Daniel Morales Valdivia, Unlimitech's Peruvian founder, talks us through how its revolutionary sports performance and metabolic analysis technology plans to help improve sports nutrition and support nutritionists around the world.
1. Can you tell me a little about yourself and Unlimitech?
I am a business engineer, which is a mix of IT engineering and industrial engineering. I studied in Peru before working in the mining industry for five years. While working there, I set up the asset management department for Peru's largest precious metals mining company. After focusing on the management and advisory sectors, I wanted a career shift, and so I went to the University of Cambridge to study my MBA.
With alumni from the University of Cambridge, I set up Unlimitech in Cambridge in 2019. Unlimitech was born from the idea to develop a platform technology that enables people to access the same kind of professional-grade performance and nutrition information elite athletes can access. Supported by the Cambridge Judge Business School’s Entrepreneurship Centre, we trialed our prototype smartmask indoors in 2019.
The smartmask is a wearable device that sportspeople can use while training or while sitting down, depending on the type of information you want to measure. Our invention analyses the person’s breath in real-time during that period and provides high-precision performance information through a mobile phone application that pairs with the device.
By using information from the breath and performing the type of tests that would typically take place at a sports laboratory, the device gives you access to highly reliable physiological information — specifically aerobic and metabolic physiological information.
2. Who is Unlimitech’s target audience?
Our market is global. The first people we are interacting with to deploying the solution are sportspeople currently based in the UK, but we have plans for fast expansion.
Specifically, our first use case is highly active sportspeople who are non-professionals that frequently engage in sports activities. We have also identified the potential for its use in the sports, weight management and nutrition management space because of the metabolic metrics the smartmask can measure.
3. How is the smartmask designed for use on a daily basis?
The smart mask is designed to be used as a normal wearable fitness tracker. It all comes down to your specific goals, but we recommend that people who own a solution like the smartmask should aim to measure themselves around once a week — simply because they will have that capability — and that should be enough for most use cases.
You measure your sports performance by putting on the mask and wearing it for the duration of the training session. The mask is designed so that it maximizes ease of breath. It is very lightweight and practical to use.
The mask is capable of real-time analysis, so it can measure performance by breath by breath unit. As you start work or exercise, you will start to receive feedback and analysis on your mobile phone. The information can be stored and analyzed later, and can also be shared.
4. What are people's top questions and needs when they come to Unlimitech for sports nutrition?
Consumers are mainly seeking access to precise physiological metabolic information, and this can be derived from breath analysis. Our solution provides information on your calorie count during a workout, during your physiological normal count through no work, the fat and carbohydrates you are burning, and other metrics like these.
Using the smartmask and analysing the breath, there are three core metrics that we can obtain to support sports nutrition and nutrition in general:
1. Calorie counts. Through breath analysis, users can obtain a much more accurate count of the number of calories they are burning through exercise, any type of work, or rest.
2. Respiratory coefficient. This metric tells you if your body is burning fat, carbohydrates or a mix of both.
3. Resting energy expenditure, sometimes also called the basal metabolic rate. This may be the most interesting metric for nutritionists, as it tells you how many calories and how much energy your body is using just to live. It is an extremely useful metric to know when you are trying to build a nutrition path for someone.
Depending on your goals, you can use this information to change your diet and monitor yourself over time to see if the change in your diet is having an impact on the number of calories you are burning.
However, taking into account both metabolic and aerobic metrics, none of these measurements will become truly impactful unless you are measuring them against specific goals.
There is a difference between using an existing on-the-market solution like a FitBit or a Polar sports band or any common consumer-grade device that uses heart rate as its unique data source in order to derive other metrics from a person's body, from the smartmask. While those technologies have their use case, the problem is that the level of precision that they have is really low and the variety of information they can provide is very constricted.
A solution like the smartmask, that contains both state of the art hardware and software, strives to unlock access to these more elite types of performance metrics, both aerobic and metabolic, with very high levels of precision. The aim is to ensure these metrics become useful and actionable. When metrics have low precision, then their usefulness decays really fast.
5. What are the leading trends influencing sports nutrition?
A key trend driving the whole sports nutrition and weight management space is the awareness of wellbeing and fitness. We are becoming much more aware of the importance of staying healthy and fit.
Technological development and innovation are paramount too. The ability of companies to come into this space and bring out new, innovative, state of the art technologies is key. These technologies lower the cost barrier for people attracted to these types of solutions, which build in a way that matches the lifestyle of the users who are looking for these metrics.
6. What are Latin American consumers demanding from nutrients and sports nutrition to aid performance?
Latin America, in my own experience, has had a problem for some decades now with overweight and bad nutrition habits. In many countries, overweight is a huge problem.
Unfortunately, Latin America has not, traditionally, scored well on fitness and wellbeing. But that is quickly changing as economies in some countries are becoming more stable. The middle class is also growing a lot in Latin America. This new middle class is now able to access better services and better technology.
The new middle class is more aware than previous generations of their personal health, their wellbeing, their fitness and the importance that this plays in a successful life. I have personally seen it in Peru; it has changed a lot in my own lifetime.
Latin America is definitely very promising in the future as the next big market for nutrition and wellbeing-focused technologies.
7. What do these technologies need to move forward in Latin America?
Innovation and technology of this kind tend to require well-developed startup ecosystems. These ecosystems support and foster the creation and growth of technology startups, which are key drivers behind this type of technology.
Latin America is starting to make important efforts in this space. Startup Chile and the government of Chile, for example, pushed the creation and growth of startups in their country. Peru is not far behind that lead. Peru is investing more and more resources into their efforts to create an ecosystem.
However, ecosystems are not created overnight. They are a mix of capital, government support, the right academic resources — universities who are excellent in research and innovation — companies and corporations investing in these startups and, later on, acquiring them. There are many factors and motivators in an ecosystem to enable the creation and growth of these types of innovations.
8. What are the main opportunities in sports nutrition?
The consumer sports technology industry is not new, but it is not fully mature, either. So this is a great time to join the industry in the sports performance and activity monitoring space.
Imagine a triangle and its three corners. One corner is the metabolic performance metrics. Another is the aerobic performance metrics. The third corner is called the anaerobic performance metrics — and these are the metrics that are all about power, with the most famous metric in that group called the lactate threshold.
No one has been able to truly tap into measuring the anaerobic performance metrics through a wearable device that is non-intrusive, comfortable to use, affordable and accessible. There is still a lot of work that can be done in that space.
There is frontier research appearing by scientists who are starting to try and measure lactate through breath analysis, too. In the future, our hope is that we will be able to offer those types of metrics and information, so the three sides of the triangle are complete. But in the meantime, this remains unsolved.
10. What’s next for Unlimitech?
Unlimitech is currently concluding its first external round of fundraising in the UK. We are aiming to close the round in the following month, and that will allow us to put the first masks on the market soon thereafter. It will be a closed trial deployment. We are planning to do it in Cambridge (UK) so we can monitor the use of the device closely and, by the end of the year, we are planning to further partner with interested parties in the US.
At the same time, we are looking at how the mask could be deployed for medical uses in the future, amid our complicated times with the crisis of COVID-19.
Enabling scientists to measure and monitor key biomarkers in real-time, in an affordable way, in a mobile way, as part of their studies in respiratory diseases could unlock a lot of major opportunities and discoveries in the future. That is mostly the angle we are looking at it from and is definitely something we would like to look into as part of our future plans.