Award-winning fitness designer Ryan Eder infuses technology with inclusivity


Every year, a jury of the “who’s who” of industrial design professionals presents the prestigious Industrial Design Excellence Awards. In 2007, the top award winner was not an industrial design firm or a university design team. Best in show was Ryan Eder, a recent graduate of the University of Cincinnati. His entry: The Access Strength, a fitness machine that can be used by everyone from personal trainers and triathletes to individuals who are arthritic or paraplegic.
 
Now, more than ten years after the original concept came together and with another IDEA Best in Show award under his belt, Eder and his company IncludeFitness continues to change how people of all types access fitness and personal health.
 
Eder, an industrial designer from the Cincinnati suburb of Liberty Township, is the oldest of four brothers and had, in his words, “a pretty fortunate, standard, suburban Cincinnati life.” When he entered college in 2001, he didn’t set out to change the world. He was just excited about designing things that would one day be brought to life.
 
“I always loved to draw," he says. "When it came time to look at colleges, my dad knew I was also good at math, so he took me around and started to show me some engineering programs. And while I liked it, it wasn’t quite enough on the right side or art side of the brain as I wanted it to be.”

Someone eventually recommended industrial design, a perfect mix of drawing, engineering and creativity. Eder was turned on to UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, which boasts one of the country’s most respected industrial engineering programs.

“While touring DAAP, I remember seeing a display case that had a sketch of an iron and then a physical model next to it, and something clicked — ‘Oh, so your drawings become reality’ — and that was it," Eder says. "I knew I wanted to go to UC and study that without really knowing much more about it.”
 
Through DAAP’s co-op program, Eder got the chance to hone his skills while practicing with agencies and firms to find his niche in industrial design.
 
At DAAP, the culmination of each student’s undergraduate studies is their capstone or thesis project, a single concept that brings four years of study to life. Eder’s capstone concept is what gave birth to IncludeFitness and propelled him into the public eye. The big idea came to him at an everyday moment — while working out at the gym.
 
The Access Strength is currently in pre-production, with plans to sell to fitness and healthcare providers early next year.
Tackling inaccessibility issues in fitness
It was 2003. Eder was a college junior who, until then, hadn’t had much experience working with people with physical limitations. One day, he saw a man in a wheelchair struggling to use a fitness machine at the gym, and it caught his attention that the equipment design made it difficult to use in a wheelchair. Eder wondered if a better design could change the way everyone — able-bodied or not — uses similar fitness machines.
 
Eder had found his capstone idea, but first he needed to learn more about physical limitations and understand how the world of fitness so far had excluded those with limited mobility or abilities.
 
For Eder, learning the ins and outs of a wheelchair-bound life went far beyond the adage of “walking a mile” in someone’s shoes. It involved living in a wheelchair for 10 weeks, interviewing countless people who are dealing with physical limitations and even joining a wheelchair football league.
 
His early research focused on working with incomplete quadriplegics — people with no movement below the waist and only limited dexterity in their arms. Through that immersive experience, he started to understand the physical, cognitive and emotional challenges of tackling the world with limited movement or abilities, especially while in a wheelchair.
 
Across the board, one thing was clear: people wanted an inclusive device, not a special device.
 
“Almost immediately, with everyone I talked to, there was almost zero interest in having a wheelchair-centric machine," Eder says.
 
His original thesis concept was therefore one machine: The Access Strength. It is an inclusive fitness machine that can be used by anyone, regardless of range of motion or ability.
 
“That set the goal,” Eder says. “We were going to try to do a piece of equipment that’s accessible to everyone, regardless of their abilities. That could be seniors, children, wheelchair-users, athletes, male and female — everybody, all through the principles of universal design.”
 
After contacting everyone from gym owners to physical therapists and the Department of Veterans Affairs, as far as he could tell, no such machine existed. It was not only an interesting idea; it was needed.
 
Finding support from the industrial design community
While at UC, Eder had spent two of his six co-op quarters working with Priority Designs in Columbus. While working on his thesis, Eder solicited the firm’s help with the 3D modeling of his design.
 
Paul Kolada, who heads up Priority Designs, worked with Eder on both his thesis project and later when Eder came to work for the company as a staff designer.
 
Kolada says that Eder stands out among his peers for more than just his design skills; he shows a level of empathy and innovation not often seen in young designers.
 
“We were impressed with the research he had done, especially the time spent with wheelchair athletes and in a wheelchair,” Kolada says. “He was focused on understanding their needs and where they had trouble with the exercise equipment that was already on the market. Designing a product that can be used universally shows a level of forward-thinking not commonly found in students.
 
“He has a strong vision and is undaunted by the huge challenges of such a complex piece of equipment. He has had to delve into mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, software engineering, manufacturing and sourcing and more — all while maintaining design standards.”
 
Winning awards and gaining interest
In 2007, two years after graduating, Eder submitted The Access Strength to the annual IDEA awards and walked away a big winner.
 
The highly competitive IDEA awards are sponsored by the Industrial Designers Society of America, with upwards of 1,700 entries each year. Past winners have included giants like GE Healthcare, Nokia Corp., Google and BMW. But in 2007, Eder tossed a wrench in the competition when he walked away with not only the Gold award in his division, but also the People’s Choice award and Best in Show.
 
Winning those first awards changed everything for Eder and his new business.
 
“It put me on a global map," he says. "I got invited overseas and across the country to share this idea, and that is really what gave me the opportunity to push things further.”
 
He received floods of email and phone calls. People wanted to see the product and to know more about it.
 
“But I didn’t design the system to win awards,” he says. “I designed it to solve a problem.”
 
At that time, Eder was living in Columbus and working for Priority Designs, and he came back to his alma mater to present his fitness machine concept to the Livewell Collaborative, a group of academics and investors focused on innovative solutions and products for the Baby Boomer market. After his presentation, P&G and CincyTech came on as IncludeFitness’s first investors, and the business moved one big step forward in its development.
 
Going digital
In 2013, Eder and his pre-production team took their project on the road, stopping in places like the National Rehab Hospital in Washington, D.C., to let athletes and physical therapy patients demo the machine.
 
Reviews were positive; the machine accomplished what it was designed to do. But at the same time, the world of fitness was shifting. Digital fitness was gaining popularity and both consumers and healthcare and fitness providers were looking for more than physical fitness. They wanted digital integration.
 
Eder then began designing a digital fitness platform that would work in conjunction with his machine.
 
“We started floating the idea of a cloud-based platform that could download exercises and workouts, be sent to the machine, guide them through, and track all of the high-fidelity data that you can’t get anywhere else in strength training," he says.
 
Eder considers this newer product, The IFCloud, the core of what IncludeFitness does and The Access Strength is its conduit. As proof of Eder’s forward-thinking nature, both the fitness machine and its companion digital platform are designed for use well beyond personal fitness.
 
“We’ve designed The IFCloud to be HIPPA compliant and integrate directly with healthcare, providing value for patients, providers and payers,” he says.

With HIPPA compliance, IncludeFitness’s products easily appeal to individuals, gyms, universities, hospitals, rehab centers and more.
 
This new digital integration led to three more wins at the IDEA 2016 competition — another Gold, Design for Equity and Eder’s second Best in Show. Apple’s iPhone is the only other submission in history to win two IDEA Best in Shows.
 
The tip of the iceberg for inclusive fitness
In 2014, Eder left Priority Designs to work for IncludeFitness full-time. He has a small staff, but a strong network of support from partners and a board of directors. The research and development happens in Columbus, while manufacturing and operations are based in Cincinnati.
 
The Access Strength is now in pre-production and systems will begin to ship in early 2017. Machines have been pre-sold to healthcare facilities (both inpatient and outpatient), senior care facilities, universities and the Veterans Association. Additionally, plans are in place for more fitness machines that will branch into other areas of healthcare, and versions 2.0 and 3.0 of The IFCloud are in planning stages as well.
 
For now, Eder is still living in Columbus, and is balancing a growing family with a growing business. When the timing is right, he’d like to move back to Cincinnati, where IncludeFitness was born.
 
Eder doesn’t see an end in sight for IncludeFitness or the niche of inclusive healthcare and fitness design. He believes that empathetic and innovative design are the keys “to helping people be as healthy as they can be for as long as they can, regardless of their abilities.”

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Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.
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