Most people look at fitness equipment and see only the physical challenge in front of them. Aly Orady, an electrical engineer by training, looked around the gym one morning and saw a different challenge: could you take all that equipment and make it digital? 

The answer, as it turns out, is yes. On Thursday, Orady's fitness startup, Tonal, is launching to the public after three years of operating in stealth. The company's workout machine uses no weights. It mounts on your wall, contains arms and handles, and looks like a minimalist jukebox when not in use. A built-in trainer coaches you through your workout via video, and algorithms adjust the level of resistance on the fly. The company calls it "the first-ever digital weight system."

Until a few years ago, Orady would have seemed like an unlikely candidate to build the fitness machine of the future. "Growing up, I was the chubby kid with glasses who could code," he says. He graduated from high school at 15 and college at 19, then worked at a series of tech companies including Hewlett-Packard and computer startup Pano Logic. Physical fitness was never a priority. By the time he was 35, Orady was working at Samsung and well into a successful career in tech. But his health was already failing. He was overweight, had developed type 2 diabetes, and was struggling with sleep apnea.

"I got to a breaking point," he says. "I decided I really needed to change." In 2013, he did something drastic: He quit his job and decided to focus on getting his weight under control. 

Orady started going to the gym, using the elliptical machine and lifting weights. Over the next nine months, he lost 70 pounds. "I felt absolutely amazing," Orady says. "It transformed my life in more ways than I could ever explain."

He looked the best he ever had, and he felt positive and confident. As he started realizing it was time to get back to work though, he began to wonder how he would balance 6 a.m. workouts with a job. "Clearly, he says, "that didn't work for me before."

Sitting on a workout bench in 2014 and staring at the huge machines in front of him, Orady had an idea. Gym equipment is so massive and bulky because it relies on metal plates and gravity. What if that same force could be replicated electronically? He went home, ordered workout accessories, a motor, and some magnets, and began building a prototype mounted on his kitchen counter. 

Three months later, the entrepreneur had a working model he could show to potential investors. He secured seed funding from firms including Mayfield Fund, recruited a team of engineers, and started building the real thing. 

A personal journey.

Digitally connected workout systems like Peloton, which exploded around the time Orady was founding Tonal and did $400 million in revenue last year, have established there are customers willing to pay a premium to work out at home with the help of on-screen trainers. With good reason: The CDC reports 77 percent of Americans don't get enough exercise.

Orady argues that all the digital fitness products currently on the market mostly focus on cardio training. "We're the only ones doing any sort of connected fitness with strength training," he says. 

Tonal employs an all-in-one machine concept perhaps made most famous by Bowflex, the rod-based home gym system, marketed via infomercials, that became popular in the 1990s. Its arms, which fold into itself when not in use, can be configured to handle more than 200 different exercises from biceps curls to bench press to dead lifts.

Similar to Peloton, which connects customers on its indoor bikes to a live, trainer-led workout, Tonal offers on-screen coaching via real trainers from the Bay Area. Tonal's coaches, however, are prerecorded; they demonstrate the proper motions before each exercise, then bark motivational orders as prompted by your movements. A first-time user completes a 10-minute assessment that creates a baseline for each exercise. The software then forms a workout based on your selected goals (build muscle, lose weight, etc.), and the built-in trainer--who can be muted or shut off entirely--coaches you through it.

An AI instructor isn't anything new. The real magic of Tonal is in the exercises themselves. The resistance isn't created by weight, but by an electromagnetic field controlled by algorithms and, as Orady says, "tons and tons of math." The turn of a dial determines how much force a user feels when they pick up the handle. The system captures data on whether you're handling the weight with ease or struggling through it, which allows it to not only tailor the rest of your workout, but to adjust how much resistance you feel during your current rep.

Tim Chang, a venture capitalist at Mayfield, knew Orady from his previous role at Pano Logic. He saw the entrepreneur's rough prototype in 2015 and was convinced enough to invest in the company's seed round. Mayfield has since invested in Tonal again.

Chang, who lifts weights regularly, was most impressed by the fact that the system can adjust weight in real time, essentially acting as a built-in spotter. It can also increase resistance on the negative portion of your repetition--the part of the rep in which you're being aided by gravity--which is a great strength-building exercise but one that's difficult to execute.

"That's a capability no machine or trainer has ever been able to deliver before," he says. "Often you have to pay a coach or trainer by the hour to remove plates for you, and even then they couldn't adjust the difficulty on the negative part of the rep. For me, that was it: Holy shit, this does something that nothing could ever do before."

Time will tell whether Tonal can capture the magic of Bowflex, which reportedly has sold more than 2.5 million units since its 1986 debut. Or whether customers will be willing to mount a piece of workout equipment on the wall of their home.

There's also the cost. The unit is priced at $2,995, and the service will run you another $49 per month for an unlimited number of accounts. (For comparison, Peloton costs $1,995 and $39, respectively; Bowflex systems range from $500 to $3,000). Tonal does offer a 24-month payment plan for the price of the unit.

The San Francisco-based company is selling the machines on its website. The startup has a showroom in the city's Cow Hollow neighborhood, a tactic Orady says will be part of its sales strategy for the foreseeable future. To start, it will ship only to the Bay Area. Orady has his eyes set on a nationwide expansion in the coming months, followed by global expansion.

The entrepreneur is tight-lipped when it comes to how much funding the company has secured. "We've been at this for three and a half years, and we're between 50 and 100 employees," he says of his pre-revenue startup, "so we're very, very well-supported by some really great investors." He anticipates announcing a new funding round later this year.

Even as Tonal enters its critical launch phase, Orady remains committed to his workout plan. He runs to the startup's headquarters every day. When he gets there, he does a 30-minute workout on one of the office's systems. He's convinced the system, which also supports interval training and stretching exercises, will help him keep up his personal physical renaissance.

"If I had this five years ago," he says, "I might never have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I might never had been diagnosed with sleep apnea. I might not have had to quit my job. It would have given me everything I needed."

Published on: Aug 16, 2018