It was during an entrepreneurship class at the University of British Columbia 15 years ago that Dan Eisenhardt came up with the idea to make performance-tracking swim goggles similar to what runners and cyclists were starting to use on their wrists.
It was a far-fetched idea back then, Mr. Eisenhardt recalls, a life-long and college-level competitive swimmer, but he put a team together to develop the concept. It turned out it wasn’t possible – then.
“Back in 2006, you didn’t have the level of miniaturization in electronics that you have today, so we ended up pivoting for this school project into ski goggles instead,” Mr. Eisenhardt says.
Two years later, he and his team spun the classroom project into a startup called Recon Instruments Inc., which developed ski goggles and cycling eyewear products. Recon was sold to Intel Corp. in 2015.
Mr. Eisenhardt stayed on with Intel for about a year before leaving to pursue his original idea for smart swim goggles, now that technology had finally caught up with him.
“The technology just got better and smaller and more affordable, but I think, just as importantly, we had experience, having launched commercial-grade products and sold them worldwide,” he says.
In early 2017, he launched Form Athletica Inc. and the company started selling its Smart Swim Goggles in the summer of 2019. Mr. Eisenhardt says it’s the first product to give swimmers real-time performance metrics as they swim through a see-through optical display in the goggles.
“That was hard to do underwater because light behaves differently under water, so there were a lot of things to take into consideration,” says Mr. Eisenhardt, Form’s chief executive officer.
The goggles are outfitted with a battery and computer with a processor, storage and sensors. Lap time, distance, lap count, pace, rest counts, heart rate and a host of other data are available to swimmers in real-time in the water, because of an organic light-emitting diode display designed in-house and the magic of augmented reality.
“That’s what creates the see-through effect. You see this information as if it’s overlayed on reality,” Mr. Eisenhardt explains. “If you put a phone right up to your face and try to read the font an inch from your face, you can’t see it. But the display has to be there, so we have to trick the eye into thinking the image is somewhere else, basically five feet from you. That’s the augmented reality aspect of where you have the focal point. That’s part of the trickery.”
The company uses user data – anonymized to protect privacy – to train and tweak the artificial intelligence (AI) that powers the product and hones accuracy and drives new features.
Form, now with a team of 75 at its Vancouver headquarters and one person overseeing manufacturing in Taiwan, had a strong launch in 2019, with every expectation of huge growth in 2020. Then COVID-19 arrived and pools closed.
The team had been working on a feature that would use GPS to give swimmers the same data in open water swims, in partnership with Apple and Garmin. They put other plans on the back burner and fast-tracked the open-water feature.
“The only way to test it was we would go to Sasamat Lake [in Port Moody, B.C.] in March,” he says. “It was cold and we had 10 to 15 people up there sometimes from March through to launch in July of last year.”
The optical display in open water is another first for the sport.
“We kept our brand alive and there were still some pockets in the world where pools were open,” Mr. Eisenhardt says. “Despite all of this, we still had double-digit growth in a year where we had closed pools; it kind of showed what the potential is and now we’re finally seeing things opening up.”
He expects to double growth this year, given the popularity of the sport worldwide. Athletes are also using the product, such as Lionel Sanders, a four-time Ironman champion and winner of the 2017 ITU long-distance triathlon world championship, who has been swim training with them for about two years. Mr. Sanders has logged about 280 hours in his smart goggles already this year.
“In triathlon, the swim is my weakness, so I’ve had to spend a tonne of time in the water and you pretty well get no feedback most of the time. If you stop swimming, you get a little bit of feedback from the clock on the wall but otherwise there’s none really,” says the athlete from Windsor, Ont. “When you put these things on, you can have many different metrics coming at you. It just really opened my eyes to pretty well instantaneous feedback, which you never had prior to this type of technology.”
Swimming is a sport of technique, he says. Unfortunately, brute force doesn’t improve performance. With the goggles, he’s been able to track heart rate, distance per stroke, stroke rate, lap distance and more.
But has it made him a better swimmer?
The 33-year-old athlete competed in triathlons in Miami, Texas and Idaho earlier this year.
“I had lifetime-best swims across all three of those races relative to the last 10 years of my swimming, so it’s moving in the right direction,” he says, believing swim training will evolve because of the goggles.
“It opens up a whole new world on how you can do heart rate-based training, which I believe for a developing swimmer probably is a better way to go about it because swimming is about relaxing and not muscling and gripping the water.”
Most Form smart swim goggle users are not professional athletes, but average fitness swimmers, Mr. Eisenhardt says.
“It’s about pushing yourself when you’re doing your workout. Only a fraction swim on a team and the rest swim alone. They’re isolated and they’re missing that piece of technology that will keep them motivated,” he says.
Mr. Eisenhardt is mum on what’s next.
“Our platform is capable of much more than what we have in the market today.”
Welcome to ‘Silicon Valley North’
It’s not just technological advances that empower Canadian companies such as Smart Swim Goggle maker Form Athletica Inc. to succeed, but also the maturing of Canada’s technology ecosystem, Dan Eisenhardt says.
Mr. Eisenhardt, Form’s founder and chief executive officer, says raising money has been easier with this, his second company founded in 2017. Selling his first company to Intel Corp. in 2015 also helped bring him some clout.
“We have more access to people and now that we have gone through it before, we have access to funds. That always helps, but Vancouver has changed,” he says. “There’s a whole startup, Silicon Valley North happening [here].”
Mr. Eisenhardt says Vancouver’s two universities – Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia – are also graduating more people with AI and machine learning skills. “There’s a lot of really talented and experienced people across the technology stack, whether it’s in software or hardware, whatever you want,” he says.
Canada’s tech ecosystem is maturing fast, driven in large part AI, says Neal Gilmore, head of the Insights and Data practice at information technology services and consulting company Capgemini Canada.
“Our schools are producing increasingly large cohorts of skilled researchers and applied data scientists, data engineers, data analysts, across the whole spectrum of what we know as AI and machine learning,” he says.
Canadian researchers are also developing technology and commercializing it here. Mr. Gilmore says Canada was a source of innovative research for decades, but hampered in the next step by a lack of data and computing power.
The advent of big data and the cloud, advances in areas such as machine learning and natural language processing, mean they can take those ideas from theory to reality here at home, he says.
The adoption of AI and machine learning in Corporate Canada has also increased dramatically, Mr. Gilmore says.
“For decades we’ve talked in Canada about this so-called ‘brain drain’ or large tech companies hiring the best and brightest right out of school,” he says. “In the last couple of years, we’re seeing a directional change, where those large U.S. and global tech companies are establishing and growing their footprints in Canada.”