Health chatbot founder 'left Google to change the world'
Anne-Laure Le Cunff seemed to have it all. She was based in the tech capital of the world, working on projects which could change millions of people’s lives as a Google employee.
Yet she took the bold decision to part ways with Silicon Valley to pursue her own entrepreneurial dreams.
Less than a year later, her chatbot – which harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to help users with nutrition – went live. The Paris native has a base in London and has big plans for the future of her business, Lysa Health.
“It was hard because I genuinely loved my job and I loved the people I was working with,” Le Cunff, who had interned with Google before going on to work for the tech giant full-time, tells BusinessCloud.
“I was part of a small team within a large organisation so it was the best of both worlds, but there was something else I wanted to build, that I was passionate about, and it seemed like the right time to go and do it.”
Le Cunff had watched her mother and grandmother deal with diabetes. When Google started to work on a contact lens which could monitor glucose levels, removing the need to prick the skin, she was keen to join the team building that technology.
However the restructuring of the business in 2015, which saw the arrival of parent company Alphabet, put paid to those hopes so she started to look for other opportunities.
That led her to Google Fit, a health tracking platform provided by Google for android phones, and her role as global marketing lead led her to working with brands such as Michael Kors and Nike Plus, which use Google Fit’s technology in their activity-tracking watches.
However she had dreams of running her own enterprise. “It was a team that had this hungry entrepreneurial spirit, but Google is still a tech company and not a medical company, so it was not the best place to do what I wanted to do,” she says.
She moved back to London, where she had a professional network and the chance to hop on a plan back to France whenever she liked. “Running a start-up is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster and it was great to have that support,” she says.
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Le Cunff’s aim was to work around nutrition but she wanted to address a problem around health apps she had experienced at Google. “Downloads are high but the engagement and retention rates were really low,” she says. “It showed people wanted to eat better and be healthier but the current digital solutions were not really doing a good enough job.”
There was also a stumbling block to her big ambitions. She had no medical background and, although she can code, what she wanted to build when it came to the tech was outside of her own skillset. She spent every day upon her return to London messaging suitable candidates, meeting people for coffee to see if their professional goals mirrored her own. Her persistence paid off and, by June, she had brought on board chief technology Jay Li and dietician Katarina Burton.
The product they’ve built provides nutritional advice to users. The more you share with the chatbot, the more it learns about you and the better the advice you receive. It’s a fun and engaging approach which Le Cunff hopes will help users buck the trend and stick with the app.
“Rather than have a nutrition app where you have to look at graphs, we wanted to give an experience people want to come back to,” she says.
“It’s a very complex and ambitious product and what we’re working on is the engagement people have with it. We want it to be as delightful as chatting to a friend and the idea is that Lysa becomes smarter the more you talk to her.”
More than 1,000 testers were using the app in 2017 and Le Cunff says the business remained in closed beta for longer than other similar apps as she was so keen to get it just right.
“We’ve realised that our vegan users are very engaged so we’re trying to cater it to them too,” she says.
Users begin by answering lots of questions from Lysa about their nutrition – whether they’re vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, whether they eat pork, etc – as well as inputting their age, height and weight to Lysa can calculate their body mass index. It’s not essential but it does mean the advice you receive will be tailored to your body.
The idea then is to send her details of your meals as you may do a friend – including a picture, should you wish.
“You might tell Lysa you’ve just had half an avocado, three eggs and a coffee, and she’ll tell you the nutritional value and any interesting tidbits,” says Le Cunff.
“She may suggest you make that your last coffee because you’ve had too much caffeine for one day… or let you know if you’ve had something high in sugar or salt.”
It’s all done in a chatty way. An example of a message Lysa may send you is: “Hello sunshine! Did you have time to grab breakfast this morning?”
She will also interpret data, count calories and make suggestions for forthcoming meals. If you’ve eaten something particularly nutritious, Lysa may send you a congratulatory GIF.
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It’s an approach Le Cunff and her team believe will increase adherence among users. Although there are no figures yet to reveal how much users’ health has improved, anecdotal evidence suggests people are sticking with it and enjoying learning about new foods.
But how safe is it to entrust your health to a robot? It’s not a medical device at the moment, says Le Cunff, although she is keen to work with the NHS in the future to create versions for those with high cholesterol, diabetes or conditions linked to obesity.
“At the moment it’s safe in the sense that all the content is being reviewed by our dietician and other registered dieticians, and we’re making sure it follows NHS guidelines,” she says. “Our goal is to make you feel better and we’re not treating any medical conditions at the moment.”
Future additions could be exercise functions and Le Cunff also wants to partner with companies that could offer it as an incentive to their employees. Several companies are trialling this.
“Something we’ve found from our users is that the place where they struggle to eat properly is work – the options are limited and they have limited time, so they end up grabbing something that’s not necessarily healthy,” she says, adding that the app could integrate with an office canteen to take into account the lunch options on offer.
She is concentrating on the UK for now but would love to take Lysa – whose name came from a baby names book – internationally.
On London, she says: “It’s harder for start-ups to raise money there because it’s more risk averse but that’s actually not a bad thing. If you manage to raise money in London it really means something.”
The size of London’s tech community compared to Silicon Valley also means you get to know people quicker, she adds, making it easier to reach out for support. “Silicon Valley does give you access to very smart people working on ambitious and fascinating projects but at the same time I do feel like people there are maybe a bit disconnected from the realities of the lives of regular people,” she says.
“Lots of problems that people were trying to solve in the Valley were not problems that existed outside of it. It’s amazing that there are so many talented people in one place making incredible things happen but there were also lots of not-so wonderful things happening.
“It feels like a family in London and I’m enjoying being a part of it.”
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