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INNOVATION ECONOMY

Take them to the river

Hydrow streams rowing lessons to home machines. It’s no surprise business is booming

Aquil Abdullah, a 2004 Olympian, rowed along the Charles River as he was being broadcast live to Hydrow customers around the world for their rowing workouts.
Aquil Abdullah, a 2004 Olympian, rowed along the Charles River as he was being broadcast live to Hydrow customers around the world for their rowing workouts.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

On a brisk and breezy May morning, Aquil Abdullah stood on a dock on the Charles River, getting ready for work, and Sera Moon Busse was just returning from her shift on the water. A crew of technicians were hopping off a motorboat outfitted with camera gear. Everyone was wearing face masks.

This was just another day’s broadcast for Hydrow, a Cambridge startup that streams live rowing lessons to specially designed rowing machines. While the company launched its product last year, it’s finding that the quarantine era is lifting its business: Sales of its machines in April were four times those of January, according to chief executive Bruce Smith.

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And Hydrow isn’t the only Boston-area company finding ways to grow in 2020 by offering a technological escape from our penned-up pandemic cabin fever.

Last May, Hydrow started shipping its $2,200 rowing machine to about a thousand customers who had pre-ordered one. It also announced around that time that it had raised $27 million in venture capital funding. The following month, Best Buy started selling the device. Like a traditional rowing machine, it offers resistance to simulate the effort of pulling oars through the water as your seat slides back and forth. But unlike old-school “ergs,” or ergometers, Hydrow connects to the Internet and has a large flat-screen display.

After customers purchase the machine, they can use a basic mode for free, or $40 per month for access to a library of recorded workouts, as well as several live broadcasts each week. The library includes trips to London, Scotland, San Francisco Bay, and Austin, Texas. During the winter, the company broadcasts live rowing sessions from Miami; in the summer, it relocates to Boston.

(Hydrow also makes a mobile app that you can use with a smartphone or tablet, to bring its prerecorded clinics to a rowing machine you already own.)

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As you might imagine, figuring out how to produce a live exercise class using a set of four cameras, a motorboat, and a racing shell, and then sending it wirelessly to thousands of individual rowing machines, with just a 40-second delay, is no small technical feat. The athlete in the shell wears two microphones and an earpiece, so that she can hear instructions from the director in the motorboat, as well as the music track that plays along with each workout.

When I raised my smartphone to snap a photo, Matt Lehrer, the company’s chief experience officer, got a bit anxious: The company would rather not have detailed pictures of its equipment setup seen by potential competitors.

Continuing the broadcasts amidst a public health emergency has been a challenge, Lehrer said. Four technicians on the motorboat have been reduced to three, to allow for appropriate buffer space between people. Two clear plastic shields have been installed, and everyone wears a mask, except for the athlete when he or she is on camera. (Pre-pandemic, the company recorded some of its clinics with a pair of rowers in the same boat, so that the two could banter with each other during the workout; that has been put on hold.)

The company has put off its plans for more international broadcasts in 2020, Lehrer said. When employees returned from the winter stretch of filming in Florida, everyone was quarantined for two weeks, as Massachusetts advises out-of-state travelers to do, before resuming work.

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May 8 was Busse’s first time leading a class again after the quarantine. Abdullah had mainly been in Boston over the winter, where he works half-time as an infrastructure engineer for Hydrow. “This is like Christmas,” he exclaimed as Busse strode toward him. “My people are back.” Before joining Hydrow as the company’s only rower-technologist, Abdullah rowed for the United States in the 2004 Summer Olympics.

Hydrow’s mission initially was helping to give people a fresh way to work out at home. But at a moment when people are spending more time at home than they might like, the company is helping people to connect with a larger community, Busse said. The number of participants in the live rows has grown. “It’s a place that people can come to feel better,” she said. “We refer to ourselves as an escape. It’s a place to be together.”

Before a live broadcast starts, she can communicate with the participants, wishing them a happy birthday or congratulating them on passing a certain milestone, such as rowing 250,000 meters. During the row, Hydrow users can see a leaderboard that compares their progress to others who are tuned in.

Hydrow coined the phrase “live outdoor reality” to try to capture the experience of working out with coaches who are on the water while being indoors. Another startup, Somerville-based Rendever, talks about providing “shared experiences” using virtual reality headsets. Its focus is senior living communities and other health care facilities, where it enables activities coordinators to guide residents through the same virtual reality experience all at once, so there’s no tech-savvy required.

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In a recent demo, I went to a gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, visited my childhood neighborhood in Miami, and went flying in a wing suit over the Alps. I started to tear up when they took me to a cupcake shop at Quincy Market, and I could hear a parade of people passing behind me in the central corridor. Ah, yesteryear.

Rendever’s customer base is people “whose lives have become limited because of ailments or physical mobility” — or the coronavirus pandemic — “and they’re just not able to leave the four walls that they’re stuck in,” said chief executive Kyle Rand. “When you add virtual reality, it lets them leave the hospital or their community. It’s a powerful thing to deliver.”

It’s getting more challenging to actually sell products to senior living communities, Rand acknowledged. “Right now, corporate and community teams are dedicating most or all of their time to keeping residents safe and healthy, as they need to be,” he said.

But the company can ship out demo headsets, as it did for me, and conduct follow-up meetings via a Zoom videoconference. And a new feature, Rendever Live, makes it easier for offsite Rendever employees to lead the VR sessions for seniors, complete with live narration, helping to “augment staff resources at a time when they’re overburdened,” he said. In the future, Rand added, museum curators and travel experts may lead sessions.

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Rand says that when it comes to new deals, like Hydrow, “our April sales were stronger than January,” and that each month this year, “we’ve grown our sales consistently, compared to 2019.”

Whether it’s with a virtual reality headset or a rowing machine, helping people battle isolation is a wining proposition in 2020.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.