Transcript: Space4U podcast, Paul Francis
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
Hello and welcome to the Space4U podcast, a podcast to tell the stories of, and have the conversations with the people who continue to drive the space economy and make space exploration possible. My name is Kelly Kedis-Ogborn, and I’m thrilled to have Paul Francis, the founder and CEO of OYO fitness join us today. OYO is a personal home gym solution and is one of the fastest growing brands in the fitness industry. The system grew out of spite flux, which Paul invented as the mission critical solution for astronaut bone and muscle loss in zero gravity. Spiral flex is credited with keeping over 50 crew members in shape on the international space station.
And was recently inducted into the space technology hall of fame. Paul, I am certainly excited to have you on today and learn more about your journey as an entrepreneur and as a company. Great to be with you, Kelly, and, uh, just love what the space foundation is doing. And, uh, Bird starting to be talking with you for the next 30 or 45 minutes.
Yeah. So are we, so I want to start with talking a little bit about the OYO system and as I was reading more about you online and really getting. You know, into the nitty gritty, I was really intrigued about the underlying technology and approach. And, you know, I personally have used various at home gym resistance solutions, you know, especially when traveling and trying to maintain some sort of fitness routine.
And yours really seems to pack a lot of punch into an extremely small portable system. I believe it’s about two pounds. Um, and I know that the underlying spiral flex technology was licensed for the Bowflex at home gym. So I was hoping that you could tell us a bit more about. The OYO system and what it does and what essentially motivated you to design by reflect and begin to get involved in the space domain.
Sure. It’s um, it’s a little bit of a long story, but I’ll try to make it more of a medium story for the podcast stuff. I was an architect for a number of years and, uh, started inventing products on the side and, uh, I decided to become a full-time inventor. Which in the beginning was a bit of a bad idea because I was pretty much essentially broke for number of years.
Yeah. Right. Uh, one of the things I was working on yeah. Was a portable gym. And I’d come up with, uh, an idea to try to duplicate the benefits of free weights. In kind of a small portable gym. And I designed the steel power Springs in these disks that you could add to us a little Jim Knight event. I’ve got some interest in industry, but then it turned out under lifecycle.
The steel Springs were failing at about 10,000 cycles, which is way too low for a consumer product. So I went back to the drawing board and came up with an idea of using a. Elastomer like a specialized rubber compound that I later developed in a spiral shape that would give me that rotational, uh, torque that I needed, uh, for my disks.
And, uh, then I redesigned the, uh, some of the prototypes. And about that time I saw an article, uh, in the Kansas city star newspaper, uh, in the coffee shop below my office where I would hang out a little bit. And Shannon lucid had just come back from the Mir space station and lost a lot of bone and muscle mass and was in pretty bad shape.
Dr. Roger Belica was quoted about, uh, saying they were looking for countermeasures. So I was able to, uh, talk to Dr. and he invited me to NASA to demonstrate my technology. It started out where I was in this little, uh, almost like a closet during lunchtime. And some of the engineers came in and kind of pulled down the cables.
And the next day they called and said, can you come down in two days and make a full presentation at the, uh, uh, NASA, you know, number one administration building at Johnson space center. So I arrived with a couple of carousels full of slides. This is just before we had everything we computers and this is the back 97.
So at the end of the meeting, uh, you know, the chief engineer, I mean, there was an astronauts and flight surgeons and engineers, and. If I look though, we think we want to fly this. And so then we had a kind of a crash program to deliver the equipment to the space station with the crew that was going to go up with expedition.
One that was scheduled well, ended up being in 2000 when, uh, uh, bill shepherd, uh, commander, the first crew, uh, on the ISS. So then with massive funding, we were able to really dial in the technology and develop better levels of prototypes and NASA could test them and then give us feedback. And we ended up with what we call the, uh, iRead, the, uh, interim resistive exercise device.
And these spiral flex disks were loaded in each canister, uh, on each validate, uh, user. And, uh, you would preload them with a crank to set the resistance you wanted. And then a cable came out the bottom off a spiral pulley, which produced a resistance that felt very much like a plate loaded machine at a health club.
And we were able to get out about 300 pounds of resistance, which was what was needed to do squats. In space to load this musculoskeletal system and the hips and legs, which is where a lot of the, uh, bone loss was occurring. So, yeah, so that, that got us, uh, uh, up on the space station in 2000, then we were able to take that technology back to industry and revisit them and show them the improvements we’ve made.
About that time. Uh, non-US incorporated who, who owns the Bowflex trademark? They, uh, uh, the, uh, the original power rod, uh, both Lex was going off patents and they were looking for a new home chin. And so we ended up doing a licensing deal and I helped them develop the Bowflex revolution, home gym. Powered by spiral flex.
And then we were able to launch that on two, uh, infomercials and retail. And, uh, it was, it was about the best, I guess, the best selling a home gym for many years. Yeah. So you, your space entrance was kind of a happy by-product, but it wasn’t what you initially had set out to do. Cause you said you were looking.
Right. And yeah. And reading that article, I thought, well, gosh, I think this would work in zero gravity. Obviously he doesn’t need gravity. The trainer for the astronauts bill Shepherd’s wife, she was the squat champion of Texas, and really believes in freeway resistance as kind of a gold standard for, you know, as a common measure, promoted bone to muscular, uh, degradation.
But obviously, you know, weights don’t work in space. So I was able to kind of sell them on the idea that, you know, this is the best next thing to free weights. And they ended up doing a, uh, 16 week study with two groups, one working out with free weights and one working out with the iRead. And at the end of the testing, it turned out that, uh, they both.
Uh, produce the same benefits so that, uh, that really gave us a leg up. So yeah, we were up on the station for 10 years with the iRead. And then in about 2010, uh, NASA installed their, a red, which was a device about the size of a small car that, uh, they had developed. And, uh, they took the, I read off the, uh, the station in about 2011, I believe.
Uh, but yeah, it was a great, uh, obviously validation of our technology, having a NASA fund does sit and use the technology for 10 years. Yeah. So does each viral disc have a certain threshold for resistance? Because this, the intent is to replace free rates. I think about, you know, People in the gym and some six foot seven, 300 pound guys going to be able to have a squat rack that’s much stronger than mine.
Um, so how does that work? Do you add more disks to get more resistance or does each disk have a threshold of resistance within Bennett that can be modified and customized? Kind of both. Um, it’s a, um, kind of like an engine that you can, uh, combined into different mechanical, uh, configurations. So I call it the series system that we developed for NASA.
And all the packs were connected together as one big spring. And then you would preload that spring and then the spiral play would counteract the torque and give you a linear resistance. But then for, uh, for both flags, I want it to look more like a white plate machine that you would have in your home or used to at the gym.
And so we packaged each disks, uh, individually, and you would stack them on your five pound, 10 pound, you know, 20 pound, 40 pound rated discs that were really only weighed, you know, ounces or, uh, you know, much less than a pound each. That machine went up to, I believe about 600 pounds of resistance. And we had a, a cam and then a plea reduction system in there to counteract the torque and give us that many or resistance that would see like a cable machine at the, uh, health club.
And then I used that same, uh, approach with the OYO personal gym that I later, uh, invented. And it also uses a separate discs. Read it at five and 10 pounds that you snap on or off to a very, very, the resistance. And then the lever arm changes as you’re using it to kind of direct the torque. So there’s a lot of different ways you can size the disks and pasture the discs and attach mechanical systems to the package to create whatever cable extension or, uh, recipients, uh, or size or weight that you’re looking for.
That’s interesting. Were there any challenges that you came across in trying to use this system in space? Oh gosh. Um, yeah, you don’t actually, you know, using it, there wasn’t a problem. Um, the only concern I had was when they were off gassing the elastomer. Uh, discs because I thought they might, off-task some, something that would, you know, affect the astronauts or particles would, would break off, you know, when you’re using it.
Cause you can’t have particles floating around the space station because there’s no gravity. So the dust doesn’t settle so you can sweep it up and just, you know, uh, floats in the air until the filtering system takes it out. Uh, but we passed, you know, all those tests. And even took it down. I think 30 degrees below zero, because there’s a chance they would ship it to Russia and Russia would ship it on a train to Siberia.
You know, we had to go through all these different, you know, tests and vibration tests and everything, you know, it was, uh, built, you know, uh, very sturdy and, uh, we designed it and built it, uh, right here in Kansas city with, uh, you know, obviously input from, uh, Uh, the group there at Johnson space center and, uh, flight surgeons and engineers and astronauts bill Shepard had, you know, we would test our prototypes and give us feedback.
I’ve I’ve got one, one, uh, I don’t know if it’s a funny story, but it was sub w. Almost, you know, turned out to be a, a terrible situation. We were in the conference room and I had made was the second prototype. And, uh, we had like 60 people around and I strapped bill separate state into this, uh, uh, you know, a little portable device.
And, uh, which is supposed to be like bolted down on the space station. But here it is sitting on carpet in the conference room and he reached down and grabbed the hand grips and stood up and lost his balance and asserted tip over backwards. And everyone’s like, Oh my God, I reached for him. And he. Fell backwards, knocking a bunch of condoms from chairs, uh, aside of course he’s a former Navy seal.
So think you knew how to fall and not hurt himself. Lucky enough to, you know, he was, he was okay. I dunno. So, but it was very exciting to, you know, as, as a kid growing up, I watched, uh, John Glenn, you know, launch on the first orbital mission and, uh, dreams about being an astronaut myself and. Uh, to be involved with, you know, that core group of people, there just a space center during the development, which was quite a, quite a thrill for myself and my team.
Yeah. You must have some amazing stories from that. Do you have a favorite company memory that comes to mind? Yeah, you obviously have an extremely impressive track record to point to, but I don’t know if something just really stands out. Yeah. You know, um, we have licensed the technology worked with Nautilus and that was exciting because they had to come up with their first product, which was the Bowflex, uh, power rod, a home gym, which was just, you know, phenomenal success.
And they built their company pretty much just, you know, within months. And then it just a couple of years and then grew, uh, you know, a hundred times over. And, uh, I was able to work with the founders of both flex Nautilus and, uh, you know, negotiate the deal and, uh, get our technology developed and packaged and, and, you know, invent the Bowflex revolution with them.
And so that we’re, you know, it’s just exciting to, you know, work with the people and, and visit with them in there. No, they, they were based in, uh, uh, near Portland, Oregon, and, uh, and out by Boulder. So just fonder, you know, travel around and meet with these folks and work with our engineers, you know, create something from a white sheet of paper and try to create something that has value where their consumer believes that, you know, it’s, it’s worth the price, uh, and that the benefits are worth the price.
And so it’s, it’s, it’s very hard to come up with that kind of a. Solution, but we’re able to do it a few times, but of course we had a lot of failures, but, uh, you know, nobody sees those. Yeah. They just see the impact, the massive impact that you bring to their life. And that, yeah. That’s another thing, you know, our reviews that we’re getting on, you know, Amazon
It’s a great, most of them are four or five star. Now, a lot of them are users of the Elio gym right now are older men, you know, over 50 years old that no longer want to deal with free weights, but want to get back in shape, uh, or have maybe some physical issues or joint replacement. And it’s, uh, these reviews, they talk about, you know, turning their lives around and, uh, And I have people that travel like, you know, they can’t stay in shape all the traveling or, uh, you know, so it’s, uh, that’s, you know, really, uh, you know, keeps the team, uh, you know, excited and motivated.
Yeah. That’s actually the next question that I was going to ask you, cause not all of us mere mortals are fortunate to be astronauts and, you know, deal with the issues that happen in zero gravity with bone density. So. You mentioned, you know, people that travel and people that are aging, but do you have a target, a target demographic with OYO or is it truly customizable where anybody can use it?
No matter their fitness. Right. But we found out that our target demographic is men over 50. Because the younger guys are telling us that it doesn’t have quite enough resistance for them. And of course, because of that, we’re, uh, this is top secret. So don’t tell anybody. Yeah, we’re coming out with a, uh, Uh, another version, that’ll be a little more expensive that puts out more resistance.
And, uh, then we’re also coming up with, uh, a home gym and, uh, and even massagers and other, you know, uh, personal care devices. So yeah, we want to cover the entire waterfront, but right now the sweet spot, as far as the conversions of people that come in and look at our website and check it out. Uh, our men, uh, over 60, but, uh, it’s good.
And with direct marketing, that’s the secret to direct marketing is you can find out who was interested in your product, so you can send them the information and the advertisements and not waste money, sending it to somebody who has no interest at all in bother them, you know, on Facebook or something.
You’re, you’re just sending it to people that really, you know, may have a direct interest in your. Absolutely. So who is it that directly inspires your work? What gets you up and gets you excited to continue to run OYO and grow it in the fitness industry or just paying the bills? Fair. Yeah, I mean, originally when I first started inventing, uh, you know, I read all the books about Edison and Howard Hughes, you know, all these great inventors from.
Years ago were big thinkers. Of course, Steve jobs I’ve, you know, read his biography and there there’s, you know, using those common threads there. But yeah, you know, it’s basically just kind of have a, an idea yeah. That you want to create something and then a passion to do it, and then just doing it and failing, you know, many times along the way, but always just saying, Hey, you know this, you know, I took my drawings in for this.
Personal security device. I invented years ago. It was my first invention to this little engineering firm in Kansas city. And the, uh, the, uh, the guy who ran the place, uh, just started laughing at me and said, you know, look, people are just going to keep sending you to the other people. Cause nobody wants to know, doesn’t think this is, you know, you’re going to do anything with this thing.
You know, it’s just so, I mean, you know, starting out, you just have to, you know, find your passion and, and, uh, you know, work at it. Be able to handle the failures and keep the lights on. Move ahead. And then if you want to persevere, there’s probably a pretty good chance you’ll be successful. I think it was Winston Churchill that said that, you know, success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm and surely as an entrepreneur.
And, and especially as an adventure, you don’t know if you’re going to be successful, but you just have to try. Right, right. Yeah. Like, uh, the Chinese proverb fall down seven times get up eight. Oh, absolutely. So on that thread then if all barriers and constraints were removed, what are you curious about right now?
What project would you pursue? Oh gosh. You know, I’m just so busy trying to make my company successful. Um, I would love, and I’ve got, you know, File drawers full of, uh, you know, new product ideas. I’d love to build like a little invention factory, like Thomas Edison handy in Menlo park, in New Jersey, and just had a lot of really smart people working on a lot of great ideas.
I mean that, uh, That would kind of be the Mo the most fun walked from idea to idea and had people there that could work out the details really hard work. And I could stay up with the vision, but you know, a lot of inventors, they, you know, call me go, I’ve got this idea and here I’ll give you the idea, but just, you know, sign this agreement and then you make any money on it.
You’ll give me X amount. And I said, well, look, yeah, you know, ideas really aren’t worth anything. It’s it’s, uh, You know, like Thomas Edison said, and ideas is worth any 1% and then it’s, it’s 99% perspiration to, you know, make it work for you, as opposed to just, you know, some feedback from a better, it’s been doing this for 30, 40 years.
So as a, as a serial inventor, I’m sure that you get asked a lot. How you generate ideas. Do you have any advice? For someone that’s sort of out there looking for the next greatest breakthrough originally, what I did, uh, I would just, you know, be reading everything and checking things out, just trying to expose myself to, and then think about, well, This category has gone to this level.
Where’s the next step. And then write up a bunch of different product concepts. And then I would research them. Then I would actually go in and do patent searches. Uh, at the time you couldn’t do any of this online. There was a patent on a depository, uh, Kansas city. And I go down the basement, just look up the patent numbers and look at them.
And then I would, uh, take the ones I thought, you know, had potential, uh, in the market and make it, you know, uh, for a cost that the consumer would buy. Uh, and then, uh, it was something proprietary that I could get a patent on. And then I would start doing some sketches and designs. And then I would look at those and show them to some people and get feedback.
And then, uh, the ones I thought had some potential, I would develop the prototypes and then go through the process of showing those to people. And then I would take drawings or prototypes into trade shows and a walk in the booth of the company that is the top. You know, company in that category and find out who the VP of marketing or the president walk up to them and say, Hey, excuse me, you know, show my invention half the time.
You know, they’d kind of spin around and, you know, walk away. Uh, but once in a while, you know, me look at that and, and really that’s how I got into a number of these companies. But yeah, you got to get out there and, uh, Knock on doors. Hope for the best. Were you always interested in coming up with new ideas, even as a kid?
Uh, yeah. Yeah. I was a guy looking out the window in class and the teacher would call on you and you have no idea.
That’s funny. So going back to your R and D lab or your kind of invention idea factory. What’s the next major problem that you want to tackle. So other than an iteration of the OYO system, like you mentioned before, that has a bit more resistance. Is there something that’s been top of mind that you really want to go after?
I guess, extend a whale fitness, uh, which stands for on your own to a new products that are personal care, personal health, personal fitness. We’ve got some massagers coming along and some new fitness equipment designs. And, uh, and then anybody connecting these to the internet, uh, you seen those scooters that are out everywhere.
You trip over when you’re walking around town and, uh, I’ve ever used one, but, but basically you need to walk up through, and you’ve got the app and you connect to you jump on it and off you go. And it charges here for the time. I’m thinking, uh, the OYO gym could possibly be developed into a version where, uh, and we do have a version that we’ve been been testing it’s, uh, Bluetooth connected to our app and tracks and, and, uh, shares your, uh, your workouts.
Kind of like the, uh, the scooter concept. Uh, you could have our OEO gyms are various types of audio gyms around the office. Uh, let’s say at Apple, uh, Apple provides a sit, sit, stand desk. Every one of their employees have them in the conference rooms. And then when you’re kind of stressed out, I want to get a little quick work on it and just walk up to one.
You see land there, pick it up and just move it. Once I go, it turns on it connects to your app and then you can do your workout. Just pick a workout, uh, on the app and get it done. And then it will upload it and share it. And if your company participates, then you’d get any reward for hitting certain, you know, exercise goals.
And then the company itself would get a, uh, a rebate from their insurance company. You know, if you do X amount of workouts per, per week or whatever, So that I think a connected fitness is probably the next thing that we really want to get into. And it’d become a ubiquitous device that would be anywhere you, uh, people are public or private or corporate.
Our devices are all your devices would be out there and people would just pick them up and connect and do their thing and then move on and to stay in shape wherever you are and do it whenever you want to. I see that being extremely beneficial, you know, as more buildings and companies are pushing toward this work-life balance.
I know that a lot of the new buildings in DC will offer really nice gyms that have Peloton bikes and other systems like that, where people can make them customized and personalized. And I think that’s a great way to move in a good place to go. Yeah. And our spiral flex technology enables us to develop these, you know, small portable devices that are lightweight.
You have put out enough resistance for both strength, training and cardio. And, uh, our fitness director, Nick Bolton has come up with a 60 workouts, 197 exercises that, uh, you know, everything from, you know, high intensity, uh, Uh, interval training to, uh, uh, treadmill, uh, you know, working out, uh, your upper body while you’re walking on the treadmill to indoor bikes, you know, to a full body, uh, you know, uh, squats and leg exercises.
And, uh, yeah. You know, it’s, uh, not enough hours in a day to develop all these ideas. Ain’t that the truth? So, where do you envision your company 10 years from now? You know, it’s, it’s a good thought whether I’m still with the company or maybe Google wants to buy it, you know, because I just bought a Fitbit recently, uh, uh, and I can be made an advisor, but yeah, the next, you know, five years, uh, I love to see us, uh, as I said with, uh, a whole line of, uh, portable, uh, health and fitness products that.
Uh, connect and, uh, people are able to use them anywhere, anytime they want and then track it and share, uh, their success, which at the end, you know, uh, people will live longer and be more mobile as they grow older, which is. Where it all started is up in space. When you’re floating around in your body, little, this is all bone and muscle mass.
Cause you don’t need it anymore. Cause you’re just floating. Uh, which is fine if you’re okay, I’m going to come back to gravity. Uh, which is the same thing that happens to people on earth. They sit around at their desk all day, uh, dairy and, uh, They’re losing bone and muscle mass, and then they wonder why, you know, they’ve got to use a Walker or they’re getting a knee replacement or a, they’ve got all these physical problems and they’re stuck.
You know, in some bed and lay in there in some nursing home and their minds, you know, it’s still alert, but they’re in, you know, physical breakdown. So really exercise is really the only, you know, fountain of youth, uh, both mentally and physically by doing strength, training and cardio, and it’s being active, uh, every day.
Absolutely. Are your systems available in big box stores or only online? Right now? We’re only, uh, online. We’re on Amazon and then, uh, OYO fitness.com. We’ve got some distribution around the world, but it’s, it’s pretty much all a direct marketing. Uh, we are looking to talk to some of their, you know, brand name, big boxes.
Now that we’ve developed a brand, people know who we are. So they come into the big box store and they, you know, immediately know what it is and they can use to try it out. So, yeah, that’s, that’s on the agenda. That’s within the next 10 years, next five years, hopefully within the next like six months, even closer.
Yeah. There’s something about the future that you’re really excited about. And this question can either be within your company, um, or within like a certain domain or a technology trend that you’re just really eager to see how it progresses. Oh, gosh, you know, I think the smartest guy from Steve jobs is Elon Musk.
I mean, the guy, you know, creates this electric car company. That is just, I mean, basically I think all cars will be electric. Yeah. In the next, you know, 10 years. Because the, uh, you know, having a motor, uh, with the torque and the, uh, obviously there’s no emissions, uh, at least from the car and the quiet miss of it.
And, uh, uh, the cost and the simplicity of a electric motor versus a, you know, a piston motor is like, eh, the, the old radial engine, uh, aircraft engines versus a jet engine. No, I think he’s, you know, and then of course with space X, you know what they’ve done to lower the cost of space travel that just blows me away.
And then of course, he just came out with that, that pickup truck turning the whole world upside down for the pickup truck market, I think in the next two years. Yeah. I don’t no, you know, uh, I just enjoy seeing what other people are doing and, and hope I can, uh, Keep, you know, uh, our company and people, uh, excited and moving ahead and, uh, it’s, uh, you know, this is a great time to be alive.
Absolutely. And I can actually see a lot of your next progression of products becoming relevant again for space exploration, because as we’re pushing more towards. Colonization and further, you know, creature, comfort of habitation and keeping astronauts healthy and new and different ways is going to become increasingly more relevant.
Um, you may find yourself in the space domain for new products for years to come. Yeah, I hope so. And, and, uh, of course in the beginning, that’s what NASA told us was that they had to learn how to live in space because. Going to Mars is a year and a half to get there in six months to get back, or, yeah. So in Mars, what has two thirds of the gravity of earth?
So when you get there, you’ve been in zero G for a year and a half, and now you’ve got to walk onto gravity and survive. So they have to figure, you know, a countermeasure to keep that for body fit and strong, uh, during that year and a half. And, uh, hopefully we can play a part in that too. Absolutely. So we’re coming up close to our time.
Is there anything that I should have asked you that I didn’t or anything else you’d like our listeners to know about either you or OYO or the future? I know, I think I pretty much said everything I can think of. Um, I just want to say, I appreciate what the space foundation is doing. And I was able to go to your first two, my first, uh, show, uh, event, or w w what do you call the, the, the space.
Yeah. The symposium in Colorado Springs last spring, where we, we got the space technology hall of fame, uh, award. I had no idea that, you know, how many of those 5,000 people show up for that. And there’s a, you know, everyone from, uh, obviously NASA, Boeing, you know, space X, I mean, Anyone that’s anyone in the space area of military foreign governments?
I mean, everybody’s there. I mean, it just blew me away. Just excited to be it’s. Uh, it’s great. I’m, I’m just very fortunate to be involved in all this and, uh, a lot of fun. Well, we’re happy to have you involved and I really want to thank you so much for your time today and for sharing your story. Um, And telling us a little bit about, uh, great interview, uh, good questions, and, uh, really enjoyed talking with you and, uh, your Space Foundation, uh, group today.
And that concludes this episode of the Space Foundation’s Space4U podcast. Please engage with us on our social media outlets on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. There’ll be more episodes coming your way and you can also check us out www.space foundation.org. Thank you for listening today.
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