Three years ago, while weight-training at the University of Toronto, engineer Rami Nabel noticed a varsity team training nearby. They were using "what looked a lot like a lab tool" to track and analyze their performance.
The device, says Nabel, "was really intricate. There was a tripod, a display screen and a big box on the ground, with lots of wires everywhere." The goal: "to help athletes reduce their risk of injury and optimize their time in the gym."
Nabel – an engineer and self-confessed numbers geek – was fascinated by the prospect of being able to use solid data to assess when to push further in weight training and when to hold back. But at $1,500, the system he'd seen was expensive, and "the setup was just not practical for anything but a professional sports team."
So Nabel, founder and CEO of Push Inc., designed a tool of his own using technology that is now widely available. Push is smartphone enabled and relies on a wearable armband to track and analyze strength training.
When he showed it to a few coaches, they liked it and offered valuable feedback. Now, "we're in use by over 25 pro teams worldwide and we're growing in the college and amateur market as well," says Nabel.
"Athlete performance is a very large part of the Canadian sports start-up landscape," says Cheri Bradish, executive director of the sports innovation hub at the DMZ, one of Canada's largest business incubators for emerging tech startups.
When it launched in February of this year, the DMZ was the first business incubator in North America to create a dedicated hub for sports startups. And, of the approximately 80 companies that competed for a chance to incubate with the DMZ, more than 60 per cent were athlete-performance driven, says Bradish.
The trend spills outside of the borders of the Greater Toronto Area. "We see performance analytics as an area ripe for growth," says Norm Schleehanhn, business development manager for the City of Hamilton, who announced in July that the Hamilton-Niagara corridor aimed to become a centre of excellence in the burgeoning field. "Tech companies can take advantage of our excellent sports facilities, world-renowned health networks and post-secondary institutions to create useful partnerships."
So far, the area has lured three startups. Project 1 uses GPS technology to track players' movement, acceleration, deceleration, change of direction and jumps with the aim of improving their game. The company initially focused on soccer, but aims to expand its player-tracking technology into sports like hockey.
A second company, SoccerFit, develops soccer training programs, and the third, the sports analytics branch of Nanolytix Inc., based in Waterloo, Ont., designs simple tests that can be used on-field to test a player's potential for dehydration or cramping, allowing coaches to individualize training.
Analytics, however, isn't the only area of sport ripe for disruption, according to the DMZ's Bradish. Entrepreneurs are developing innovative tech tools to "enhance fan engagement and business strategy" as well.
"Every fan is really mobile in terms of their mobile applications and second screen," says Bradish, referring to smartphone and tablet use meant to enhance television viewing, "even when they're at an event. Sport properties are asking themselves how to enhance the experience, both in venue and out."
Toronto-based Brizi Inc. aims to do just that. "We've created a next-generation fan-engagement tool," says 24-year-old co-founder Anna Hu. Her company's software platform runs an interactive camera system controlled by fans. "We set up these systems inside stadiums," Hu explains. "They can either be stationary or they can be mounted on a blimp."
Fans take aerial selfies by logging onto a website, then typing in their seat number to turn the camera their way. They can then share those photos online. The system is a win-win for stadiums, says Hu, because they're able to make fans happy and generate revenue by selling branding on the photos and the blimp.
"When someone shares a photo on their social media profile, that's an immediate couple hundred impressions," says Hu. "For every 1,000 fans sitting in a stadium, our reach rate has been 8,400, because if any of us goes to a Raptors game, the whole world has to know about it."
Hu won't reveal Brizi's revenues, but she lives by the mantra that a startup shouldn't do anything for free. So far, the company has set up systems in Toronto, the U.K., Dubai and even Nigeria, working with Rogers Communications, Canada Post, PayPal, Heineken and the Canadian Football League (CFL). "We would lo-o-ove Red Bull to get on board with us," says Hu.
Brizi charges nothing to set its system up, but levies a licensing fee when sports teams to sell a sponsor on seeing their brand appear on the photos being shared by fans.
"We price it based on the venue size and the level of engagement it picks up among the fans," says Hu. "Our real target is the U.S. market, because Canadian sports only attract a tiny fraction of the dollars."
Hu admits she initially envisioned her "fan cam" as a multi-media system that could be used for any event, from a conference to a wedding, but she quickly honed in on sports entertainment as "the industry with the biggest problem in need of solving."
"They're struggling to stay relevant with the entire digital revolution that has been happening over the last decade," she says. "It's really difficult to fill the seats in a stadium because you get that amazing quality sitting on your couch." Stadiums, Hu contends, have to adapt to what fans want, and that is "experiences that put smiles on their faces."