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Exploring the untapped market of SportTech

Aug 19, 2016 11:41:42 AM. By: High Tech Campus

Technology is leveling the playing field in sports. Perhaps not in terms of athletic talent, but when it is a matter of measuring progress the amateurs are approaching the elite level. And if pioneering young SportTech startups have anything to say, this trend will only continue in the years to come.  

At the Olympic Games in Rio success is often measured in fractions of a second. For Dutch sprinter Dafne Schippers a tenth of a second meant the difference between glory and utter disappointment. In the men’s 200 meter sprint final the gap between bronze and fourth place was a mere three one-thousandths of a second. It goes without saying that in a world where precision plays such a vital role, technology is a basic necessity of life.

Back in the day measuring exercise data like heart rate and speed was something reserved only for professional athletes. But nowadays even a complete beginner can look at detailed heart rate graphs, upload his (or her) sporting data to the cloud and compare himself to his previous training sessions. “We have a firm belief that everyone has an inner-athlete inside of them, no matter how deeply buried it is,” says Andrew Statham from SportTech company ATO-Gear. “Through technology we want to try and stimulate that feeling of becoming a real athlete.”

With the inspiration of the Olympics still fresh there’s perhaps no better time to unleash that inner athlete than now! Two Dutch start-ups are leading the way.

Hitting the sweet spot

ATO-Gear, which participated in the HighTechXL program at High Tech Campus Eindhoven in 2015, has invented sensor technology that can measure and improve running technique. The sensors are placed inside an unnoticeably thin insole that slips inside a running shoe and tracks the exact movements of the runner’s feet as he or she runs. “Most running wearables give you information about heart-rate, speed or distance, but very few can tell you exactly how the body runs,” Statham says. The system is called Arion, named after a fast, immortal horse from Greek mythology.

The data from the sensors is picked up by a smartwatch or smartphone, providing real-time feedback to the runner through different parameters, such as stride length, ground contact time, pronation and something called ‘strike index’, which tells you which part of your foot touches the ground first. “Beginning runners often land heavily on the back of the heel. Arion can give an alert on their phone or watch whenever they’re leading on their rear foot and also tell them when they’re hitting their sweet spot.”

Dutch sprinting team

In a pilot study where six runners tried the Arion insole, all of them improved their running technique within six weeks and almost all improved their times in the marathon. “The coaches we worked with didn’t expect it was possible to adapt running technique so fast. They felt that this type of adaptation would normally take months and not weeks,” Statham says.

Although the Arion insole is used by professional athletes, including top runners, sprinters and triathletes from The Netherlands, UK and Germany, Statham emphasizes that the technology is just as useful and accessible to the amateur. “Our vision is to make biomechanical research available for everyone.”

ATO-Gear_SportTech_High_Tech_Campus_Eindhoven
DashTag_SportTech_High_Tech_Campus_Eindhoven

Messi vs you

Most SportTech innovations are geared towards runners and cyclists, as their steady forward movement is relatively easy to measure. For extracting exercise data in team sports like football or field hockey local positioning is key. That is why technology in these areas is still available only to professional teams. But this is about to change. Recent improvements in sensor technology is making SportTech find its way into amateur team sports as well.

Take the company DashTag, which also participated in the HighTechXL program. This Dutch startup based in the Eindhoven Brainport region, has developed a sensor for the individual team player. The sensor measures positional data like sprint speed, total distance covered and the position on the field during the game. Players can compare their data both with themselves, their team mates and the elites in their sport. “Players’ jaws often drop when they compare their own statistics with pros like Messi and Ronaldo,” says co-founder Dirk van den Berg. “But it also challenges them to try and do better than they did previously. The gamification of the data is an important part of our proposition.”

Hundreds of thousands of euro’s

Initially DashTag targets their product towards young football players, who immediately fall in love with it, Van den Berg says. “They recognize these kind of statistics from the computer game FIFA 16. The idea that they can now also apply the data to themselves makes them really enthusiastic and influences their achievements directly. One coach told us, ‘I don’t know what it is you put into those sensors, but it makes them run faster!’”

DashTag is one of the pioneers in making this kind of technology available to amateur sports players. Yet Van den Berg doesn’t think the gap with the professionals will close any time soon. “The systems professional teams are using are much more precise and expensive. For an amateur athlete that level of accuracy is often unnecessary.”

Local ecosystems

Pioneers are often followed by bigger players. At the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven these big players are often just around the corner. Take Holst Centre, a research institute located on the Campus that develops and tests technology for companies like Samsung, Philips and Panasonic. “We’re exploring the interface between sports and technology,” says senior scientist Sywert Brongersma. “We’ve developed a lot of technology for wearables in medical applications, like brain wave analysis, cardiac monitoring and sweat sensors. Now we are looking to see if these can be used in sports as well.”

To do this the Holst Centre is partnering up with so-called ‘sport field labs’ in the Eindhoven Brainport region, where sports technology is tested with professional swimmers, runners, cyclists and football players. The field labs serve as the connecting link between technology institutes, athletes and local SME’s. “Through this collaboration ideas can land in the local ecosystems, so that SME’s can start thinking of ways how to make profitable products out of that technology.”

Disappear in a drawer

Although the initial interest in SportTech is there, Brongersma still sees challenges ahead. “You’re not going to make your profits in the field of elite sports, because that market is too small. So you need to make your product attractive for the average person who exercises. But that person has to be motivated to keep using the product. For many people this is problematic, as most sports watches disappear in a drawer after six months of use.”

Yet the market for recreational athletes is big, Brongersma says, and offers a lot of opportunity. “I think in the next five to ten years we will see more and more tech companies tapping into this market.”

Chances are that before the next Olympic Games comes around there will be plenty of SportTech companies to help you train and race like a pro. So get off that couch, strap on that smartwatch and get a head start!

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