At a recent QS-themed event at Stanford, 3-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond described the constant stream of new technologies that make bicycles lighter and more streamlined and that provide ever more detailed monitoring of the cyclists. In contrast, innovation in swimming seems limited to controversial bathing suits. Competitive swimmer Hind Hobeika aims to change that with Butterfleye, as she describes below and in her talk in Amsterdam last fall. She is also inspiring tech entrepreneurship in Lebanon, and is the organizer of the Beirut QS meetup group.
Q: How do you describe Butterfleye? What is it?
Hobeika: Butterfleye is a heart rate monitor for swimmers: a waterproof module that can be mounted on all types of swimming goggles and that visually displays the athlete’s heart rate in real-time. Butterfleye has an integrated light sensor that measures the heart rate by reflection from the temporal artery (a ramification of the carotid artery that runs through the neck), and a 3 color LED that reflects indirectly into the goggle lens indicating the status relative to the target: green if the swimmer is on target, red if above target and yellow if below target.
Butterfleye is still in the prototyping stage, I am currently working on iterating the design to get to a market product.
Q: What’s the back story? What led to it?
Hobeika: I used to be a professional swimmer during my school and university years, and all of the trainings were based on the heart rate measurement. As a matter of fact, in all professional trainings, there are 3 main target zones that are dependent on a percentage of the maximum heart rate, and that lead to different results from the workout: the swimmers try to stay between 50-70% of their maximum heart rate for fat burning, 70-85% for fitness improvement, and 85-95% for maximum performance. In every single workout, the coach used to combine different sets of each of the zones to make sure the swimmer gets a complete workout and works on different aspects of his body. The problem was that there was no effective way of actually measuring heart rate during the practice! What we did is count the pulse manually after each race. Other options would have been to wear the watch + belt or use a finger oximeter, but both of these were very impractical for a swimmer.
I built the first prototype during the ‘Stars of Science’ competition, which is kind of like the Arab version of the ‘American Inventor’ initiated by Qatar Foundation. Following a Pan-Arab recruitment campaign, I was one of the 16 candidates to get selected among 7,000 initial applicants to go to Doha for the competition. Once I got to the Qatar Science and Technology Park, I was able to combine my passion for swimming and my background as a mechanical engineer, along with the experts and the resources available in Education City to build the first concrete version of my idea. After four long months, I won the third prize, and got a valuable cash award that I used to file for a US patent, start a joint stock company in Lebanon, and hire an electronics engineer and an industrial designer to get started on the prototyping process.
Q: What impact has it had? What have you heard from users?
Hobeika: The product is not on the market yet, so the reactions I have been getting so far are from swimmers and athletes hearing about the idea or testing the first prototype.
Swimmers I have talked to have commonly agreed that there is a very big lack of monitoring tools for practice in the water, and that Butterfleye would be filling a very big gap. As for people who have tested it, they are surprised of how lightweight it is and how they don’t feel it when wearing it in the water.
Here is my assumption on the impact Butterfleye will have: Swimming is a very solitary sport, and it is very difficult for athletes to get feedback on the performance if swimming without a coach or a team. It is the main reason why most people prefer practicing another activity. Having a practical monitor that can not only measure the heart rate but give all kind of information a swimmer would want to know (such as lap counting, stroke counting, speed, distance, etc.) will encourage more people to practice this complete sport and change its status of ‘solitary’.
Q: What makes it different, sets it apart?
Hobeika: Butterfleye is innovative when it comes to its sensor design: it is the first heart monitoring tool that doesn’t require wearing a chest belt, a finger clip or an ear clip, elements that would add a lot of drag in the water, and that would be cumbersome for the swimmer. Butterfleye’s sensor is integrated in the module itself, and measure the heart rate from the temporal artery.
Butterfleye’s design is also one of its competitive advantage: it is specifically designed for swimmers. It is waterproof, modular- it can be mounted on any type of goggles, light-weight and in the shape of a waterdrop in order to minimize the drag. It is also flat so it doesn’t interfere with the swimming motion. It is designed to be perfectly compatible with the biomechanics and the dynamics of swimming.
Butterfleye also stands apart by comprising a waterproof heads-up display, where the swimmer can visualize his target zone on his lens. This way, the swimmer would not have to interrupt the motion of his arms (as he would do if he was wearing a watch), and could visualize the heart rate in real-time, compared to using a pulse ox right after the race.
Swimming technology, unlike all of the other sports, is widely unexplored to date, especially when it comes to monitoring and self tracking devices. Butterfleye is one of the first tools to tackle this market gap.
Q: What are you doing next? How do you see Butterfleye evolving?
Hobeika: My next target is to release a first version of the waterproof heart rate monitor in the market. After that, comes a series of other monitoring products for the swimmers, so they would be able to track calories, strokes, lap count, etc.
I am also planning on expanding this platform technology to models compatible with running, skiing, biking and diving.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
Hobeika: I participated in ‘Stars of Science’ when I was still a university student, and after winning the third prize I got a job at a renowned Lebanese engineering design firm. I was very scared of working full time on my project and giving up the sense of security I had, and was only able to do it a year down the line.
The entrepreneurship ecosystem is still very nascent in Lebanon and in the Middle East, and I am part of the first generation that is working on a hardware startup in the region. It is very challenging, simply because there aren’t many (or any) resources available. I have to ship and prototype everything abroad, which makes the entire process more lengthy and expensive.
However, I am also part of that generation who will, through our projects, develop and nurture the right resources to make it easier for the next crazy change makers! I am already working on a website An Entrepreneur in Beirut, which is a platform for all the resources needed for hardware development in Lebanon.
This is the 16th post in the “Toolmaker Talks” series. The QS blog features intrepid self-quantifiers and their stories: what did they do? how did they do it? and what have they learned? In Toolmaker Talks we hear from QS enablers, those observing this QS activity and developing self-quantifying tools: what needs have they observed? what tools have they developed in response? and what have they learned from users’ experiences? If you are a “toolmaker” and want to participate in this series, contact Rajiv Mehta at firstname.lastname@example.org.