row, row, row your phone, gently, ’till it’s charged

Against a backdrop of a pandemic that has shredded supply chains and gym memberships alike, it was mildly surreal to see professional-grade gym machine company SportsArt launch a rowing machine that can pump energy back into the grid. Like a wind turbine or a solar panel, except powered by pecs, deltoids and trapeziuses.

The rower uses a micro-inverter that enables you to put your back into charging your phone, one stroke at a time. The company estimates that to fully charge a depleted iPhone will take about two hours of rowing. That wasn’t the example the company would have given, but for a hot minute, I was excited by using a low-battery phone as a motivator to get on an exercise machine. The handlebar grip has fingertip controls to increase the resistance on the rower and — as you might expect — the heavier the resistance, the more power you generate.

The company showed off its G260 rower at CES in Las Vegas last week, claiming that the machine converts around 74% of the energy you exert into usable electricity. I had a chance to talk with the company’s COO this week, to figure out why it makes sense to use human power to power things.

“In an hour of working out, you could kind of generate up to the same kind of consumption as your fridge — or about 220 watts per hour,” explains Carina Kuo, COO at SportsArt — but she admits that you’re not going to be rowing to charge your Tesla quite yet. Also, that isn’t quite the point: “A traditional treadmill consumes about one kilowatt per hour. The idea is that in addition to working out, you’re helping offset your power consumption of the workout.”

As a company, SportsArt has been around for 40+ years. It’s headquartered in Taiwan, with its U.S. operations based in Seattle. In addition, the company has offices in Germany and Switzerland, with 300 employees scattered around the world, and sales operations in 80 countries. It is primarily targeted at gyms and robust rehabilitation facilities, but is also evaluating the home market at the moment. In the shorter term, Kuo suggests that perhaps shared gyms for apartment buildings etc. are a better fit for the company

“Especially in the fitness industry the gyms not being able to be open [due to COVID-19] definitely caused this huge uptick in residential sales. That’s an area where it can be really difficult to compete because a lot of times people are thinking about cheaper, but not necessarily looking at the quality. That’s not the area that we’re trying to compete in. We believe in quality,” Kuo explains, and says that the company still maintains exercise equipment that was sold 10-15 years ago, and is still going strong in gyms and medical contexts. “We believe in using the best components, and we cover everything with the best warranty in the industry. I do think being able to have that kind of differentiator in that market is important.”

The focus on commercial machines means it makes slightly more sense for the machines to be power-generating rather than a rower that sits in the corner of your gym, unused, 95% of the time: With more substantial use, the machines can put a dent in the power bill at the gym.

“We’re not saying that we are going to go into residential — we’re trying to find where our sweet spots would be,” explains Kuo, eager to highlight the company’s green and recyclability credentials over the past 40 years. “It make a difference in gyms in particular, because they are able to have a message of sustainability.”

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