Hubert Burda Media

Entrepreneurs: Marc Hardy of RunSocial (2of4)

The co-founder and CEO of the multiplayer fitness app, which made it into low Earth orbit this year, has high hopes for his creation.

RunSocial has boldly gone where few have gone before. The fitness app, built by a Singapore-headquartered company of the same name, received a celestial stamp of approval this April — Nasa installed it on the International Space Station (ISS) for British astronaut Tim Peake to attempt the Virgin Money London Marathon from afar. He clocked three hours 35 minutes, a coup considering he ran the 42km while strapped to a treadmill about 350km above the Earth’s surface.

But rather than watch a live telecast of the race, as American astronaut Sunita Williams did when she completed the Boston Marathon from the ISS in 2007, Peake got to admire the scenery along his entire route through RunSocial’s mixed reality video technology, which is combined with the app’s online multiplayer capabilities to make running social and fun.

The company’s co-founder and CEO, British-born Marc Hardy, explains how its core product works: Users are represented by avatars that appear live within high-definition videos of real outdoor locations and playback adjusts to a runner’s speed. “So you are in Singapore and could run a route in Tuscany with a friend in New York — live!” Hardy says.

The social aspect of the app comes into play when users create virtual running events that others can join online, or when they take part in public events such as the Prague Digital Marathon or the Digital Virgin Money London Marathon.

RunSocial, formerly known as Paofit, was born when its founders became frustrated with running on treadmills. “My co-founder (Andrew Frank) and I were both regular treadmill users — in my case, it was partly for convenience and partly due to a knee injury,” Hardy says. “We found it boring and wondered why something like RunSocial did not exist. Initially, it was more experimental, but people really liked it, so it [took off] from there.”

Hardy saw the opportunity to do more than just record statistics for runners. “The digital fitness space has largely focused on tracking and data, and sharing the data afterwards,” he says. “We want to take digital fitness beyond this in the quest to make it more fun.”

Through support from Spring Singapore, NUS Enterprise and the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, and funding from angel investors and venture capital firms, RunSocial became the first independent app to be integrated by exercise equipment manufacturer Life Fitness, according to Hardy. But the RunSocial team met with challenges while building their product. “This is real innovation and while it is cool to invent something, creating consumer tech that is commercially viable required a whole lot more invention,” he says. “And the innovative talent we seek is the kind sought after by every tech company, including the very biggest.”

RunSocial projects in the pipeline include working together with a Nasa team conducting research related to the Orion spacecraft, meant to carry astronauts into deep space, to an asteroid or Mars. The company is also looking to expand its stable of activities to include more than just running.

RunSocial’s potential is enormous, says Koh Soo Boon, founder and managing partner of iGlobe Partners, which first invested in the company in July 2014. “[By enabling] running events to scale beyond the usual geographical, spatial and financial constraints, this could benefit not only the runners themselves, but also event sponsors, charity organisations and spectators,” she says.

“We were excited by the multiple commercial applications that could be made possible with the [RunSocial] technology from outdoor fitness such as biking and rowing, to games, to social shopping, to discovery and tours, to interactive advertising.”

Read the other stories in the Entrepreneurs series:

Daniel Chia and Cynthia Siantar of Call Levels

Teo Jia En and Federico Folcia of Roomorama

Lim Kell Jay of Grab