Rowan students' exercise meet-up app wins seed money

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Nick Dennis (left), a senior at Rowan University, and business partner Daniel Read, a graduate of the school, have been given $100,000 to develop their fitDegree app, which allows people to find workout partners. (CLEM MURRAY/Staff Photographer)

At a training program before school started last year, student employees at Rowan University's recreation center were discussing how to get more students to use the rec center.

"I've always noticed from my experience that people are more motivated to engage in fitness when they have a friend or partner," said Nick Dennis, 22, of Morris County, N.J., who is graduating this fall with a bachelor's in mathematics and minor in business administration.

Dennis thought about the social networks so popular on campus. What if people had a way to meet up for specific activities: running at 5 p.m. Monday, playing tennis at 10 a.m. Wednesday, or lifting weights at 3 p.m.?

A year - and more than $100,000 in seed money - later, Dennis and a group of students and alumni are getting closer to that goal.

In the next few weeks, they'll launch their app, fitDegree, on iOS and Android.

A stream of posts, organized by location or network, will allow users to quickly arrange pickup games, gym sessions, or a run through town.

"Facebook locks you down to your network of people that you have already met. Our app is more for finding new people you haven't met yet," said Daniel Read, 25, of Sicklerville, who graduated from Rowan in May with a bachelor's degree in computer science. "So if you live on campus and you don't know anyone because you're a freshman . . . now you have a way that you can meet people who are working out at the rec center."

The app has come a long way from last year, when Dennis had a long list of plans but no coding knowledge. He turned to his roommate, the only computer science major he knew.

Read took on the idea as his senior project.

Soon, Dennis was throwing more and more ideas at Read - a calorie tracker, a workout log, progress pictures - and generating enthusiasm in return.

Cautious enthusiasm.

"They were great ideas. . . . He wasn't aware of the amount of work that goes into implementing a simple feature into an app," said Read, who spent several years working in digital support for The Inquirer's parent company.

"There was a big learning curve," Dennis said. "You could tell how naive I was [in my approach] to software going into this."

When Read submitted his senior project in December, he thought he was finished. He had no idea that Dennis had entered a competition at Rowan's business school.

After two rounds of the Rohrer College of Business 2015 Business Plan Competition, Dennis lured Read back.

"Once he found out I was in the last round and we could win $7,500, he was like, 'I'm back in; let's do this,' " Dennis said.

In April, they won first place and the $7,500.

Afterward, Dennis said, one of the judges "came to me and said he had $5 million to hand out, and I basically said, 'Where do I sign up?' "

Howard Lubert, managing director of the newly formed Rowan Innovation Venture Fund, wanted fitDegree to apply for seed money.

Of course, there was more work to be done first, including a months-long due diligence process involving market research and a fleshed-out business plan for taking a prototype app to market-ready product.

In September, fitDegree was officially named one of two winners of the inaugural Rowan Innovation Venture Fund competition and awarded $100,000 in seed money.

The other winner was Melissa Schipke, 28, of Cherry Hill, who co-founded Tassl, a company whose "alumni engagement platform" allows a school's graduates to interact with one another, connect with their college, and browse nearby events. Schipke, a 2014 MBA graduate of Rowan's business school, has seen her free app adopted by her alma mater, as well as Temple University and other large four-year schools.

Dennis' company - formed thanks to a lawyer hired with that first $7,500 - had money, staff, and an app steadily moving toward market.

Read, working on the Android app, often spends hours each day sitting next to another friend and cofounder, who is developing the iOS version. Going back and forth, they've inched steadily closer to launch.

"We work all the time, wherever we have a WiFi signal," Read said. "The only time I'm not working is when I'm sleeping."

When the app goes public, the team will pivot to marketing and outreach. Development will continue, as its members respond to bugs and user requests, and try to evolve the app into something indispensable for users.

But not, Lubert warned, by taking on too much too quickly, or abandoning the core ideas.

"The biggest risk of investing in a technology company like fitDegree is that you have to make sure that they keep their eye on the ball, and that they deliver the app into the marketplace that they first describe," he said.

The fund now owns a 25 percent stake in fitDegree, and Lubert said he believes it will make money one day.

Perhaps millions, he said, before being bought by a gym chain or fitness company.

"If I had entrepreneurs who came to me every day like Nick, we would have no trouble investing the $5 million in that fund in no time at all," Lubert said.

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