Swimtech crowdfunding sensation Instabeat resurfaces with new, mature offering

CEO Hind Hobeika opens up about the challenges that led to the company's long dip into stealth mode.
By Jonah Comstock
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Like a swimmer emerging from an impossibly long dive, swimming wearable maker Instabeat has resurfaced after a long, self-imposed stealth period.

Long-term industry insiders might remember the Beirut, Lebanon, company (now partly based in San Francisco) that raised more than $50,000 on Indiegogo back in 2013 for a heart rate tracker and heads-up display that attaches to a swimmer’s goggles, giving them real-time feedback on their heart rates.

Although the product was innovative, the story turned out to be a familiar one: A young tech company making a lot of promises to buyers before discovering the truth of that old tech mantra: “Hardware is hard.”

“We were a little inexperienced then,” Instabeat CEO Hind Hobeika admitted to Luisbrandao. “We quickly set up the manufacture, didn’t do the proper setup and then, as we were manufacturing, we were under the pressure of having to deliver really quickly, so we were making these short-cut solutions that would benefit shipping the product quickly. And at the same time, we had the manufacturing contracts where we were being billed hourly. So if you combined the two, it became a big disaster in that it became really expensive really quickly, and at the same time, we were going in a design direction [that wasn’t sustainable].”

Going silent

Although Instabeat did ship some units out to early backers, it wasn't in a position to scale and didn’t want to keep manufacturing subpar products to send out to backers. So the company made the decision to dip back into stealth mode as it redesigned the product from scratch. At that point, it got some help from Alexander Asseily, a veteran of another health-tracking startup that saw more than its fair share of setbacks.

“I was contemplating what to do in maybe 2016, and then I happened to run into the founder of Jawbone, Alexander Asseily,” Hobeika said. “I was telling him the story, and he said, 'Are you crazy? You have a great product, there’s great demand, people who use it love it. I will help you rebuild the team from scratch.' So that’s what we did. We raised more funding, hired an entirely new team and then part of our decision as a company was to go off the radar until the product was ready.”

The $6 million in new funding came from Verytech, a Lebanese VC firm with some backing from the Central Bank of Lebanon. And the stealth decision was driven by a desire to avoid what could have turned into a chain of disappointments that might alienate the company’s enthusiastic backers.

“We suffered a lot from missing promises during the crowdfunding campaign,” Hobeika said. “I mean, we had good intentions and started out wanting to deliver very quickly. But when you’re manufacturing something new that’s never been done before, it’s very hard to put a deadline on it until you’re in the very last phase, which is like 18 months into manufacturing. And we were giving dates from the very first day. So it was kind of like, stop committing to dates, stop giving people false expectations, especially our backers.”

Significant hardware challenges

In this case, the hardware turned out to be exceptionally hard. The company had discovered that the swimming community is particularly attached to their own goggles, so the original idea of connected goggles had to be adapted to a device that could fit onto any pair of goggles — while still maintaining tight with the temple for optimal heart rate reading, as well as positioning the light in the right part of the swimmer’s peripheral vision. And, course, this all had to be fully waterproof.

Ultimately, Hobeika said, solving all the design problems required inventing an entirely new manufacturing method, which in turn required her to move to China, where the company’s manufacturing is based, for a year.

But in July, when the company relaunched, it had something to show for all the challenges.

The new version of the device resembles the original in concept only. It retails for $250 rather than the originally proposed price of $150, but Hobeika says swimmers are getting a lot of value for the extra money.

“We reduced the weight by over 80%,” she said. “So the weight of Instabeat now is 27 grams, which is the exact same weight as the Speedo Vanquisher goggles. So it’s really, really light and you don’t feel it when you wear it. And the heartbeat sensor is a lot more accurate. We did a lot more human factor elements and ergonomics to make sure the heart rate sensor design fits on all temples and will be accurate even when you’re swimming with a super-intense motion.”

No longer alone

Taking six years to get it right did negate some of the company’s first-mover advantage, Hobeika said, as a couple of competitors, Phlex and Form Swim, ended up launching around the same time. Earlier this month, Form and Polar announced a collaboration that provides similar functionality, although their heart rate monitor isn’t built into the goggles like Instabeat’s.

Hobeika is confident that the combination of real-time feedback and letting users keep their own goggles will continue to set Instabeat apart. She also said that the decision to include a red light-green light system, rather than a more complex heads-up display with numbers as Form has, was an intentional one, as it makes the information easier to process in the moment.

“I would say that the rise of the other competitors at the same time has kind of opened up the market,” she said. “Now people are more aware that there are wearables for swimming that are not watches.”

Now the company is working on back-end software integration with other health tracking platforms, as well as with professional swimmers and trainers to determine how, specifically, real-time heart rate monitoring can help push forward the sport.

“What’s really interesting is that we see professional athletes use Instabeat in a very different way,” Hobeika said. “And I think this is partly due to the fact that heart rate science in water is so new that people are still doing self-experimentation.”