By their senior year in 2012, University of Waterloo students Dhananja Jayalath and Christopher Wiebe had already secured plans for their first moves post-college. Jayalath was headed to a hardware-engineering post at Apple and Wiebe was joining Analog Devices as a chip designer.
In other words, they had lined up the dream jobs of engineering students everywhere. But things did not go according to plan--and in the best way possible.
A chance meeting
Three days after their final exams, they found themselves on a call with venture capitalist and former Facebook exec Chamath Palihapitiya. At the university's design symposium a couple of weeks earlier, the two self-described "gym rats" had shown Palihapitiya their capstone project--prototyped fitness clothing embedded with sensors that could communicate with your smartphone to tell you how hard your muscles were working. And now the investor wanted to know if they could be in Palo Alto--that very day. Since the two students were in Toronto, they settled on meeting the next afternoon and booked a flight for 6 a.m. Then Jayalath and Wiebe dashed back to the school's lab to reassemble the project they had only recently dismantled.
The two had talked about what kind of money they might need to parlay their clothing into a legitimate wearable fitness company and agreed that $250,000 seemed about right. "If [Palihapitiya] gives us anywhere near that, we're fucking doing this," Jayalath remembers thinking.
Not too long into their 3 p.m. meeting the following day, Palihapitiya offered Jayalath and Wiebe half a million dollars and office space at his investment firm, Social Capital. Apple and Analog Devices, respectively, had just lost their promising young recruits. Palihapitiya also joined the company as a co-founder and the executive chairman.
The big idea
If wristbands such as Jawbone, Fitbit, and Nike's FuelBand represent the first wave in fitness wearables, Jayalath envisions his company, now called Athos, leading the next wave. Wristbands and similar strap-on sensors are great at measuring how far you run and the changes in your elevation, but that's about it. Athos's exercise clothing promises to measure how your body moves and how hard your muscles are working. Do you favor your right arm over your left in a bench press? The electrodes built into the fabric will find out because they track the electrical activity of muscles using electromyography (EMG), the same technology doctors use to measure nerve and muscle function in the body.
A long-sleeve compression shirt is packed with 14 EMG sensors, two heart rate sensors, and two breathing sensors. (A pair of bike shorts or leggings comes with eight EMG sensors and four heart rate sensors.) Those sensors then wirelessly transmit the electrical activity to a thin, flexible "core" embedded in the clothing that syncs with Athos's smartphone app. The core costs $199 and each item of clothing (shirt, bike shorts, and capris) is $99.
Jayalath says the technology provides all the benefits of a fitness trainer but at a fraction of the cost. The app automatically logs your workouts and measures your performance against desired muscle output, heart rate, and more. So, in theory, you have the information to correct your form and the motivation to work harder than you did the last time.
The marriage of highly sophisticated hardware with highly useful software is precisely how a startup like Athos can stand out in the wearable-computer industry, says Mike Liebhold, senior technology researcher and distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future.
"I think it's very innovative," Liebold says. "It's right at the leading edge. Anybody can build sensors. It's all about the intelligence, the application, and the human factors--and from what I can tell, [Athos is] thinking very hard on that."
Liebhold isn't the only one who is impressed with Athos. When the two founders got an introduction to the CEO of the Sri Lankan factory that makes Nike's wearable fitness products, he signed on to manufacture Athos's products immediately, even though it meant keeping one of the production lines offline for a year while the two companies figured out what equipment would be necessary to make the clothing.
"It was probably the one time in my life being Sri Lankan came in handy," Jayalath says.
Currently, Athos is working on rolling out the products very slowly. You can reserve the clothing through the company's website but it won't ship until summer. Jayalath says that for now, Athos will sell directly to customers, instead of distributing through other retail channels or partnering with a better-known brand, so that the company can learn more about how to perfect the clothing.
"If I asked people how to make their workouts better," he says, "the answer is probably not clothing that measures muscle activity."
So Athos's main task is to convince people that they need something that, up until now, they've lived without. If anyone can do it, surely a couple of smart gym rats can.