The Story Behind the Sweat Patch: Innovating at Gatorade
Fitness and sport innovation today is a combination of digital and physical elements, whether it’s wearable fitness trackers or personalized digital coaching programs.
But sports drinks, by their nature, are physical experiences. So when sports fuel producer Gatorade was looking for a way to develop its core product, my company, strategic design consultancy Smart Design, helped it to create the Gx Platform, a service that brings biometric data and electrolyte-enhanced fluids together. Smart Design has also helped to develop Gatorade’s newest offering, the Gx Sweat Patch, a wearable sweat patch that helps athletes track hydration and nutrients they’ve lost through perspiration.
As Gatorade has moved towards becoming a platform business, we’ve kept the following product principles in mind:
1. Stay True to the Company’s Purpose
We’re all familiar with sports drinks. Gatorade was first in the field. It was developed in 1965, when the assistant coach of the University of Florida’s Gators football team got together with the head of its Renal Department, Dr Robert Cade, to come up with a solution to combat players’ dehydration, and subsequent energy loss, in the swampy Florida heat. Cade’s team discovered that some players were losing as much as 18lbs in weight during three hours of college football, mostly water and nutrient loss through sweat. They developed a glucose-and-electrolyte solution, added sweeteners and lemon juice, and Cade’s Ade – soon renamed the snappier Gatorade – was born.
The company has kept up the momentum in sports nutrition and hydration research. In 1985 it founded the Sports Science Institute (GSSI), a laboratory that analyzes the effects of hydration and nutrition on the human body before and after exercise. It has leveraged this expertise to dominate the US sports drink market for decades.
2. Evaluate and Build off Existing Resources
As Gatorade approached its 50th anniversary in 2015, the company, now owned by PepsiCo, was the market-leading sports drink in the US. Gatorade was looking to evolve while maintaining its dominant position and staying true to its mission of helping athletes achieve their goals through a science-based approach to hydration.
When Gatorade approached Smart Design for help, we thought we should capitalize on its existing cutting-edge resources like the GSSI lab and research facility to explore and enable new experiences and services.
3. Quickly Define and Prototype a Hypothesis to Learn
We started with a simple hypothesis: that every athlete is unique, and therefore has unique hydration needs. The perfect scenario to test this hypothesis came when the Brazilian national soccer team asked Gatorade for help in preparing for the 2014 World Cup. Brazil’s coaches were looking to improve the team’s hydration and recovery during the two-week competition on their home turf.
The GSSI lab has developed a test to measure fluid balance and analyze sweat sodium content during activity, informing the athlete how much they sweat, how fast, and the concentration of sodium. We used these findings to build and pilot a sports fuel performance system for the Brazilian team, comprised of pods that contain different levels of carbohydrates and electrolytes. The pods are mixed with water to create personalized Gatorade formulas that help individual athletes to prepare and recover based on what their body needs.
This initiative marked a new direction for Gatorade, and after multiple pilots with professional, college, and high school sports teams, we designed and developed what became the Gatorade Gx Platform. This is a direct-to-consumer business model for Gatorade that includes digital and physical touchpoints to help athletes monitor and personalize their hydration. We began prototyping and testing the platform with a team of 18 athletes but in the past three years this has expanded to more than 40 professional and collegiate teams across the world. The first commercial elements of the platform launched in 2018. Gatorade now markets a pared-down version of the Gx Platform direct to consumers.
4. Make the Leap into Adjacent and Relevant Product Categories
The Gx Platform was developed for pro athletes, but we discovered there was an opportunity in the consumer ecosystem to bring personalized sports nutrition to anyone interested in maximizing their athletic performance. We needed to find a solution that would allow us to democratize lab-based sweat testing, so Smart and Gatorade collaborated with Epicore Biosystems, a company that has developed a proprietary sweat microfluidic sensing platform, to create a single-use wearable patch that analyzes the body’s sweat.
The Gx Sweat Patch adheres to the forearm. It passively measures an athlete’s sweat rate and electrolyte composition and can be scanned with a companion smartphone app. The platform uses the biometric data gathered from the Sweat Patch to generate individual hydration recommendations to optimize performance based on weather, intensity, and activity duration. The product was showcased at TED 2019 and will be piloted this year with professional teams and consumer athletes.
From Sports Drinks to Sports Monitoring
Hydration and sports nutrition are just one element in a full sports monitoring system, moving Gatorade into a multi-platform product ecosystem. Expansion of the existing product and service into new areas revitalizes the core product and increases market penetration. With the pared-down Gx Platform already being sold to consumers, we believe the Sweat Patch and app, when released, will unlock cost-effective personalization and create more actionable sports nutrition recommendations for consumers.
Gatorade and Smart Design plan to continue to leverage this hypothesis-driven, pilot-based process to uncover and scale meaningful personalized products and service opportunities.