Intel invests in NZ maker of 'virtual coach' technology

Auckland company says its technology offers someone wearing a fitness band, smartwatch or other wearable tech context-sensitive training advice.

UPDATE: Performance Lab technologies CEO Waynne Dartnall tells NBR his company will use its investment from Intel to push into North America.

The Auckland company has already been in talks with several major consumer electronics brands about incorporating its "virtual coach" technology into their wearable gadgets.

He expects to announce licensing deals this side of Christmas.

Although Performance Labs has been active in sports fitness technology since 1992, the CEO says its virtual coaching technology has only just been developed has yet to generate any significant revenue.

The company first put out feelers to local and international investors last October.

Why did it choose Intel (beyond the blunt question of who would offer the most cash for a minority stake)?

Mr Dartnall says the giant US tech's name has the power to open doors. It's already been a factor in securing talks with A-list consumer brands (he would not name any, but when NBR suggested Apple, Nike and Samsung, he said they were in that league).

Intel's name would also attract talent, the CEO says. His company currently has 12 staff. It wants to double that as it expands R&D and sales.

The US giant's 29.44% investment is also represents validation, Mr Dartnall says. If Intel's poured in capital, people assume the technology must be up to snuff.

Performance Labs' technology is based around sensing a person's movement and position, then giving them context-sensitive advice.

For example, it it was built into a Fitbit-style wristband or smartwatch, it could sense if you were running up a hill — then give you a reminder to keep your posture straight rather than concentrating on the fact you were slowing down.

"The idea is it's like having a real coach running beside you," Mr Dartnell says.

Performance Labs is looking to license its technology to gadget makers rather than make devices itself.

The health and fitness has been a huge focus for gadget makers over the past 12 months, with Samsung building a heart rate monitor into its latest flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S5, and its latest Gear smartwatches. It's also expected to be a point of focus for Apple's next iPhone, and its rumoured iWatch. The giant Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas was awash in wristbands and smartwatches that track metrics like heart rate and how far you've run, and use GPS to map your exercise efforts.

Canalys recently estimated 2.7 million wearable bands shipped worldwide in the first quarter of 2014, with FitBit accounting for just over half of all sales. Pebble, Sony and Samsung are also big players in the space.

Examples of how Performance Lab's techology could be incorporated into a fitness app (click to zoom).

Intel takes 30% stake in Kiwi fitness company

EARLIER: The venture capital arm of chip-giant Itnel has invested in Performance Lab Technologies, a developer of real-time exercise measurement analysis and virtual coaching software, based in Auckland,

Terms were not disclosed, but a rep for Intel told NBR, "This is Intel Capital’s second investment in New Zealand and till date it has invested over $US100 million in more than 20 tech companies [that is, an average $US5 million] in NZ, Australia and southeast Asia."

Companies Office records show Intel has taken a 29.44% stake, making it the second largest shareholder. The ubiquitous Lance Wiggs has a 3% stake.

The largest stake (56%) is held by a group of investors including co-founders Kerri McMaster and Jon Ackland, an exercise physiologist who has worked with the All Blacks and Americas Cup crews and run Performance Lab since 1992 (although its virtual coaching technology is a much more recent development).

Performance Lab specialises in technology that senses and analyses movement, helping people and their coaches to monitor training — a hot area as companies like Samsung and Apple target fitness and health apps, and expand into wearable devices.

The funding will be used by Performance Lab to advance product development and to accelerate international expansion, the company says.

Performance Lab designs automated coaching technology for exercise and activity. Its ARDA product suite provides the next generation of intelligence for exercise and activity applications. The technology works across most fitness and wellness devices and provides automated coaching in real-time to optimise a user’s performance based on sensor detection, the user’s changing physiology, classification of their training, history, behaviours and goals. ARDA transforms readily available data into meaningful, relevant advice for consumers across smartphones and tablets, the company says.

“The sports, fitness, health and wellness sectors are fuelling strong global demand for smart gadgets,” says Sudheer Kuppam, Managing Director, Asia Pacific, Intel Capital. “Performance Lab’s suite of products provides enduring value to the smart gadgets that customers are incorporating into their health and fitness regimen.”

“We are looking forward to working with Intel,” added Waynne Dartnall, Chief Executive Officer, Performance Lab. “The combination of funding, together with technology, sales and marketing expertise, will help Performance Lab take our advanced coaching software to a global level.”

The investment was led by Deepak Natarajan, Director, Intel Capital, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand, who will join Performance Lab’s board as an observer. Intel Capital’s focus in the region includes mobility, security, cloud infrastructure and services, wearable technologies, and Internet of Things.

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