Nick Wichert

Managing Director, Northwestern Mutual Venture Studio

Platform for Virtual Races and Wearables Keeps Athletes Fit (and Safe)

Topics: Cream City Labs.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, wearable technology is the top fitness trend in 2020. That’s no surprise, given the increasing popularity of wearables and their push into medical device-level capabilities. 

Within the Northwestern Mutual Venture Studio, our team is always trying to look at the world through a different lens. Our passion as entrepreneurs is to solve problems and create opportunities. So last year, one of my engineers and I put our heads together to explore new ways to be involved in fitness wearables, a technology that life insurance carriers are keeping a close eye on as data from wearables may provide insights for life insurance underwriting in the future.

One area that intrigued us was finding a way to tap into the competitive and social nature of wearables, specifically as it related to endurance events like 5K and 10K races. While individual fitness companies have their own proprietary apps with features that allow individuals to track their biometric data, we brainstormed an open platform that would work across different devices with more robust features.

We also wanted to find other ways to incentivize athletes on this open platform, so we came up with the idea of partnering with fitness- and health-related brands to offer discounts on products based on the unique activities tracked on the user’s wearable device or smartphone.

Our team then set out to create a versatile online platform, which we named Proquo. After three months of building and testing various prototypes, Proquo premiered at the 2019 Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon with our first brand partner, Garmin, along with three other Wisconsin-based fitness companies. This initial test run (literally) went well, and we spent the next few months analyzing the data, talking with customers and making platform improvements.

Then COVID-19 hit.

A pandemic pivot

Like many companies around the world, the pandemic forced us to rethink our approach. As races and club events were canceled, we received many inquiries for Proquo to be used to manage virtual events.

While the initial idea of Proquo centered around incentivizing athletes at in-person endurance events, our team quickly adapted. Fortunately, the technology was built in such a way that we could easily modify features — in both the application and database — and quickly pivot from in-person to virtual events. Proquo has evolved into a platform that can help event management teams and club organizers put on virtual races and challenges, while still incentivizing athletes as initially conceived.

With 110 clubs already registered on Proquo and with plenty of interest from race and event management teams, the product pivot seems to have filled a new and growing need.      

Roots & Wings virtual race

As part of the weekend activities during Northwestern Mutual’s Annual Meeting, the company traditionally hosts a company-wide race event called Roots & Wings – a 5K, 10K and fun run/walk. In this lively company event, home office staff (“Roots”) compete against our field team (“Wings”). As this year’s Annual Meeting shifted to a virtual event, we worked with the race director to leverage Proquo and help continue our company tradition in a whole new way.

Nearly 2,500 members of Northwestern Mutual's home office and field force registered on Proquo for Roots & Wings. The virtual event took place August 8-9, allowing runners and walkers to use their wearables to compete against one another and track results on our live leaderboard. We also offered a month-long challenge to run a designated virtual circuit that represented the distance to all of our office locations across the country.

Approximately 75,000 miles were logged during Roots & Wings. Proquo allowed everyone to still have a competitive experience even though it wasn’t in-person, while staying safe and with the convenience of competing on their own schedule.

More opportunities for a virtual world

Of course, Proquo isn’t the only product or service that had to swiftly evolve due to the pandemic. But this work from the Northwestern Mutual Venture Studio illustrates the importance of agility when it comes to innovation — both in the technology and our entrepreneurial capabilities.

Looking forward as we continue to navigate through the pandemic, there may even be an opportunity to leverage wearables to be able to identify COVID-19 or COVID-19-like symptoms. While not currently part of Proquo’s capabilities, this illustrates the versatility and growth potential in this industry.

Most importantly, with all of the factors that are out of our control today, we’ll continue to develop and improve Proquo so that it empowers all of us to control what we can — our physical activity and health.

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