It’s an unlikely line-up for a start-up company: a management expert, an investment banker, a fitness studio boss, an electronics engineer and a sports scientist.
But then Wearable Life Science has had an unlikely idea, electrical sports clothing, and it’s causing a sensation in the sports industry.
The founders of the Nuremberg-based company have developed a full bodysuit complete with in-built electrodes that stimulate the wearer’s muscles. The idea is that athletes who are training for a competition or patients undergoing rehabilitation can effortlessly use the electrical impulses to build up their muscles. The impulses cause muscle fibers to contract, mimicking the effect of repeated stretching of fibers during exercise.
The muscle-stimulating technology is not new and neither is the fact that such impulses can help to tone and regenerate muscles. The novel thing about WLS’ suit is that it can be used while the wearer is in motion, and not just when they are in a stationary position at a gym, as is the case with current machines.
The traditional devices require users to stick pads to their bodies using a liquid film. These pads are then connected to a generator beside them, which sends electrical pulses to the pads. But the WLS suit only requires users to put it on and connect it to a small, mobile control unit.
“Wearable electronics is up and coming, and demand is rising.”
“We can make each training session more effective with this,” said Kay Rathschlag, the head of marketing for the company and owner of seven fitness clubs. “The suit feels like any other sports clothing.”
The other big difference is the price. Traditional static devices can cost up to €15,000 ($16,150), but WLS is asking for just €1,300 for its mobile solution. Those who only want the shirt or pant half pay less.
The jury for the “Brand New” prize at the IPSO sport trade fair in Munich in January certainly saw the suit’s potential. “The equipment promises quick advances in a short time frame and at an affordable price,” they concluded before awarding WLS the prize for best start-up of the year in the sports industry.
Analysts see enormous potential in electronic clothing, which includes a range of equipment from smart watches and T-shirts with in-built heart rate monitors to heated cycling shorts.
But it will be a while before there are products available for the mass market, said Annette Zimmermann, who works at Gartner, a tech research firm. “Sports is surely one of the areas in which the products could be introduced most quickly,” she said.
After that, they could be used for health care purposes, for example to monitor frail individuals.
Companies with new ideas are always welcome at sports retailers. Europe-wide sales in the sector fell by 5 percent last year, and specialty stores are keen to muscle in on health products to recoup some of the losses.
“Wearable electronics is up and coming, and the demand is rising,” said Werner Haizmann, head of the European Association of Sports Retailers, Fedas.
Fortunately for WLS, big sports clothing brands such as Adidas or Nike have as yet shown little interest in wearable tech.
Industry is also jumping on board. “Smart wearables in the future will not just be used by athletes in sports, but also in normal everyday life,” said Frank Dassler, president of the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry and a general counsel at Adidas.
WLS’s first suit, called “Antelope,” will be hitting stores in the next few weeks. According to the company, the garment can be washed normally if the electronic control unit is removed.
Mr. Rathschlag said he expects triathletes will be among the first customers, followed by personal trainers. But the target is the mass market, he said.
WLS claims that training in Antelope clothing for 20 minutes will produce the same results as three hours of normal training.
Video: The Antelope suit promises to tone and strengthen muscles.
The company’s five founders have largely financed the business themselves. It now has 11 employees, and seven registered patents. But in order to expand, it would take on venture capital or a partner. “We can also imagine working with large corporations,” said Mr. Rathschlag.
Fortunately for WLS, big sports clothing brands such as Adidas or Nike have as yet shown little interest in wearable tech. With WLS expected to make its first sales this spring, the firm will be hoping this situation doesn’t change.
Joachim Hofer covers the IT and recreation industry for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org