“I’d like for us to become part of pop culture”, says the co-founder of 3D tech startup mPort

mPort Melody Shiue

Melody Shiue, mPort's co-founder and Chief Design Officer

For the uninitiated, the term ‘3D body-mapping’ might conjure up images of futuristic cartographers (which, to be fair, isn’t entirely off the mark). It’s the technology which has helped Sydney-based startup mPort land a reported $80m deal with America’s largest gym chain LA Fitness, secure $12 million in funding from high-net-worth Australian investors and onboard Westfield as a shareholder.

Founded in 2012 by Melody Shiue, Dipra Ray and Andy Wu, mPort enables people to generate a 3D avatar of their body with the aid of an ‘mPod’, a booth that uses non-invasive infra-red technology to map an individual’s body shape by capturing 20,000 data points. People can then access their avatars via the startup’s mobile app, which allows them to visualise and track physical changes in their body shape, including the progress of their fitness input, and otherwise monitor their health.

According to Shiue, mPort’s Chief Design Officer, the startup’s 3D body-mapping platform is “the first product in the world that actually shows you holistically the output of your activities, not just your weight scale (we all know BMI is not the only indicator of health) or the results of your daily step tracker, which you can vigorously shake on your wrist.”

She continued, “The platform simply does not lie, it shows a true reflection of your body shape. It can be confronting… but we have customers turning these emotions into positive motivation to drive their fitness routines and nutritional regimens. This keeps them coming back to map and track their body shape changes. They can also use the platform to help determine their preferred shirt or dress size, without trying it on. Imagine if you could be recommended a customised exercise routine and a matching dietary plan, have a tailored suit sent to your doorstep, or even get a remote medical consultation…these are all possibilities with mPort.

In conversation with Dynamic Business, Shiue discussed the genesis of mPort, the key milestones in the startup’s growth trajectory and the yet-to-be-realised applications for its technology. 

DB: What events led you, Andy and Dipra to partner on mPort?

Shiue: I was classmates with Andy and Dipra back in high school. They’ve been best friends ever since and, due to their shared background in finance and investment banking, had always wanted to get into business together. mPort was born out of a frustrating consumer experience; namely, Andy’s wife hated trying on different wedding dresses. Acknowledging the fashion industry’s poor understanding of today’s body shapes, Andy and Dipra began researching technologies that could somehow efficiently and accurately map body measurements to clothes. At the time, the 3D space was in its infancy and 3D scanning was mostly being used for research, medical and industrial purposes.

Realising they needed input from someone with technical expertise, they thought of me. I was working as a product developer at IDE Group and had explored, first-hand, 3D printing. After speaking with animation artists, software programmers, and electrical and mechanical engineers to determine how the concept of 3D body mapping would work, the three of us agreed over coffee to put the time, effort and capital into making mPort a viable business.

We worked on mPort outside our normal working hours from paper through to computer aided design (CAD, i.e. 3D modelling) and the proof-of-concept prototype, which we built, with our own hands, in a rental office and garage space. After conducting a small focus group with friends and family, we hired a truck and gathered our forces to transport the first mPod to Westfield Warringah, where it had its debut on 21 May 2013. Our mPods, which are now in 24 locations across Australia and 20 in California, and have acquired over 202 unique user scans to date, and we have more than 37,000 app subscribers (and counting)

DB: What is mPort’s business model, how does it generate revenue?

Shiue: On the consumer side, we’re essentially a subscription-based business. In addition to having access to their own personal 3D avatar and unlimited mapping sessions at any of our mPods throughout Australia, premium members can access 19 health/body metrics plus history graphs for a monthly or annual fee. mPort offers free registration and mapping sessions, and if someone just wants their measurements for online shopping, and doesn’t believe their measurements change much, they can pay for a one-off scan.

On the B2B side of things, we collaborate with industry partners to integrate their services with our platform. Real estate partners like Westfield and LA Fitness provide roll-out locations, and we’re working with online tailor Institchu to generate greater customisation in the fashion industry.

DB: What have been the key moments in mPort’s growth trajectory?

Shiue: Our first milestone was securing external funding a year into the startup phase as this opened up our investor network. With the next few rounds, we were not only able to design and make the next generation of mPods, we were also able to roll-out to new locations, including Stockland Piccadilly and Melbourne Emporium.

Another big one resulted from our strategic decision to lay low with zero spending on marketing… our pods attracted enough early adopters organically to encourage Westfield to join our shareholding list.

A recent milestone was the deal we struck with LA Fitness, last year, for mPods to be rolled out in their gyms. We had started analysing appropriate markets for expansion, a year earlier, because we wanted to capitalise on our first-mover advantage before the body mapping space began to heat up. During this time, we were introduced to a few key contacts on the West Coast of America, so we jumped on a plane and flew over. Within six months, we had a prospective deal with LA Fitness.

Our expansion plans don’t end there…but we are taking extra caution in our next steps. This doesn’t mean we’ll be spending lots of time thinking within closed walls as we’ve heard many stories of startups failing due to complacency… but we will be involving the entire team in the decision-making process to ensure we consider all options before we execute.

DB: What has been a major challenge as you’ve scaled the startup? 

Shiue: A key challenge has been overhauling the prototypical pod designs, hardware communication setup and software codes across the entire platform, to ensure our platform is scalable and standardised as we grow. We’re fortunate to have the right team of people to execute these changes and who’ve learned through osmosis because when funding and resources are limited, time definitely isn’t on your side.

DB: What big ambitions do you and your co-founders have for mPort?

Shiue: We’re taking baby steps towards empowering customers to make better informed decisions, via our app, about which garment sizes to buy based on their body shape and style preferences. Our ultimate vision, however, is clothing simulation and mass customisation, with fashion brands and tailors connecting with customers anywhere, virtually, to reduce unnecessary costs associated with returns and resources. Pulling this off requires tremendous development efforts spanning VR, telecommunications, material science, 3D hardware and other multidisciplinary fields… but imagine being able to 3D print your own clothes, re-dimensioned just for you, from home!

Of course, our fashion revolution won’t happen overnight, which is why we’ve reached for a low-hanging fruit: boosting customer retention in the fitness industry by providing people with an unprecedented opportunity to evaluate the effects of what they eat and how they exercise in relation to certain areas of their body… It’s virtually impossible for people to accurately map their body development journey by looking in the mirror.

With what we’re doing in the fitness industry, there is a segue into telemedicine. As an industrial designer, I also believe we have the potential to play a role in anthropometric data collection for human factors engineering. Ergonomics play a big part in product design and as we move towards mass customisation, consumers should be able to customise their own furniture, sporting equipment, vehicle… anything relating to their body shape and measurements.

Lastly, I’d like for us to become part of pop culture and lexicon, so that when someone mentions 3D measurements, you think of mPort!