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Money is moving into Asian fitness tech — but 2018 could be survival of the fittest

  • Asia's market for fitness-related technology is booming, and so are investments in the industry
  • The number of investment deals is declining however, even as the amount of money increases

Asia's fitness technology sector has attracted millions in funding — but fatigue may be kicking In.

A fitness tracker.
A fitness tracker.

The continent is seeing a boom in apps, wearables and other tech that helps people stay in shape, and the industry has attracted millions of dollars in funding in recent years.

Buoyed by rising income levels and favorable government policy, residents from Guangzhou to Gurgaon have flocked to gyms and spinning classes in the past few years. A number of companies have mushroomed to serve the increased demand, and many have scored funding with little fuss.

"The proliferation of mobile, a burgeoning middle class, and pro-fitness government policies are enabling the rise of fitness tech in China and India," venture capital research firm CB Insights said in a recent report.

"Consumers are spending a lot of money on these services, along with associated products, such as apparel and adjacent services such as nutrition." -Anagha Hanumante, intelligence analyst, CB Insights

"For example, in June 2016, the Chinese State Council issued a plan to implement a national fitness strategy to improve the physical fitness and health levels of the entire country by 2020," the report said.

Similarly, India's National Skill Development Corporation is funding a K11 Academy of Fitness Sciences in North India, instructing young personal trainers, the report added.

As the sector matures, Asian companies have been punching above their weight. The region accounted for 30 percent of all investment deals in the fitness tech sector in the 10 months through October, up 10 percentage points from a year ago.

"Investors are realizing that there is a great opportunity to tap into the fitness category, because consumers are spending a lot of money on these services, along with associated products, such as apparel and adjacent services such as nutrition," said Anagha Hanumante, Intelligence Analyst at CB Insights.

More money, but fewer deals

But there are signs of fatigue kicking in. Overall investments in the sector will rise this year, but the money will be spread over fewer deals, suggesting investors are getting more selective with their bigger bets.

CB Insights data show more than 130 deals had taken place until October, driving more than $685 million dollars into the fitness tech sector globally. However, just two transactions — cycling start-up Peloton Interactive and on-demand workout app ClassPass — accounted for more than half of the overall pie.

In comparison, the sector attracted $482 million dollars in funding across 208 deals in 2016, the current annual record. Industry observers say a key concern is that a number of companies have very similar offerings, making it hard to differentiate.

"One realizes the market is becoming extremely competitive and commoditized," said Natasha Gulati, Industry Manager at Frost and Sullivan.

Asian standouts

That's not to say all is doom and gloom in the sector.

Singapore startup GuavaPass is one of the most well funded fitness ventures in Asia, according to CB Insights. The business raised $5 million in Series A funding in late 2016, led by Vickers Venture Partners.

"GuavaPass experienced tremendous subscriber growth in 2017, with the membership base growing by thousands of new members each month, outpacing the company's growth rate in 2016," Rhyce Lein, GuavaPass Singapore general manager, told CNBC.

Launched in 2015, it now serves 10 cities across Asia and the Middle East, operating boutique fitness studios and classes through a subscription service.

"From an expansion perspective, GuavaPass continues to evaluate opportunities to expand in other cities within Asia and the Middle East. With the overall secular growth in the fitness, health and wellness industry, new opportunities will spring up in 2018," Lein added.

Beyond Singapore, macroeconomic fundamentals have underpinned solid growth of fitness tech in India and China, helping the industry attract capital and driving growth, while also opening the door to initial public offerings, further investment rounds, or private investment.

Integrated wealth and fitness platform, CureFit, is among India's most well-funded platforms, raising $47 million in total disclosed funding, according to CB Insights.

Meanwhile, Chinese fitness start-up Keep, which provides workout videos and apps, announced in late August it had obtained 100 million users. That compares to around 60 million in October 2016 and just 10 million in November 2015.

Still shaping up

While the sector has seen record global investment, and Asian fitness tech businesses are mostly well capitalized, not everyone is bullish on the outlook.

According to Gulati, the future success of some businesses in the fitness tech space will be pegged to how a company can integrate devices and services, to ensure an expanding subscriber base and recurring revenue.

"The key here is how the device and the data generated by it are being used," she added.

Others are also staying cautious, with private equity firm Sports Capital Advisors passing over a number of investment opportunities this year.

"We looked at a couple of them, but ultimately didn't invest in this sub sector," Marcus John, CEO of Sports Capital Advisors, told CNBC.

"Not necessarily because they were not good — but because there are so many areas across the sport ecosystem which are fast growing and were ultimately priorities for us," he added.

Despite the caution, John isn't ruling out a future play, saying not one technology, methodology or app will necessary emerge as a clear winner.

"The overall fitness sector in Asia is still quite new, compared to the west, and the 'shake out' will take several more years. No one can really predict what the local consumer will ultimately adapt to," he said.

—Correction: This report has been updated to accurately reflect the name of Sports Capital Advisors