – producing a top-of-range performance when it matters
  5. Talent – Improving maximum genetic potential
  6. Longevity of performance – increasing the span of years at which we can perform at our highest level
  7. Accessibility – making performance enhancing technology and training available to more people
  8. Tracking performance – improving the measurement of human performance

1. Speed – Improving the rate at which humans increase their performance

Improvement in any skill typically follows a diminishing returns curve. As beginners, we improve rapidly with little effort. As masters, we can slave away for years only to see tiny, incremental returns. Think of your first tennis lesson where you learn a forehand, backhand and volley in an hour. Compare that to Roger Federer who might spend 100 training sessions trying to improve the velocity of his serve by 2km per hour.

Technology can accelerate the speed at which we improve.

Trends to follow:

  • Recovery protocols. Elite performers max out at around 3-4 hours of deliberate practice per day. Increasing the ability to recover physically and mentally allows more training, and thus greater speed. Technology such as cryotherapy, Normatech boots, massage guns, weighted blankets for sleep, meditation apps etc all aid recovery.
  • Training techniques. New training techniques increase the efficiency with which we can learn. Ideas such as ‘knees over toes’ training, elasticity training, memory techniques etc are all examples.
  • Personalised coaching. The best coaches match their style and training programs to suit the individual. The use of AI coaches, or psychological profiling to assist coaches to adapt their styles will result in faster improvements.

Australian start-ups to watch:

  • Arete – Personalised AI sports psychology coach for youth athletes

2. Top end performance – increasing the maximum possible performance for individuals

As individuals, we each have a range of performance for any given skill. On our best days we can run the 100m in 12 seconds, and on our worst days it takes us 14 seconds (Usain Bolt also has a range, but it’s a little faster than ours!) Obviously, we can improve this with training, but on top of that we can also improve it with technology.

Essentially, technology can help us to increase the top-end, or upper limit of our individual performance.

 

Trends to follow:

  • Brain computer interfaces (BCI). Connecting the human brain directly to computers will facilitate massive increases in mental performance
  • Health advances. The science used to solve degenerative or lifestyle diseases is likely to have applications for improving performance in healthy individuals
  • Activity specific innovations. Tools developed to facilitate performance within niche activities such as super lightweight bicycles developed for elite cyclists, full bodysuits developed for elite swimmers etc.

Australian start-ups to watch:

3. Consistency of performance – bringing up the bottom-end of performance so that an individual’s range of performance is smaller

The majority of training for any kind of skill is focused on consistency, or error minimisation. Out of 100 times, on how many attempts do you miss the shot, make the wrong decision, or fail to deduce the correct answer?

Technology can be used to aid consistency – bringing up the bottom-end of our performance range.

 

Trends to follow:

  • Virtual reality for technique. This allows individuals to have many attempts at a skill without exhausting themselves, increasing consistency.
  • Biomechanics. Bringing biomechanics out of the lab and into the training arena will allow athletes to see and feel perfect technique.

4. Game day performance – producing a top-of-range performance when it matters

Training is typically used to improve the range of performance (both top and bottom ends of the range). Just as important, is producing that top-of-range performance when it matters – in the playoffs, at the big meeting, or under pressure. Doing so is often referred to as performing in the ‘zone’.

Athletes might hit the zone in competition once or twice a year, but the feeling and performance produced are both so incredible that it is enough to offset the incredible sacrifice required to be an elite athlete.

Scientists who study the zone agree that it occurs when two conditions are met. First, the task is difficult enough to test the limits of your capabilities. Second, the individual’s level of arousal (focus, energy, stress) is at their unique optimal point.

Technology can be used to increase the likelihood of an individual performing in the zone when it counts.

 

Trends to follow:

  • Stimulants and nootropics. Caffeine is widely used already. Micro-dosing psychedelics is a growing trend. Various nootropics are in the market. The creation of new drugs, and personalising dosages for peak individual performance will be coming.
  • Virtual reality for experiences. This allows individuals to experience the big presentation or the packed Olympic arena in advance, allowing them the mentally prepare for a perfect performance on game day.
  • Pre-performance technology. Tools that allow individuals to reach a consistent mental or physical state prior to performing. Neuro headphones and biofeedback are examples of technology that allows athletes to regulate their state.

Australian start-ups to watch:

  • Humm – wearable patch that boosts working memory

5. Talent – Improving maximum genetic potential

If you aren’t shorter than 5’5 it’s unlikely you’ll make it as a female gymnast. If you are born without an affinity for music you probably won’t be the next Mozart. If your genes didn’t bless you with slow twitch muscle fibres you won’t beat the Kenyans in the marathon event.

Genetics – often called talent – is the outer limits of your potential performance level. Decades of training can take you to this limit, but it’s impossible surpass this limit purely with effort. Having talent can also increase the speed with which we can progress in a skill (we all know that kid at school who was talented at math and spent no time studying).

So when it comes to talent, technology can both expand the outer limits of our talent, and increase the ease with which we acquire skill.

 

Trends to follow:

  • AI in talent ID. A large part of success is selecting the right activity. Professional sports teams, brand name consulting firms and secret government agencies have elaborate processes to pick the best of the best. The use of AI will increase the accuracy of selection. Additionally, as the cost of IVF comes down, selection can occur at the embryonic level.
  • Gene editing (CRISPR). Changing someone’s genetics to alter anything from their fast twitch muscle fibre proportion, to their height, to their intelligence.
  • Robotics / cyborgs. Integrating electronic, mechanical and robotic parts with the human body. This will start with the disabled population (ie. Artificial legs) but expand to the able-bodied population (eg. Robotic support for legs so members of the military can run twice as fast)
  • Nanotechnology. Likely to start in healthcare, the same technology that cures diseases can be used to enhance performance. For instance, nanotechnology that removes toxins from the blood, could be used to remove lactic acid that accumulates when exercising thus removing much of the feeling of fatigue.

6. Longevity of performance – increasing the span of years at which we can perform at our highest level

For most of the population…

…the ability to learn a new language peaks at age 7

…strength peaks around age 25

…endurance peaks at age 28

…arithmetic skills peak at age 50.

What if you could learn a language like a 7 year old in your fifties? Or run a marathon like a 28 year old in your seventies. Or do arithmetic like a 50 year old as a teenager?

Technology can be used to increase the longevity of our peak performance.

 

Trends to follow:

  • Injury treatments. As injury is often the cause of a permanent reduction in performance, cutting edge treatments such as stem cell therapy and PRP could add years to an individual’s peak physical performance
  • Nutrition. Many declines in performance are linked to nutrition and gut health. Innovations such as intermittent fasting, probiotics, personalised diets linked to your DNA etc will make a significant impact on longevity
  • Epigenetic reprogramming. In 2020 Professor Dr. David Sinclair successfully used epigenetic programming to reset optic nerve cells in mice, reversing eye damage. It’s the first demonstration of the ability to reprogram complex tissues to an earlier biological age.

Australian start-ups to watch:

  • AXP – probiotics that reduce inflammation, used by elite sports teams
  • Vow – Cultured meat that’s more nutritious and good for the environment
  • BodyGuide – injury prevention, rehab and treatment app

7. Accessibility – making performance enhancing technology and training available to more people

IQ is the one of the main ways we measure mental performance, and this follows a normal distribution curve, with 100 as the average. What most people don’t know is that every decade scientists have to renormalise the IQ curve upwards by about 3 points. The human population is getting smarter – specifically we are getting smarter at abstract thinking. Explanations for this centre around accessibility: a greater proportion of the population is exposed to abstract concepts from a young age, more children have better nutrition for brain development, more children go to school and are comfortable with tests.

Technology can increase accessibility on a range of skills, increasing the average level of human performance.

 

Trends to follow:

  • At home training. Equipment, training programs, and connected communities that allow people to train the bodies and minds at home.
  • AI coaching. AI capability that coaches individuals based on video recordings of their performance is a growing trend. Mustard does this for baseball pitching, Juggernaut does this for weightlifting. This allows those who can’t access or can’t afford coaching to still access the expertise of world class coaches.
  • Pros connecting with beginners. Digital technology has removed some of the barriers between professionals and beginners – junior athletes can access coaching digitally from pros, and junior employees can access mentoring from CEOs.
  • Digital competition. Exposure to elite performers is a necessary requirement to reach a high level. Previously this often required being physically co-located, but we can expect to see a continuing increase in digital competition and comparison across the world.

Australian start-ups to watch:

  • Vitruvian – At home weightlifting device
  • Playbook – Private coaching from pros for Australian athletes
  • SloCoach – Sports coaching from pros, based on videos submitted by athletes
  • Athlete’s AI – Real time AI coaching for tennis, cricket and table tennis
  • Mentorloop – Connects mentors with mentees in professional work settings

8. Tracking performance – improving the measurement of human performance

The leadership adage says ‘what gets measured gets managed’, and the same holds true for human performance. Whilst tracking results doesn’t objectively improve performance, we know that it does:

  • Increase motivation to continue training
  • Highlights areas that need improvement
  • Allow us to plan for periodisation of training and performance
  • Allow comparison of performance with others

All of these tend to lead to improvements in performance.

Technology can be used to track performance in increasingly granular ways, and then extract insights from that data.

 

Trends to follow:

  • Community building. Tools that allow individuals to compare their performance data with others, and to interact with a community of users passionate about the same activity. Strava and MyFitnessPal are a key examples of successful companies in this space.
  • Insight adding analytics. Tools that don’t just capture and display data, but add insight to help users improve their performance on top of that. Oura sleep ring does this well.
  • Computer vision. Many athletes use GPS devices to track movement – these are expensive, don’t work well indoors, and don’t give you data on other teams. Computer vision advances could solve all of these shortcomings.
  • Wearables. Devices and sensors that attach to your body and measure your performance data.

Australian start-ups to watch:

  • Brooklyn Dynamics – real time analytics and predictions for the Tour de France, baseball and NBA statistical analysis for scouting
  • Vald – Athletic performance testing technology
  • Fusion Sport – Sport timing technology, and performance analytics
  • Hudl – video analysis for sports teams
  • Hype – Sports performance tracking with GPS

How will human performance technology become mainstream?

For investors, increases in human performance are only interesting if they can become mainstream as this is where the financial upside can be found. There are three groups to watch for early signs of whether a technology will become widely adopted.

First, we can expect that high performers will be the early adopters of any new technology. They are looking for any tiny improvements, and are willing to pay incredible amounts for it. After all, 1% faster could be the difference between Olympic gold and not even making the podium.

Physical performance technology will start with athletes and military. Mental performance technology is also used by athletes, but is likely to also be sought out by those in competitive, demanding, and top-tier workforces. This is the second group to watch.

A third group to watch is large cohorts of individuals using a heath tech innovation that has dual application as a performance enhancer. This technology can become mainstream simply because massive cohorts of sick people have access to the technology, continue to use it once ‘cured’, and share it with ‘healthy’ friends. Whilst not strictly tech, an current example is the use of Adderall (originally designed for ADHD sufferers) for performance. Some estimates say that up to 40% of US college students have used the drug to improve their focus (only 1-3% of adults have ADHD).

For any particular innovation to become mainstream, three things are needed:

  • The cost becomes affordable for the mass market (the high R&D cost has been recouped by early buyers willing to pay a premium)
  • The effort required to use the technology is minimal (most individuals are relatively lazy)
  • The improvements are immediately noticeable or trackable (deferred consequences/benefits are the primary reason most people don’t look after their health – the donut is tasty now but I’ll gain weight later, or exercise is painful now and I won’t notice the impact until later)

Also, the absence of patents and overly strict government controls are needed. Due to the high R&D cost of developing new technology in this space, companies often try to a) protect their technology and b) price it high to recoup costs. Companies looking to be successful at scale might use a business model like Tesla – initially pricing their products high but aiming to make them affordable en masse within a few years.

Ethics and societal considerations of human performance improvements

  • Who gets access? Human performance technology exacerbates the difference between ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ because only those with the ability to pay will be able to access improvements. In an extreme scenario you introduce the potential for a difference kind of racism – the original human race will not only be seen as inferior to enhanced humans, but will actually be inferior.
  • Genetic editing. Should parents have the right to choose genes for the child? This sets children on a more pre-determined path rather than giving them the freedom to make their own life choices. This is not something that can be ‘undone’ at a later stage in life.
  • Sport implications. We consider performance enhancing drugs to be cheating in sport. What about performance enhancing nano-bots in your blood stream or gene editing for extra muscle mass? How do we rethink what competitive sport looks like?
  • Health and safety risks. As with any health innovation, different innovations could affect individuals differently – and some people adversely. It is also difficult to know what long term effects might be as longitudinal studies take decades.
  • The line between health and human performance. Most countries have some sort of free or subsidised health system. If we consider that human performance is on a spectrum from sick to superhuman, where do we draw the line on what individuals should be able to access as part of their rights within the healthcare system, versus what we make them pay for?
  • International regulation. Regulation occurs at a national level, but if you are affluent enough to afford some of the life-changing human performance technology, you’ll go to whatever country allows you to access it. Much like governments are struggling to regulate multi-national technology companies, the same will occur with human enhancement technologies.

Conclusion

‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’. The Olympic motto of ‘faster, higher, stronger’ has been a guiding light for improvements in human performance for centuries. Now, with technology, what we believed were the limits of human capability will no longer apply. Not only will everyday people be able to achieve feats previously reserved for Olympians or geniuses, but eventually we will go far beyond that.

What was impossible today, will be normal tomorrow. And what is normal tomorrow, will just be the starting point for the future of human performance.

May 25, 2021