A top-secret “modern Manhattan Project”
In July 2013, Jay Blahnik, one of the most visible and successful fitness coaches in the world, suddenly disappeared.
At the time, the trainer and author had been consulting with Nike on its Nike+ FuelBand and Nike+ Kinect Training products, working with companies like Gatorade, Nautilus, Bowflex, and Equinox, and traveling 40 weeks a year to preach the gospel of wellness on the conference circuit. Yet all of a sudden he’d gone off the radar—no events, no book signings, no media appearances, nothing. The website 9to5Mac, which obsessively covers everything Apple, noticed it first, and the tech and fitness worlds were soon abuzz with gossip. But it didn’t take long for everyone to discover that no tragedy had befallen Blahnik. He was just fine.
He’d simply disappeared into the temple of Apple.
A month later, with Blahnik now keeping a monk like silence, Apple scooped up Nike design director Ben Shaffer, who’d headed Innovation Kitchen, where the FuelBand had been developed. Then they hired Nancy Dougherty, a hardware engineer from a secretive start-up called Sano Intelligence, which hasn’t yet brought a product to market but is reportedly working on a sensor to measure things like blood sugar, a potentially lifesaving tool for diabetics; and potassium levels, which help regulate blood pressure. Soon after, two of the brightest minds at a similar firm, Vital Connect, bioengineer Alexander Chan and former biosensor tech VP Ravi Narasimhan, were hoovered up by Apple, too. Vital Connect had already released a next-generation, FDA-approved sensor called HealthPatch, which measures heart rate, body temperature, respiratory rate, sleep stages, posture, steps taken—even the impact of a fall—with a wireless patch that’s the size of a large Band-Aid and fits under a T-shirt.
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And Apple was just getting started. Next they grabbed Michael O’Reilly, M.D., chief medical officer at Masimo, the world’s top maker of “pulse oximetry” sensors, which noninvasively measure the amount of oxygen in the blood—a metric that’s particularly important for people with heart problems or sleep disorders, and also helpful to endurance and alpine athletes. By February of last year, Apple had hired a giant of sleep research, Roy J.E.M. Raymann, Ph.D., who founded the Philips Sleep Experience Laboratory, where sleep disorders are treated with nonpharmacological solutions like light therapy and sleep masks. Once hired, they all went officially dark.
Not since the Manhattan Project of the 1940s, when J. Robert Oppenheimer recruited the world’s most brilliant theoretical physicists to devise the first atomic bomb, had such a scientific dream team been assembled in such secrecy. And though it was widely assumed that Apple’s new hires were brought on to work on the long-anticipated Apple Watch—the company’s first step into the $2.2 billion fitness-tracker industry—the Apple team actually had much more in mind than counting steps, tracking calories, or measuring heartbeats (or, for that matter, telling time).
Instead, the true goal of the Apple team, according to the insiders we spoke to, has always been nothing less than the holy grail of advanced body tracking: a wearable system that’s so evolved—a “moonshot” in terms of technology—that it would revolutionize the entire health-care industry as we know it, just as Apple revolutionized the music business with the iPod and iTunes and changed the daily life of millions with the iPhone.