Left to right: FitnessCubed’s founders, Dalmia, Jain, and Sekine. (Courtesy FitnessCubed)

Fit to be successful

Three recent graduates build a business around keeping office workers healthy.

The summer after their third year, Arnav Dalmia, Ryota Sekine, and Shivani Jain, all AB’13, each had internships in the corporate world. Spending all day at a desk for the first time, the three fitness-minded friends quickly realized what a host of recent studies had found—sitting at a desk all day can be extremely unhealthy. Solutions like standing desks and treadmill desks were on the market, but all were either too expensive or too bulky to be practical for the interns.

When they returned to campus in the fall, they decided to participate in the College New Venture Challenge at Chicago Booth’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to develop a solution that would help office-dwellers work physical activity into their 9-to-5 lives.

Their solution was Cubii, a small under-desk elliptical that allows office workers to pedal while they sit. Cubiis are unobtrusive and quiet, the founders say, and specially designed so users’ knees won’t hit the underside of their desks.

Dalmia, Sekine, and Jain placed second in the competition and wanted to continue to develop the idea, but none of them expected Cubii to become their full-time job. “Honestly, we never realized it would turn into a business for us,” says Sekine. “But we started getting a lot of traction and people started encouraging us to pursue this full time.”

Taking the next step, the group launched a Kickstarter campaign both to gauge market interest and to raise funds, collaborating with outside engineers to build a Cubii prototype (“Unfortunately, UChicago doesn’t have an engineering school—yet,” says Sekine).

The Kickstarter campaign raised close to $300,000, more than three times the original $80,000 goal, and allowed Dalmia, Sekine, and Jain to become full-time CEO, COO, and CMO, respectively, of their new company, FitnessCubed. Taking up residence first in the offices of Chicago start-up incubator 1871 and then expanding to their own space in the West Loop, the founders began to meet with manufacturers, reach out to distributors, and get the company up and running.

FitnessCubed officially launched in September 2013, and Dalmia, Sekine, and Jain already have about 1,500 preorders for the Cubii. The company and the Cubii have been featured by NPR, Forbes, TechCrunch, the Chicago Tribune, NBC Chicago, and other media outlets. “There’s been this extreme buzz around [the company] in the press, and all the orders. … It’s been so exciting,” says Jain.

The first Cubiis (retail price: $349) are scheduled to ship in March, but Dalmia, Sekine, and Jain are already looking ahead. The ultimate mission of FitnessCubed, says Sekine, is “to make it easier for people to stay healthy, so we have a couple other ideas in the pipeline that we hopefully will be developing soon.”

The founders say they were aided greatly by the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills learned at UChicago as well as the support they found on campus for their project. “Because it’s a small, closely-knit community, I think everyone is really willing to go out of their way to help you,” says Sekine. “I’ve never had a professor or an administrator or anyone say ‘no’ to me whenever I’ve gone to them for any kind of help.”

Asking for help has been a main factor in the company’s success, says Jain, and it’s something she would recommend to any young entrepreneur. “We often don’t want to seem like we don’t know what we’re doing, or that we’re not smart,” she says. But the willingness to ask questions and take advantage of any help and resources available has been “one of the big driving factors in our success,” she says. “I would encourage entrepreneurs to take as much free help as they can, ask any questions of whoever they can, because you just never know when something will be helpful.”