The Life Interview With Lim Chun Hong

A step on the right track: Local fitness wearables company Actxa joins the fight against diabetes

After starting out making affordable fitness trackers, Actxa is now joining the fight against diabetes under Mr Lim Chun Hong

Mr Lim Chun Hong knows exactly what gets him stressed out.

The chief executive of local fitness wearables company Actxa is demonstrating how one of its newest services, the Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment, can provide insights into your health and stress levels and help find ways to improve your lifestyle and productivity.

The Firstbeat device, about 15cm in size, needs to be worn on your body for three days using adhesive electrode pads.

It measures exactly how your heart responds to different aspects of your day - everything from those maddeningly long conference calls at work to how well you slept that night - and can track whether you are getting adequate rest.

Using it is simple enough. After three days, you mail your device back to Actxa for analysis and your personalised results are plotted on a graph to make it easy to visualise exactly what is affecting your well-being.

You can then meet its specialists who can advise you on your stress triggers and how you can make changes for the better.

Big data is a term that is thrown around a lot... But even though we are gathering a lot of data from our users, we also want to transform it so that it can lead to useful results. Data is useless unless you can find a way to make it actionable - and that is what we are hoping to do with our products.

MR LIM CHUN HONG, chief executive of local fitness wearables company Actxa, on what drives his business

"See, if you look here, you can see I'm relaxed because I was enjoying an evening with friends over durian and drinks," Mr Lim, 45, says, pointing to an area of his own graph with a sizeable dip, which showed a relaxed, resting heart rate.

"But if you look at how I slept later that night, it's more fitful and not as well as I slept on the other nights, probably because my body had to work doubly hard to digest all that durian and alcohol. Guess it's not true that alcohol always helps you sleep better."

Actxa is the exclusive Asian distributor for the Firstbeat assessment, which is pioneered by a Finnish company, Firstbeat, a leading provider of physiological analytics for sports and well-being.

This is an important milestone for the three-year-old local SME (small-and medium-sized enterprise). It is also an important addition to its arsenal of fitness wearables such as fitness trackers, heart-rate trackers and a smart weighing scale, which can tell you your body composition of muscle and fat as well as bone density and hydration levels through the use of electric signals.

"We were the first Singaporean company in 2015 to start retailing our own fitness trackers and had to compete with big international players such as Garmin, the Apple iWatch and Polar," Mr Lim says of his 10-person team.

"It's been a steep learning curve, so to get a partnership going with Firstbeat, which has been doing research in this area of analytics, sports technologies and well-being for over 20 years, was a big step for us."

For Actxa, the goal is simple: developing health and fitness-related products and experiences that are accessible to everyone.

In line with this, the wearables from Actxa are easier on the wallet compared with trackers from international companies, which can run upwards of $200 for basic models.

Its Actxa Swift model, a basic steps tracker, starts at $49.90. Its most expensive model, the Actxa Spur, which can also measure heart rate, calories burnt and sleep quality, costs $99.

All its wearables can be paired to your phone so you can have your information on the go and monitor your progress over time.

Today, its range of pocket-friendly health products is sold at close to 100 stores in Singapore, including Challenger, Courts, SingPost and Best Denki, on e-commerce platforms such as Lazada and Qoo10 and on Singapore Airlines flights.

Revenue for Actxa also grew exponentially last year - a leap of 317 per cent compared with that in 2016, with the volume of its sales also tripling since 2016.

With such an upward surge despite the company being only in its third year of operations, it is surprising to hear that it had never actually intended to produce fitness trackers to begin with.

"Let's just say our start was more serendipitous than planned," Mr Lim says with a laugh.

Venturing into the wearables industry was the result of a project that had earlier been taken on by its parent company, Activate Interactive.

Actxa has since been spun off as a separate entity to streamline the group's business.

Activate Interactive, a local software development company that has been around for two decades, was approached by the Health Promotion Board (HPB) to come up with an app that could be used by Singaporeans who were participating in the National Steps Challenge, which the organisation was looking to launch in 2015.

Activate, which was big in the gaming apps market, was tasked with coming up with a mobile app that could be paired with a steps tracker to help people record their daily steps count accurately.

At the time, seeing how established trackers on the market were too expensive for HPB to give out for free, Activate began searching for suppliers overseas to provide the tracker hardware that could be paired with the mobile application.

The result of this was the basic tracker rolled out for the first iteration of the National Steps Challenge. The campaign was so successful that all 50,000 trackers were quickly snapped up.

"What we realised then was that there was really demand there - not only from fitness buffs, but even aunties and uncles who were able to quantify their steps by wearing a tracker," Mr Lim says.

"That was how Actxa was born. We saw the potential there to offer more than just the basic tracker - one with more features that could introduce health technology to the masses."

Tracker for diabetes in the works

It was this insight that led to the development and release of its first retail model, the Actxa Stride, at the end of 2015; the Actxa Swift and Swift+ later in 2016; and its newest model, the Actxa Spur, last April.

With each model, the team has added more features to the basic version - better quality straps, a swim-proof exterior for the Swift+ and the ability to offer call and message notifications. With its new model, it has also included a heart rate tracker, which can also give insights into how the user slept.

"With each new model, we are looking to not only improve the interface so it is easy to use, but also to keep offering different features to cater to people who use their trackers in different ways," says Mr Lim.

"For our new model, we noticed that people are now concerned not only about how they exercise, but also how they rest, which is why we wanted to offer that insight."

As a nod to its roots with HPB, those who have one of its original steps trackers can trade it in to get $15 off the price of a new model.

Mrs Julie Chandramohan, 64, had her son help her upgrade to a Spur model last September.

"People think because I'm older, I would not know how to use a fitness tracker, but these are very easy to use and I wear mine all the time," the retiree says. "It is not about age. In fact, as you get older, it is more important to take care of your health. I'm also happy to support a local company."

Mr Lim's background has been varied. The computer systems graduate from Arizona State University has worked in the fields of IT, enterprise systems, healthcare and even lectured at Singapore Polytechnic before joining Actxa as chief executive last January.

On Actxa's agenda right now is research into diabetes in conjunction with Republic Polytechnic and KK Women's and Children's Hospital. This is timely given the redoubled efforts to fight the disease after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted it in his National Day Rally Speech last year.

What it is hoping to release by the end of this year is a wearable device that will allow people to check their blood sugar levels without having to prick their finger and do a blood test.

"Our tests that correlate the variability in your heart rate with blood sugar levels had an accuracy rate of 85 per cent - meaning, over time, your heart rate can help you determine whether your blood sugar levels are high or low," says the father of a 20-month-old daughter.

"This is huge because it can allow someone to take steps towards preventing diabetes, instead of having to take prescriptive measures from a doctor by which time it is too late."

Mr Lim says he is hoping to continue growing the team as it moves forward, especially in line with its plans to expand regionally this year into Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, as well as potentially Japan and China.

His long-term goal? "$100 million in revenue by 2025," he says.

Though optimistic, Mr Lim is cautious, saying he does not want to rush into any big moves just for the sake of doing so.

"We are very much taking our time so we can localise the products according to the needs and languages in the different countries," he says. "Our goal is to impact people's lives and, in turn, put a small Singaporean start-up on the map.

"For us, that means only putting out products that are well-thought-out and useful - that way, we can help drive change towards a healthier and well-balanced lifestyle."

Amendment note: An earlier version of the story said the Actxa Spur costs $129.90. It should be $99. It also said revenue for Actxa grew 400 per cent in 2017 compared with that in 2016. It should be 317 per cent