There are plenty of fitness trackers out there. But there is currently nothing on the market that analyses how you run – until now. Meet Jurgen van den Berg and Andrew Statham; two entrepreneurs based in Eindhoven. They combine a passion for athletics with a strong science background. Here’s the story of why they’re rolling out the Arion Clip – a smart insole that fits snugly inside your running shoe. They've already begun the race to revolutionise the running electronics market. There are clearly a scale-up in the making and one to watch in 2016….
Jurgen van den Berg CTO and Andrew Statham CEO, founders of ATO Gear captured during Dutch Design Week at Strijp-S Eindhoven.
How you run is so important
It’s well-known that regular exercise makes you fitter and healthier. It can boost your immune system, and it’s been shown to make your brain function better. But running is a type of sport that accumulates load on the body. So you rarely suffer from acute injury. But if you run in the wrong way, you can build up injuries over time. Many running shoes are designed to offer a lot of cushioning. That means you may be unaware how your running style is damaging your knees, hips, lower back or Achilles Tendons.
“Our smart insole measures and analyses your running technique” explains Andrew. “It gives you practical advice on improving your performance and reducing injury risk.”
This is not a toy
“Our background is in research, so this is not just a gadget, it’s really a service platform backed by proven technology. It’s connected to a global community of trained medical professionals, nutritionists, sports coaches and physiotherapists”.
Professional sports coaches will often focus on one element at a time, help their athlete master it, then move on to the next. That means breaking biomechanics down into manageable pieces, so you gradually rebuild and improve your running technique.
Arion is ready for the run – unleash the inner athlete
Runners who are just starting out are often over-enthusiastic. They don't pay much attention to the technique of running. At the top-sport level the majority does, but at a recreational level running is often considered a natural motion. You buy a pair of running shoes, go outside and gradually you start running faster. But you’ll gain many more benefits from exercise when you're running well. If you’re over 35, then it’s always advisable to get advice before you do so from initiatives like Start2Run in the Netherlands or the equivalent in your own country.
Modern running shoes – a crash helmet for your feet
“The invention of modern running shoes means your biomechanics are very different from what they would be naturally. Look at what a shoe does. It protects you because it has damping cushions and structures to stabilize the foot. It is rather like a crash-helmet for your feet.”
“But this means you can't feel your foot, so you can't feel your technique change. That's the principle behind barefoot running…it hurts when you do it wrong. By avoiding the pain, you are reducing the biomechanical load to the body. There are many reasons why, if you remove the shoe, that's also not a good idea. You can quickly become injured because there is no protection from sharp objects. So runners can benefit from understanding how they're moving that isn't served by just removing your shoe.”
The value of training with a coach
People will go to a coach to change their running technique. Sometimes it' s because they got injured and they want to run in a way to help recover and prevent a reoccurrence. For others, it’s simply that they want to improve their performance and shave a few minutes off their (half) marathon time.
“At the top level competitive sports the goal is to win. But for most people, the goal is simply to raise their personal performance goal. During the Amsterdam marathon we met an Irish runner who had set himself a goal to run the race in 3'59"59s – a psychological milestone for him. This personal goal is what keeps him motivated to keep running and participating. Changing his running technique helps him achieve that goal. And this approach in running, works for other sports too.”
“Few of us have the luxury of a professional coach running alongside you. So with existing gadgets you need to capture the data for self-analysis later. We have a portfolio of patents that protect a number of sensing platforms. One of those is the pressure-sensitive insole system. We break running down into separate puzzle pieces. You focus on improving one parameter at a time. Together with a coach, or an electronic coach in the app, you can compile and track your personal training schedule.”
The inner electronics uncovered…..
Unique dataset in the cloud provides extremely useful insights.
All the data collected is uploaded into the cloud where we have built a huge database including unique datasets for individuals. They can then give permission to coaches, physiotherapists or other health professionals to look at their data and send back advice and/or training schedules to help runners remotely.
It's not just the algorithms, it's the network of qualified professionals who are there to interpret the data and turn it into personalised advice.
Jurgen van den Berg adds. “The raw pressure data is actually hard to interpret. So we have a number of algorithms translating that raw data into parameters that are important for running. That's the interface with the coach. So the coach can see step by step how the foot is behaving. The coach can spot points that could be improved and suggest a training schedule, nutrition, and perhaps physiotherapy leading to better performance and a reduced risk of injury.”
From startup towards scale-up – how it all started
Co-founder Jurgen van den Berg (CTO) studied electrical engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology. He’s been running a hardware and software development company since his second year in university in 2008. After graduating in 2012 he continued to work more than full-time on building his own business.
Andrew Statham has a background in Physics, Sports and Exercise Sciences and a PhD. in Mechanical Engineering from the Sports Technology Institute in the UK. He came to Eindhoven to work at TNO, the Dutch national applied research organisation, on health and sports related technologies. He realised there was an opportunity to spin out some of their patented technologies. “Jurgen knew TNO because they were a customer, so that’s how we met. We discovered a common drive for helping people realise their personal goals in sports.”
“For us, the challenge has been to use the patent-portfolio that Andrew had assembled in TNO and turn it into a real-product. It must fit real customer needs. We’re using tried and tested sensor technologies – but what we add are the complex algorithms that give meaning to this data. We're also in close contact with the Holst Centre on High Tech Campus Eindhoven because of their work with flexible electronics.”
“We develop technologies to help people better understand the way they move. Our first product focuses on the running market, moving better, safer and faster. Many products track what you're doing – giving you stats on your heart-rate, calories burned, etc. But we answer the question how do you move?”
Measuring your running gate today
“Our approach has been to build a mobile lab that is not intrusive. Runners don't feel anything. Our sensors fit snugly between the foot and the shoe, so we can see how the foot is moving inside the shoe compared to how the shoe is moving along the ground. The research by the Universities has been to compare the data from the force plate to validate the data we get from the Arion smart insole.”
One of the sports science labs in the basement of SX-Eindhoven
Staying Open yet protecting IP
“The SX-building in Eindhoven’s creative district Strijp-S is all about being open and creating cross-fertilizations between sports, marketing and media. So when we arrived in September 2015, there were a few raised eyebrows when our first task was to build a wall in one corner. But we are a technology company whose value is closely linked to its intellectual property (IP). We have IP that is pat-pending plus some important patents that are already registered. You are required to have some secrecy. So there are times when we need to create a secure environment where we can develop radical cutting edge technologies, keep it safe and protected. We do that by shutting that part of the office in the corner. That said, there are two sides to the wall and the door is usually open. Most of the activity of the company takes place on the open side of our space because collaboration between us and the rest of the SX-Eindhoven environment is key to the future development of our company.”
SX-Eindhoven – a brilliant environment for creatives.
“We owe a lot to Bob van Oosterhout, founder of TripleDouble, the visionary that built the unique SX ecosystem. We’re on the fourth floor where researchers from TNO and Fontys Applied Science University work closely with sports-related clubs and federations to encourage the public to increase their participation in all kinds of sports. Many of the national sports federations use this place as a hub. There are also reps from the Dutch national Olympic committee visiting the building. This 88-member organization represents the interests of around 28,000 sport clubs in the Netherlands. 5 million people out of 17 million are somehow involved in organized sports. So this is a great opportunity for us to get close to our market but also work with athletes who become ambassadors for our brand. Getting access to these types of people is almost impossible on your own. The other component is media production. Jeroen Veldkamp of Veldcamp media productions has been helping us build a powerful story explaining what we do. They work with all the top athletes to help them gain sponsorship.”
Validating the algorithms really work
“We have a network of partners across Europe. There is the Energy Lab in the basement giving us access to calibrated test equipment which we wouldn't otherwise be able to afford. But we also have partnerships with the Luxembourg Institute of Health, Maastricht University, Loughbourgh University in the UK, and TNO. It's a network that enables us to validate the science and technology. We've also been fortunate that PhD students have thoroughly investigated what we're trying to do with the company. They add scientific credibility to our technology and we've learned a lot from their independent findings. We can reproduce the key parameters we need to a very high level of accuracy for a relatively low cost.”
Build it right by co-creating with customers
“The inside of a shoe is a challenging place for a sensor. We've had to design a system that can withstand substantial wear and tear as well as high humidity and attack by various other factors including all kinds of foot creams! We have to think about battery life, app interface design and the logistics and security around cloud computing. Our tests in the field have been to examine user's behaviour – did runners find it easy to use? And to ask directly about runners experience using the system. One of the first pieces of feedback was that marathon runners don’t carry a phone – you want to get rid of anything you don’t really need to carry. So we made that happen, our device stores the data and you load it up to the cloud when the session is over.”
“The key to a successful business like this is knowing what we need to scale-up. Eindhoven has plenty of supply chain expertise who are helping us with volume manufacturing, and we know we need investment for tooling and upfront inventory.”
“Building a startup like this is not a job – it’s a personal challenge, a way of life. We know that picking the right members of our team at this stage of development is very important. You need people with the right mentality and skill set who share the passion and pull together when challenges occur before an important deadline. That’s happened to us”
Turning users into global ambassadors
“Patrick Gabriëls (pictured) is one of the founders of Startupbootcamp HightechXL. He's also a very enthusiastic runner, but he's only been doing it seriously for a few years. He's now working with a coach. When he first saw the Arion sole with its clip he expressed caution. During a marathon you're running for many hours, everything starts to ache and you feel everything. He wanted this technology to work without noticing it is there. So he took our sensor to trial it during the 2015 Eindhoven marathon. He came back to report that he didn't feel a thing; it is totally non-intrusive. He’s become an international ambassador for our work. “
A coach for every step of the way
“We've also had interest from Germán Silva, the Mexican long distance runner. His foremost achievements were back-to-back victories at the New York City Marathon, which got world headlines. His personal best for the marathon is two hours, eight minutes and 56 seconds. We met him during the recent Amsterdam marathon and he was incredibly enthusiastic. He coaches young athletes in both Mexico and The Netherlands. At the moment, he communicates with his runners by email and sends Excel spreadsheets to share new training plans and get feedback. Our solution gives him rapid data feedback on what each of his runners are doing and continuously monitors the trends. Because it’s possible to monitor someone in real-time through our cloud, he is effectively running alongside them every step they take. So it's a way to scale his training business in a way that would be physically impossible. And it’s a way for a runner to report progress to anyone in their support team that they choose.”
From startup to scaleup – rapid progress, driven by passion
“Product-wise we're ready now with our launch version. And because we're cloud-based we can constantly update consumer-facing apps as we gain more user feedback. We've spent the summer validating some points that still needed resolving – and we also looked for an inspiring location to build the next stage of the company.”
“We have several hundred beta testers in the market (including 150 runners during the recent Dutch marathons) who have really put Arion to the practical test. We've launched a sign-up program on the website for those curious to know more. And we’re pointing out to investors that this is the first of a much larger product suite based on this smart technology. We're also building partnerships with companies like Runners World and Run2Day who, combined, have over 50 stores across the Netherlands. Direct sales channel over the web is ready to launch, thanks to partners here at SX-Eindhoven. And we're also working with the Dutch national athletic association, Athletiek Unie. And associated top athletes, for instance, Jonathan Mutebwa, the Dutch sprint champion is actively using our system. The shoe-fitting systems and the coaching platforms are B2B, whilst the direct sales to individual runners are obviously B2C. The running coaches turn out to be our best ambassadors. they can only focus at the moment on the people they are currently coaching. We provide them with a platform to expand their business. And more users mean a win-win for everybody.” “For investors we have also partnered up with Leapfunder, an innovative equity crowdfunding platform that allows anyone to participate in our company for a relatively low investment threshold, and provides us with a method for combining our investor network into one platform. Our Leapfunder campaign will open shortly for investors and we are certainly interested in expanding our network and welcome additional experience in our advisory and mentor pool: .”
Extra challenges for hardware startups
“When you have an app, you just push it out through an appstore. If you make a mistake, you provide an update. But when you have a hardware component, you have to thoroughly test prototypes and think about materials as well as supply and distribution chains. If you can’t scale to cope with global demand, then you’re making a big mistake in the eyes of investors. And a mistake can cost you months of lost time and revenue. That said, our approach needs sensors you can’t put in a phone. So the effort is much bigger, but then so are the rewards if we rise to the challenge.”
“We were part of 2014/5 Startupbootcamp HightechXL accelerator program. We still visit the Hightech Campus regularly to meet mentors and take part in their regular activities for scale-ups. Eindhoven is really one large innovation district – everyone's a next-door neighbour, certainly by American standards."
“Startupbootcamp HightechXL gave us an immense amount of relevant coaching. Not only in how to present the product, but how to turn a great idea into a real business. We learned to understand what athletes really wanted. Even though we’re both sports enthusiasts, you learn a lot about product-market fit when you talk to people who want to buy your product because they really need the service it provides. We did it by co-creating this product with local running clubs and coaches. They gave us valuable user feedback on what was intuitive and what they didn’t need.”
“Mentors have been very important to us – we can always learn from those with frontline experience. And we are aware that different European countries manage their risk in ventures like ours in different ways. In the Netherlands, investors are interested in being hands on. In the UK, its more VC orientated funding which is going to be useful at a later stage.”
Why grow the company in the Netherlands?
“There are pluses and minuses for any location. You need to be aware of some of the regulations in the Netherlands – for instance, freedom of movement of shares between team members is different from what we’ve been used to in the UK. Acquiring grants and support also take longer in our experience. But the tax environment is now much more favourable. And in our field of sports-technology there’s a dedicated ecosystem already established in Eindhoven which we’re tapping into.”
And finally – what’s behind your name?
"Ah, that's simple. ATO stands for Against the Odds. Our technology unleashes potential you didn’t know you had."
ATO-gear founders were in conversation with international science writer Jonathan Marks