We strive to have a rhythmic and healthy heart. Athletes push for lung capacity. The consumer packaged goods industrial complex champions the importance of one’s gut health. And here we are, ashamed of the way our own brains work.
There is a pang that I feel when I allude to my own mental health struggles in public. There is a stigma associated, an acknowledgment that none of us are as strong or as tough or as sound as we believe ourselves to be. Ten years ago, I would have thought it was a failure to express any thoughts on the matter, publicly or privately. Five years ago, I would have burdened my best friend for help at the risk of an intensity in responsibility that isn’t healthy to distribute or accept. But today, I try to communicate to those who listen that it’s just a part of being a human being, a creator, a parent, an entrepreneur, and a soul.
I have had dozens of head injuries and resulting neurological issues. I suffered from post traumatic stress, crippling social anxiety, and a depth of depression that I wouldn’t wish on my worst foe. Many young women and men are taught to train to peak physical performance and to ignore any signs of mental or emotional weakness. Some coaches say things like, “Silence the brain.” Imagine thinking this way for three decades. It is, above all else, an acknowledgment of our failures as a society that the body adapts to work and rest and nutrition. This is all changing and it will continue to in the years to come.
Your brain deserves the same attention as the rest of your organs and the world is finally catching up to the fact that it can be as injured or as malfunctioning as any outwardly visible muscle, bone, ligament, or tendon. Enter one of the quiet but meaningful acquisitions of the past year: Hyperice’s deal with Core Meditation. For the first time in an industry overcrowded by health and wellness devices, one company chose to marry physical recovery with mental improvement. From the acquisition announcement:
Core is designed to help people find calm, improve focus and inner strength. Unlike other meditation apps, Core is both an app and a handheld meditation device designed to track heart rate and stress levels
Sarah McDevitt, CEO and co-founder of Core, is a friend of mine. The 5’11” guard and former New York University basketball player is one of those quiet and steady stoic types who rarely wears her weaknesses on her sleeve. Over the few years that we’ve known one another, I have observed how she’s handled her own pressures. She must have been under incredible stress for a time. Her growth plans were halted by a once in a century pandemic. Her team turned over. And the conversation around the importance of meditation was on the fringes of the health and wellness industry. Few took it seriously before recently.
Core was incubated within the walls of Bolt VC in San Francisco (also an early believer in Tonal) by co-founder Brian Bolze and McDevitt. The value of Bolt’s early involvement was priceless: the access to facilities, technical designers, and developers helped to establish Core as an entrant into a field rarely pursued by independent operators. In a 2019 memo, I covered the prospect of her success:
Core is launching a meditation device that actively measures its effects by tracking HRV, a measure that allows consumers to quantitatively measure the strain on their central nervous system. Entrepreneurs and other high risk professionals have used this measure to discuss their levels of stress and depression for a time; however, HRV’s interest is growing quickly in non-athletic spaces.
But adoption was always going to be a problem without tens of millions in capital to spend on demand generation. She simply didn’t have that. She also didn’t have much luck. Her meditation trainer was well-designed and well-received, winning an honor at 2020’s CES convention. But the question has long been: how does Core compete with meditation apps and less capable but wider-known physical devices? The antidote for anonymity is usually the highest visibility partnerships you can purchase, which is buy-in from professional athletes and entertainers. It is not customary for venture firms (outside of perhaps A16Z) to be able to provide such introductions. And at a certain point, there isn’t a venture raise that can fund a company’s way into the world of professional sports. At just $4 million raised since 2016, the company was undercapitalized and underappreciated. But on occasion, luck and timing do begin to work in your favor.
The Luck and Timing of Now
By the time that Naomi Osaka had announced her decision to sit out at Wimbledon, McDevitt and team were already in conversation with Hyperice CEO Jim Huether. Another fortuitous connection would emerge. Jason Stein of SC Holdings is a fierce advocate and board member at Hyperice. He’s also an NYU basketball alum. Sometimes, luck swings in your favor and the shared experience between the McDevitt and Stein certainly helped.
In many ways, Osaka jump-started the current national conversation around mental health when she announced in May that she would not participate in mandatory press conferences ahead of the French Open. She later withdrew from the tournament, explaining that “I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media” and that she had faced “long bouts of depression” since 2018. 
Several weeks later, Simone Biles announced that she would be bowing out of her upcoming events at the 2020 Olympics, shocking fans and citing the need to prioritize her mental health. In one statement, she disappointed many of those observers simply by doing what was right for her. The online chatter around both Osaka’s and Biles’s personal decisions was insatiable: cable news hosts lamented them as figures with poor character. Trolling was even more relentless from gentlemen who might have once scored a single basket or remembered catching a single, JV touchdown pass back in high school.
But what these very public displays of defiance represented was a shift away from the shame of mental health concerns. Two of the strongest and most accomplished athletes in sports chose to mend the invisible scars. Just a decade prior, it would have been unlikely to see athletes make these decisions at the tops of their games. Now here we are, with mental health atop the list of athletic concerns. And as the national conversation continues to develop, Core has a new resource in Hyperice to bridge the divide between the mental and physical. More importantly, Hyperice and Jason Stein offer access to elite athletes and entertainers. Just a year ago, Stein’s SC Holdings invested in Mav Carter and Lebron James in Springhill Company, for instance.
When I was notified of the company’s decision to join Hyperice, I was ecstatic. Not only for Sarah McDevitt and team, her previous investors, and her new business partners but for the message made to the greater athletic community. The timing of the marriage between physical and mental health disciplines are long overdue. The shame around it is still dissipating; you can still sense the hesitancy in athletes. A recent statement by Aaron Rodgers:
The mental side of it is so important for all of us athletes. I don’t think it’s talked about enough. But taking time to work on yourself is, I think, the best gift any of us can give ourselves.
In three years’ time, athletes like Rodgers will no longer tip-toe around the anguish of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. He will give a full-throated analysis of his mental health, no differently than he’d discuss a strained MCL or tendinosis. The commercialization of mental healthcare will be viewed as before and after its stigma and 2021 will be a pivotal year in that story. The Hyperice acquisition of Core will be remembered as a part of that change. A little company with $4 million in funding and fewer than 10 employees lived up to its original goal of impacting a greater industry. Its original investors and supporters should be proud that the Core team set aside the ego and thought big enough to partner with one of the prominent and well-connected companies in athletics. It’s a category that will be redefined.
By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes