Many people have been hitting the pavement since the pandemic has thrown a wrench in regular workout routines. Whether experienced marathon runners or beginning joggers, two startups participating in Duke’s summer accelerator are working to enhance the running experience.
Embarc offers a platform centered around the running route, as opposed to other running apps that track and share metrics. Co-Founder Kevin Cergol, a 2020 grad of Duke University School of Law, says Embarc is the “single-player mode” compared to other platforms.
“We really are focused on empowering the individual runner,” he said, “so that when you are sharing with that community, you’re going to be improving. A lot of people treat those apps almost like social media.”
When users open Embarc, they chose between routes generated based on factors like elevation, distance to the starting point and more.
“Say you live in Durham,” Cergol said. “You go on a run. It’s 90 degrees out. You’re probably going to want to know if there’s a water stop on your route.”
Embarc will offer a freemium plan, with the free tier giving users automatically generated routes and the paid version getting rid of ads and adding “significantly more features,” like the water stop. You can sign up now at Embarc’s site to be one of the app’s beta users; the beta will be available soon.
Cergol got the idea for the software while living in Silicon Valley and training for the San Francisco Marathon. The race course has an elevation gain of 1,200 feet, he said, but he had been training within his relatively flat neighborhood.
“I’m thinking the whole time,” he said, “‘I’m gonna show up on race day and I’m going to get creamed if I’m just running all these flat, easy routes.’”
Another marathoner with ties to Duke, undergraduate Olivia Coletta, has been working for the past few months to create software for a personalized, holistic running training plan that considers more aspects than other plans that are out there.
Coletta’s idea—which is being translated into an app at Duke’s summer accelerator—will encompass four factors: running, nutrition, mental strength and sleep.
She got the idea for the app after running a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon, a major achievement for any distance runner. She felt she had the running piece down but wanted to optimize other parts of her training. That’s what she’s working to offer for others, too, and is currently looking for more runners to test the plan, which is free at the moment (you can contact her here).
“My hope is that people feel like they are the most prepared they could possibly be for either a race or training in general,” she said. “The goal of all of this is that people realize they can push boundaries in whatever aspect of their life that is.”
Running on a mission
Cergol says the Embarc team has a high commitment level, unified by the fact that they’re all runners themselves.
“We were talking yesterday about how there are some startups that work on problems that maybe the founders don’t really care about,” Cergol said. “We’ve really unified over ‘How can we create a better running experience for people?’”
When Cergol got back to campus in September 2019 to start his senior year at Duke Law, eager to specialize in startups, he teamed up with undergraduate computer science students Marc Chmielewski and Sid Madala. The three co-founded Embarc, and have since hired Craig Chen to develop a route-generating algorithm.
Embarc draws on open-sourced data like OpenStreetMap, and they recently entered a one-year program with Esri, a geographic information system software. Cergol says they’re always looking for more data to feed to their algorithm so it can be more robust.
The startup was bootstrapped in the beginning, but has raised some grant money from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and the Duke summer accelerator, which they’ve put toward building the prototype.
And, Embarc gives back to its communities. Over Memorial Day weekend, it hosted a virtual race with participants from 12 different states running routes Embarc designed to have similar difficulty. The company donated over $300 to Feeding America food banks affiliates in Long Island (where Cergol is from) and Durham.
Cergol says he will pursue both law (whenever he can take the bar exam) and the startup now that he’s graduated, drawing on his team to keep the mission alive.
“Whether your goal is getting there faster or just getting there,” Cergol said, “We want to make you a better runner, and that mission has really driven this.”