Marko Mäkinen, CEO of Summa Labs


In this Q&A, you’ll hear from Marko Mäkinen, CEO of Summa Labs, a hormone-focused health analytics platform. Marko shares how an initial aim to develop adaptogenic supplements for athletes led to a revelatory connection between hormone levels and training load. He also speaks to implications for longevity and metabolism and what it’s like sharing a talent pool with the likes of Oura and Polar.

Tell us about Summa.

Marko Mäkinen: Summa provides customers with hormone-based performance and health analytics.

We collect hormonal data from periodic saliva samples, combine the biomarker data with contextual data gathered with the Summa Health app, and feed the datasets into our AI model.

This way, we can precisely map, and even predict, the daily status and developments in individuals’ daily performance potential, trainability, recovery needs and health while also supplying the insights on lifestyle choices.

Looking at hormone values and ratios (vs. stimuli) periodically gives us better information than competing methods due to the crucial role of hormones in regulating the body’s physiological processes.

Heart rate monitors and sports computers, when used alone, are capable of measuring load only, but they are largely blind to anabolism and reflect recovery poorly. HRV calculations, meanwhile, offer an estimate of the recovery status of the nervous system, but this is not equal to looking at the underlying, hormone-driven biochemical process of building muscle cells or increasing cellular energy storage.

A more complete method, we assess the most important anabolic and catabolic hormones – testosterone and cortisol – to provide the best information about the body’s response to load/stress and recovery.

What led you to pursue this opportunity?

MM: We were developing a formulation for a natural performance enhancer based on a combination of adaptogens – herbal extracts believed to help the body to better adapt to stress – and wanted to know whether the compounds work as advertised. So, we set a test group and started to monitor the subjects 24/7 using HR monitors, sleep trackers, questionnaires and a wide hormone panel.

This is when we noticed the tight correlation between physical and mental load and the reactivity of hormones, tracing the associated trends, the high daily variability and the wide dynamic ranges of hormones as they react to external and internal stimuli.

We also learned that we can access inside-the-body information, equivalent to what can be gathered from blood, by collecting saliva – a method that is both noninvasive and easy and has a very high collection success rate.

This is the point when we decided to set up Summa Labs. We landed on hormones as the biomarker of choice for our needs and chose the best hormones to track at start. We’ve been executing customer-centric R&D and collecting increasing numbers of saliva samples ever since.

But, in order to make our method really scale, we also need technology that can provide precise and instant hormone readings, on the spot, in time to guide next-day activity. That’s why, with our academic and corporate partners, we are developing an electrochemical sensor to detect hormones and other small molecules in saliva – bleeding-edge technology that will see its first physical embodiment in 2024.

How did you turn your idea into a company?

MM: What puts Oulu, Finland – our HQ location – on the map in the context of health & fitness tech is the fact that the HR monitor was invented here back in 1977. Both Polar Electro and Oura are from here, so there’s a strong talent base for building consumerized health technologies, and we’ve been tapping into it with success when building our team.

The Summa core team has deep experience in scaling consumer-facing startups in bioscience, sports science, fitness tech and mobile, as well as in brand building, communications and content. We are strong in IP as well.

First and foremost, we view our venture as a data play, and with hormonal data, we are nearing the 12.000 data point mark – sufficient to start teaching our Summa AI the interaction of load, other stressors and hormone levels.

The vast majority of this data is coming from elite athletes who compete on an international level, both male and female. While their hormone levels do differ, the dynamics are the same (and the difference is often much less than what is commonly thought).

Despite the time delay in getting the results with our current saliva sampling kit, the athletes love our data and how we present it. For the first time, they can see whether they were anabolic or catabolic on a given day or for total training load.

How big can this get?

MM: With great traction in sport already, the opportunity is certainly massive – by some estimates, in the US and EU, there are +100K pro athletes & coaches, 20M active athletes and 75M health self-monitoring consumers.

The use case for monitoring the first hormones we support, testosterone and cortisol, span all aspects of physical activity and recovery management to areas such as stress, sleep, nutrition and inflammation monitoring. And there’s the social aspect of these hormones to consider – starting from the motivation to grind to the will to win.

We can also serve the longevity, hormone therapy and supplements markets. And once we add our next target hormone, insulin, into the mix, we can address several additional key health challenges from glucose control to carb, energy and weight management.

While our own focus is on the consumer side, there are certainly applications for our tech on the healthcare side as well, particularly in the rapidly growing diagnostics market.

How do you reach your core customer?

MM: Our core customers are the health optimisers in the general population, but our go-to-market goes through goal-oriented athletes, coaches and sports organizations.

Our concepts are familiar in that field, as the ratio of testosterone to cortisol is often utilized in sport science as an index of exercise stress level. These people really want the Summa data and are thereby willing to diligently monitor hormones over extended periods. In turn, we get superb structured data that teaches us what the graphs look like when things are done correctly.

We are currently in an early phase, where we directly solicit elite athletes and influencers in target verticals to showcase our offering and build brand awareness. Although, we’ve started to receive inbound traffic lately as well.

With success so far, we plan to expand our customer base both through D2C and B2B channels.

What’s next on the roadmap?

MM: We have developed and patented a novel UI – the Summa Map. It’s a way to orient yourself visually with regards to loading, stress, recovery and associated hormone responses, as well as define your performance potential of the day.

We are looking to bring Summa Map UI into our app over the next quarter, enabling us to onboard more customers and lower the need for face-to-face customer debriefings.

We are also looking to fully validate and fix our electrochemistry “recipe” over the next few months and have just started taking steps to productize that into a MVP sensor + reader product.

Anything else you’d like to share with readers?

MM: I’d like the readers to know that it pays to monitor hormones, as they provide highly valuable information about the body’s physiological status. Their activity combines external stimuli and the resulting cell-level responses into a fundamental, integrated datapoint.

But, you will need to understand the context properly, meaning the factors that led to those hormone levels. Once you have both sides of the equation covered, you can steer your habits, lifestyle and interventions accordingly.

Hormone levels are also highly dynamic – in an active population, daytime changes in the hundreds of percents are typical. So, take the results of a single hormone test with a grain of salt.

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