BLACKSBURG – A 3-D body scanner created by Virginia Tech students will soon be a handful of gyms across Southwest Virginia – including McComas Hall on campus – that will help track fitness and diet progress.
Caroline Pugh of Roanoke, Louis Cirillo of Breckenridge, Colo., and Nick Gagianas of McMurray, Pa. started VirtualU in 2012. The company quickly grew leading Pugh – who was majoring in business information technology in the Pamplin College of Business – and Cirillo – who was majoring in computer engineering in the College of Engineering – to take time off school to focus on VirtualU fulltime. Gagianas graduated with a degree in marketing in 2012.
Since then, the company has taken off and these student entrepreneurs have been busy making sure it’s a success. They spent the last year-and-a-half developing the technology, designing the product, gaining investors, and performing case studies.
Now they are moving into beta testing phase, putting VFit – their 3-D human imaging scanners – into five gyms in the Roanoke and the New River Valleys early this year. One scanner will go into McComas Hall at Virginia Tech in March. The other scanners will go into the four other local gyms a few weeks later. They hope to expand to the Washington, D.C., and New York City markets in time for beach season later this spring.
The technology is complex, but the user experience is simple: a client steps into the body scanner, creates a profile on a touch panel inside, and gets a 10-second scan. Users then download an app for their mobile device or login online to view an accurate, photo-realistic model of their body. As they get scans over time, users will see their body change through the virtual models as well as get measurements down to the millimeter as their biceps gain muscle or their tummy flattens.
VirtualU has received interest from gyms, personal trainers, and other health-related jobs and industries. “I think the gyms saw the inherent value in our ability to get data,” Pugh said. “They are looking to technology solutions to provide their clients a unique and educational experience in their facilities.”
Originally, VirtualU planned to use its innovative 3-D human imaging for online shopping, giving consumers an opportunity to see how clothes they see for sale online will really fit their body. They decided to switch to a health and fitness focus, seeing more opportunity in the industry.
“Gym technology is big right now. There are tools to measure one side of things, such as a heart rate monitor app, running app, or a weightlifting app,” Cirillo said. “What we can do is collect data on people and turn it into a very visual form in one simple interface.”
So far, the team has been successful in their ventures, especially for young 20-somethings. They have met with multiple CEO’s and venture capitalists, were invited to the New York Stock Exchange, and were picked to be one of the five start-ups to pitch at the Bloomberg Next Big Thing Summit.
One of their biggest honors came this past September at the Ambrosetti Forum in Como, Italy. The forum brings together economists, prime ministers, heads of global banks, politicians, and other leaders to talk about economic issues, with a European focus. The forum is invitation only, and the VirtualU founders were some of the very few students from around the world that were asked to attend. They got an additional honor with roles to play at the forum, leading debates with forum speakers.
Cirillo led a debate with Dan Shechtman, the 2003 and 2011 Nobel Laureate. Gagianas moderated a session with Michael Slabby, the organizer of social media technology for President Barack Obama’s campaign. Pugh debated the former president of Spain.
“It was interesting. You know, they are just people. They are experts in their field, but it’s not hard to talk and have discussions with them,” Gagianas said. “The main thing is, we brought a different perspective than a lot of people were used to, discussing the differences in entrepreneurship and technology between the United States and Europe.”
They got a chance to shine among a crowd of global leaders as young company founders, a rarity in Europe. “When we were introduced, they would say ‘Welcome Louis Cirillo, CEO of VirtualU who is 23 years old,’ and the audience would say ‘What?’” Pugh laughed.
“I was the youngest CEO there by probably 20 years. People were fascinated by how young we were and they were announcing us as Virginia Tech students,” Cirillo added.
Currently, VirtualU has seven employees, with plans to expand as beta testing begins. During the beta phase, the company will rely on feedback from gyms and users to improve the hardware, app, and other features, looking towards a bigger launch to gyms across the country, beginning in cities like Washington, D.C., and New York City.