An avid cricket player growing up in India, longtime Qualcomm engineer Nathan Ramasarma took up running in his adult years and did multiple marathons and half-marathons well until three years ago. Those long runs left him hobbled with a series of knee injuries, which he attributed to the cumulative toll of a sporting life without proper technique.
Analysts in sports media would often discuss whether an athlete was in form or not on a given day, prompting Ramasarma to describe form as “an all-encompassing metric of how ready you are to perform a certain task.”
Formsense founder Nathan Ramasarma.
This was his central thesis when he created Formsense, an innovative biomechanics data company that uses sensor-laden smart apparel to collect and interpret movement information in real time. Since 2017, Formsense has been in private beta testing with franchises in the English Premier League, the NBA, and MLS—and now it’s ramping up distribution. Its elite product, Formsense Pro, will ship soon, particularly to MLS clubs returning to action, with a wider release in the near future.
“I started inspecting the nature of sport, the nature of rehab, the nature of prevention of injuries, and the common thread across all of that, due to my research, was one thing: that's form,” says Ramasarma. “People are always focused on performance—no matter what you do, what your lifestyle is. Your core idea is how do I increase my performance.
“The anti-narrative is you have to focus on your potential first in order for your performance to be meaningful,” he adds. "And so I was searching for that potential, and that is that common denominator of your form.”
Formsense is developing both compression shirts and pants, but it is launching with lower-body garments first because the majority of injuries to elite athletes occur in the legs; some studies have shown that two-thirds or three-quarters of lost time among NBA, NFL and EPL players is due to lower-extremity ailments. Both pieces of attire are infused with 20 proprietary sensors that Ramasarma says he designed from scratch. In his last few years at Qualcomm he served as its senior manager overseeing wearable products. His team built some of the earliest versions of a smartwatch and a head-mounted display (think Google Glass)—but mostly just to showcase Qualcomm processing the technologies rather than bringing them to market.
A product guy at heart, Ramasarma, 41, ultimately left the tech giant in Sept. 2014 to start his own venture. In surveying the wearable market, he determined that most trackers, such as GPS devices, were insufficient because they were limited to one location on the body. Computing an athlete’s overall load, he says, is just “a band-aid.” He opted to build his own proprietary inertial unit with accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers instead. Though cameras have become a pervasive technology for analyzing biomechanics, Ramasarma believes they are insufficient because of occlusion (i.e. the camera’s view getting blocked) and because their distance from the body minimizes their ability to collect physiological insights with the same level of precision.
“I quickly realized that the state of the art, even to this day, is not nearly good enough to understand with high fidelity how my body is moving, what kind of compensations it's making,” Ramasarma says. “And if you wanted to make it more meaningful, it all had to be done in real time with the least amount of friction involved.”
Knowing how finicky all athletes, especially pros, can be about not deviating from their routines or what they’re accustomed to, Formsense endeavored to develop leggings that were “even lighter than the commercial ones because we were always thinking about, OK, it should not cause any unwanted attention from an athlete's perspective,” Ramasarma says.
Like many such sports tech companies, Formsense is targeting elite athletics first but intends to trickle down into the prosumer market. Even pro athletes who have access to cutting-edge movement analysis often have to go to a biomechanics lab for testing. “Form analysis is not something that we haven't had—it’s just been out of reach,” says Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee, who has invested in Formsense. “I don't know an average person that's gone to a motion capture studio. But I do know of an average person who has spent a little more on something for tech purposes or for athleisure.”
Formsense enables remote training, which is of increased importance with the spread of COVID-19, but it’s also helpful in the offseason. “I had two torn adductors one summer, and I wanted to rehab—I just didn't want to do it in Denver because I tend to spend my offseason on the East Coast,” Plumlee says. “So something like this lets them know not only that you're doing the work, but the quality of your work.”
A broader market beyond sports is in medicine and rehab. In fact, Plumlee, a Duke grad, was first connected to Formsense through Ali Hashemi, a longtime healthcare executive who is a member of the Middle East Regional Advisory Board for Duke Fuqua School of Business. Plumlee has hosted basketball camps in Dubai a couple of times and met Hashemi—an early Formsense investor—over lunch.
Particularly at the higher levels of sport, which have the resources for several staff therapists and coaches, Formsense doesn’t aim to supplant them, but it hopes to make them more efficient. Each garment has a hub that powers the data collection and runs machine learning algorithms in real time. This AI can auto-detect and classify exercises and give feedback on posture and form. The hub docks in a base station to upload data to a web-based cloud platform; the base also has its own GPU processor. The app dashboard allows users to view an avatar performing each repetition, so the wearer (or trainer) can evaluate form.
In a weight room with a few dozen athletes, the system can identify where a trainer should focus his or her attention. “There is a fundamental reason why you need to do this in sport science, which is [because of] compounding errors,” Ramasarma says. “If you don't fix it, then it eventually manifests as pain. The moment it comes to a point where it's painful, your body has actually given up on fixing it itself.”
Once the upper- and lower-body garments are available, a user would be practically covered in sensors. The idea is to create a digital clone of the body’s motion to understand the nuances of each individual’s movement patterns. Ramasarma even hopes to resume distance running and to be the first to complete a marathon wearing the product. “Now we are an N of one,” he says. “The most important thing about form is—no matter who you are—your form is very, very unique.”