Pelvic floor/kegel exercises have had known benefits for women for decades, especially post-child birth, for strengthening bladder muscles, reducing the risk of pelvic prolapse and improving sex. It’s the same core strength promise of popular activities such as pilates and yoga but without the easy availability of motivating group exercise classes.
The challenge has always been motivating women to do regular exercise workouts of a muscle that’s not visible, when it’s difficult to tell whether lifts are being performed correctly. Standard (unconnected) kegel devices can help with performing pelvic floor exercises but don’t fix the feedback problem. So if ever there was an activity that could really benefit from being connected and quantified it’s surely this.
London, U.K. based startup Chiaro has been working quietly on this problem since 2013, and is today opening up pre-orders for its connected kegel exerciser, called Elvie, which will ship early next year (likely in March). The wearable — for indeed, when in use, it’s ‘worn’ inside the body — has a companion iOS app which offers five minute workouts to help the user learn how to correctly exercise their pelvic floor muscle and built up its strength, tracking progress within the app via a personal LV score.
The device is being priced at £55 for those pre-ordering during November, after which it will step up to the full retail price of £95. Chiaro will be retailing Elvie itself, via its website and also by offering an in-app retail channel where owners can refer the product to their friends to encourage word of mouth recommendations from woman to woman.
Chiaro has attracted more than $1 million in seed investment to date, including from Google Maps co-founder Lars Rasmussen and Jawbone co-founder Alex Asseily. Winning a U.K. Technology Strategy Board innovation award of £100,000 was the catalyst for co-founder and CEO Tania Boler to quit the day job and work full time on the wearable in August last year. Asseily has also stepped up his involvement in the project, joining the team as a full-time co-founder — and bringing hardware supply chain experience that Chiaro has been able to benefit from, enabling it work with larger Chinese manufacturers than a startup might otherwise be able to secure.
“Because of the Jawbone links we’re able to work with two of the really large manufacturers who do Apple and Sony. That’s a really big difference,” says Boler.
It’s also poached a product designer from Dyson, and is working with digital product studio ustwo on the design of the companion app. The intention, she says, is to position Elvie as a premium product, standing apart from other connected kegel exercisers also trying to push into this niche (such as the likes of Juve and Skea) which she describes as mostly rehacked sex toys, generally designed by men.
Another rival connected device, kGoal, raised nearly $270,000 on Kickstarter this summer, but again Boler notes it’s a product targeting women but designed by men. It’s also using a different technology — measuring air pressure, whereas Elvie contains a dynamometer to measure force applied anywhere on the pod. There are no moving parts on the Elvie pod itself, although the silicone tail is flexible. The Bluetooth radio is embedded in the tail so that it sits outside the body allowing unimpeded wireless data transfer to the companion app.
“What distinguishes us is people in this market are from the sex toys industry, they tend to take vibrators or existing kegel balls and just rehack it. And they’ve very very big. And the thing that women just kept telling us was they want it to be small,” says Boler.
“The sensors that we have are a force sensor, right in the centre, then we have accelerometer and temperature… What we patented and designed and spent a lot of time trying to miniaturize is a system where it’s highly, highly accurate. So literally if you just touch on our Elvie pod you’re picking up force readings consistently across the entire surface area. Which will potentially have implications for other exercise tracking devices… So I’d say the [device] that we’re most similar to is Moov.”
Because it contains multiple sensors, Elvie can be used in multiple configurations — so by a woman who’s walking or standing, rather than being constrained to one static position. Women the team spoke to during its research said they wanted to be able to do the exercises on the go, so figuring out ways to pick up consistent data when there’s “a lot of noise”, as Boler points is, was one of the technical challenges it worked on. Adding an accelerometer also helps identify whether women are performing kegel exercises correctly: ie lifting up, rather than pushing down.
“Behind the scenes there’s a lot of data calibration going on. The sensors can pick up if she’s sitting, standing, lying, all that kind of stuff,” says Boler, adding: “None of the other products are getting reliable data, they’re not able to show continuous real-time data. This is completely different to what currently exists.”
“The issue is that women just get bored and give up doing kegel exercises, they never see any improvements. This will allow women to objectively see how they are doing.”
Boler has a background working in women’s issues, including working for the U.N. on global sex education curriculums, prior to jumping into the tech startup space. Her interest in kegel started after she had a baby herself, and discovered there was far more support for women in France than the U.K. when it came to taking care of their bodies after giving birth.
“It’s much more focused that the woman also needs to look after herself, it’s not just about the baby. There this issue of pelvic floor exercise, basically every woman is paid for by the government to have 10 sessions with a physical therapist and up to 80 euros for a medical device. It’s completely mainstream for all women,” she says, adding: “I originally came into it from the sex angle, because I was interested in some of the taboo issues around sex, but I looked into the health side and it was shocking. One in three women have bladder problems. In this country women just accept it’s just part of their daily lives. And half the women go on to have prolapse.
“I spent a long time looking at research, talking to people and basically most of what women are buying doesn’t work. So electrical stimulation, lots of different things, the only thing that’s been shown to work is real-time bio-feedback — continuous bio-feedback as you exercise. So you can literally see your muscle contracting, which none of the other products do.”
Chiaro is positioning itself as a premium women’s lifestyle brand, with a roadmap to expand beyond Elvie in future with other relevant products for its target market. Indeed, the presence of a temperature sensor in Elvie means it could be used for a fertility monitoring use-case too. But pelvic floor is the first focus. The intention is also to make Elvie smarter over time — as the company builds up enough data to power machine learning algorithms and further customize the feedback it can provide to each user.
“As we’re learning more about the body there’s smart ways we can keep giving women feedback but we’ll have to keep building that on as we get more data. Because at the moment there’s just no data. We don’t know how much strength is going to increase over certain weeks, or anything like that. But that will come in future.”
The design of the Elvie has something of a ‘sleeping sperm’ look about it, given its featureless body and curved tail. “We keep trying to make it less sperm like,” says Boler with a laugh, when I offer my aesthetic assessment.
The ergonomic, medical-grade silicone-clad pod is actually the result of a lot of R&D into potential shapes. The team tested multiple shapes before settling on the final design — a design which, incidentally, ended up resembling a pebble used by Aborigine women in Australia for the same purpose. As it turned out, the actual shape of the exerciser doesn’t make a whole lot of different but women preferred the ergonomic pebble, says Boler.
The Elvie comes in one size only but a silicone cap can be added to make the pod larger. There are no buttons or ports on the device at all. It talks wirelessly to the companion app via the Bluetooth connection in its tail, and charges its battery wirelessly, via induction charging when placed inside its storage tube. Once the Elvie is paired with its companion app it can’t be connected to any other device, for security purposes.
The Elvie cloud platform stores the user’s data so they can track their progress over time, although it’s also considering whether to offer a local usage only mode that would allow the user to get bio-feedback in real-time without needing to be linked to a cloud service.
How many Elvies does Chiaro believe it can to sell in its first year? Boler has a target of 100,000, seeing big potential for a premium product to address an underserved segment in a variety of markets — including countries where she says women are already comfortable spending money on intimate personal health, such as Brazil, Germany and Scandinavia.
Building a premium hardware product is of course not cheap, so the aim is to raise a large Series A round early next year. “We’re very ambitious. We’re planning to raise at least £5M+ at the Series A. Even though UK’s a domestic market there’s other markers we want to move into very quickly,” she says.
“At the moment everyone’s talking about the hardware revolution and Kickstarter started that. And 3D printing does allow people to do really rapid prototypes. I suppose because Alex is a co-founder from Jawbone we have invested a lot more money and time designing a high tech product, both in terms of patenting the technology and even the manufacturing. So we’ve placed ourselves at the high end of the market and so needed quite a lot of funding for that.”
The business model is initially focused on selling the hardware and making a margin on that, with currently no subscription element, although Boler says it may explore whether there is scope for offering access to a physio as part of a paid additional service. Other areas that it might also look at in future include API partnerships with relevant apps that don’t have hardware partners — she cites the fertility tracker app Glow as an example of a possible candidate. There’s also the possibility of going down a more medical pathway.
“The physios and doctors who work on these issues there’s a lot more that they would like to see — you can literally see if the left part of the muscle moves more than the right, the amount of motion and flex — so there’s the potential to exploit the more medical pathway but we haven’t quite made the decisions on that,” she says.
“There’s lots of exciting ideas we’ve got. Our starting point is smart women’s tech. By women’s tech we mean problems that are majority faced by women. Looking at their busy lives and taking them the next points along and how we can reach them with different tech solutions, building on our core competencies of connected devices,” she adds.