Start-up of the week: ExerWise

29 Feb 2016

ExerWise co-founders Laura Hanlon and Nicola O'Sullivan. Photo: Connor McKenna

Our start-up of the week is ExerWise, which is developing an activity tracker for children that encourages them to take a more proactive approach to physical activity.

ExerWise, founded by Nicola O’Sullivan, Laura Hanlon and Ciarán Walsh, which featured in our recent 8 Galway start-ups to watch, has created a wearable activity tracker for children to encourage kids to be more active and take more exercise. The first working prototype is ready and the team is ready to bring it to the next level.

“ExerWise is developing an activity tracker for children, helping them to discover a new fun approach to physical activity,” explains O’Sullivan.

“Our activity tracker is a wearable, water-resistant wristband aimed at children between the ages of five and 10 that tracks their activity levels throughout the day. It uses coloured LEDs to provide visual feedback to a child, informing them as to how much activity they have completed on any given day.”

The market

ExerWise is targeting the market of children’s wearables, specifically activity trackers for children.

The activity-tracking industry was valued at $2bn in 2014, and that is expected to increase to $5.4bn by 2019.

“While leaders in the wearable market are going for increased accuracy with every heartbeat or step taken, we are developing a device that will focus on and encourage children to be more physically active and promote a healthier lifestyle,” O’Sullivan says.

The founders

Hanlon, Walsh and O’Sullivan are all recent graduates from NUI Galway where they studied sports and exercise engineering.

“Our degree was a combination of electronic engineering with health sciences and mechanical engineering.

“The three of us worked together on a project in college and this was the catalyst for our friendship and our company. The three of us come from different backgrounds but it’s because of this that we work so great together.

‘If you’re facing a brick wall that seems 100ft tall, just remember someone else has stood there too at some stage, so just ask for help’

“Having only graduated in October 2015, the three of us are in the same position of being straight out of college but following our dreams and when you get to do that with your friends by your side, it makes it even better.”

Hanlon, originally from Kildare, has worked since she was 12 years of age. Her first job was earning €6 an hour as a gymnastics coach and since then her list of experience ranges from refereeing basketball, organising events to promote engineering and programming to young girls and working in Dell with the Global Offer Master Data (GOMD) team. She also has two All-Ireland Medals for both college and school basketball.

Walsh, originally from Westmeath, has been playing sports his whole life and regularly does marathons and triathlons. He has experience in the motion-tracking industry having worked for Xsens in the Netherlands. While in college he founded the triathlon club and is currently running a circuit training programme for more than 50 college students twice a week.

O’Sullivan comes from Dublin but says the west is home for now.

“I suppose the natural progression of my work history leads me perfectly to ExerWise. I began working for my brother in his shop at 16, which led to me managing a children’s cafe while in Canada, I have worked for the Irish Institute of Sport, NUIG developing software and Colmac Robotics educating children about STEM.”

The technology

“The technology we are using is actually quite simple,” O’Sullivan explains.

“We’re using a three-axial accelerometer to track the user’s movement. The data is sent to our microprocessor and is filtered through our algorithms to provide real-time visual feedback. The device can then be synced with any smart device using our Bluetooth LE chip so parents can keep up-to-date on their child’s progress.

“The real challenge is developing a robust algorithm that factors in a child’s height and weight, to accurately measure the time they spend being physically active each day,” she adds.

“The ultimate goal is to see children in Ireland and abroad wearing our ExerWise activity tracker within the next two years.”

Childhood obesity has risen hugely, and is causing a knock-on effect to disorders such as heart diseases, mental health and an overall reduction in a child’s playtime where they can experience such pure creativity and imagination.

“By creating, advocating and influencing a change to the way we see and view exercise, then ExerWise will have a knock-on effect, but in a positive direction.

“The promotion of exercise can be seen everywhere, but ExerWise is starting with young children as the ultimate goal is to encourage children to reach their 60 minutes of recommended physical activity levels to create a habit and a natural occurrence just like eating or tying shoe laces, so that as they grow up and go through secondary school and university and their careers, one hour of 24 must be spent exercising.

“To do this, we need to take our product to this next stage and to do so we will be launching a crowdfunding campaign, which will help us launch our product in the coming months.”

From prototype to proof of concept and beyond

Joining the Bank of Ireland StartLab in Galway has accelerated ExerWise’s prototyping and the company is moving on from the proof of concept stage.

“We are developing content to provide to parents and children about exercise, levels of physical activity and technology.

“We are also putting together plans to run a crowdfunding campaign which we are really excited about. By launching a crowdfunding campaign we aim to attract some great publicity and investors.”

O’Sullivan quotes Richard Branson: “Starting a business isn’t just a job or a way to make money – it’s a way of life”

‘Remember, the start-up scene is very much typical Ireland. Somebody knows somebody who is related to somebody who you want to be introduced to and hear more about their start-up journey’

She adds that choosing the entrepreneurial path means there will be challenges.

“Coming from an engineering background, we were once told we were ‘all the same’. That we need a business guru and a finance master and a marketing pro. We hadn’t a clue of these fancy business terms such as ‘unicorn’. One challenge was trying to prove to these people that we could be those business pros.

“But we soon decided that we had these basic skills already nailed. Sure, we weren’t perfect, but Ciaran has founded and grew a triathlon club to be one of the biggest clubs in college, marketing and advertising circuit classes every week to have a huge attendance rate. Laura spent her time in Dell training fellow employees in India and has presented to executive directors and I have been immersed in the business world from a young age. It was then that we told ourselves to stop trying to prove to others and be something we’re not, that we’d go back to being engineers and learn to build on our ‘basics’. It’s what make us, us.”

From this experience, the team also learned that all advice is autobiographical.

“Getting advice from those you admire is fantastic, but always remember to take it on board with a pinch of salt. People can only tell you what they’ve experienced and nobody is ever in the same situation. There may be similarities, and it may help you to think broader and outside the box, but sometimes it’s not going to be what you want to hear, but nobody can tell you your opinion is wrong.”

Local influencers and passion are key

The rise of the start-up scene in Ireland is particularly visible in Galway, which O’Sullivan says is down to the passion of local influencers.

“When we were in college, we were lucky enough to have John Breslin as our lecturer and what he said had a key impact. It was only when we finished college in May and returned to Galway in September to an office space in StartX6 with David Cunningham that we immersed ourselves in all things start-up and discovered a huge start-up community in Ireland. Ciarán reached the Galway final of IBYE giving him the greatest opportunity to meet start-ups in Mayo and Roscommon.

“There are numerous opportunities to network and meet new people with events such as Venture West, which we were invited to attend by Paul Killoran; Startup Ireland launched in Galway by John Breslin; Startup Weekend where we met Ed-Fidgeon Kavanagh, Jason Ruane of Eventovate, who has provided us with the key to so many doors in Dublin, such as InventFest, which was held in DogPatch Labs, a vibrant tech hub with the coolest offices located down in the vaults.

“Alongside all of this, we would be nowhere without Annie Claffey feeding us in BOI Workbench on Mainguard St in Galway, a free co-working space where we have met loads of people just like us who are giving this start-up thing a go. The enthusiasm and work ethic that can be found in there proves that Ireland is a perfect start-up ecosystem for high-potential tech companies.”

O’Sullivan advises other start-ups to immerse and surround themselves with people they aspire to be.

“When money was getting tight a great friend of ours from college, Niall McCormick, CEO of Colmac Robotics, put all three of us on the books where we became Robotic Tutors and thought STEM to primary and secondary students using Lego.

“That was something Niall never had to do but he showed us such support and encouragement, just like he got when he was first starting out.

“If you’re facing a brick wall that seems 100ft tall, just remember someone else has stood there too at some stage so just ask for help.

“Remember, the start-up scene is very much typical Ireland. Somebody knows somebody who is related to somebody who you want to be introduced to and hear more about their start-up journey.

“So put yourself out there and make the connections. The biggest thing we’ve noticed is everyone wants to help or knows someone who can help but you’ll never know unless you ask. And don’t send generic LinkedIn connections or Twitter DMs or emails. It’s just rude. Take time and do your research, it will pay off.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years