Irish companies are thriving as the market to boost sporting performance surges. Will they taste glory or fall just short?
As Irish athletes compete for gold at this year’s Tokyo Olympics, Output Sports co-founder and CEO Martin O’Reilly will be sitting at home in Dublin cheering on certain stars a little bit more loudly than others.
O’Reilly’s Output Sports has developed a wearable technology for sports coaches and athletes to optimise their performance. Coaches, sports clubs and individual athletes have tapped into the data it produces, including some of Ireland’s Olympic hopefuls such as hurdle star Sarah Lavin and taekwondo athlete Jack Woolley.
O’Reilly said he is always that bit more passionate about the teams and sportstars who have used Output.
“When anyone who works in sports technology, or coaching and research in sport, you are just so passionate about sport,” he said.
“It’s just great to see that you play a small role in the journey with these different athletes as they improve and get better.”
Output Sports was founded in 2018 by O’Reilly, Darragh Whelan and Julian Eberle after discovering a way of monitoring sports performance better.
With the product itself having launched in February 2020, it has already won clients in the US Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and National Basketball Association and the English Premier League to improve the efficiency and portability of testing and monitoring processes.
Clients also include Euro 2020 finalists England, who O’Reilly said were delighted with the Output system. The company helped them keep on top of a few injuries in between matches, and ensuring players were ready to play.
Having already been backed in a seed round by big-name investors, including Atlantic Bridge, and with plans for a bumper ‘Series A’ funding round to bolster jobs and international growth, O’Reilly is pushing Output to go for gold.
The sports-performance-technology industry includes firms that design innovative data-driven technology as well as those with products like specialised gear or foods that are engineered to provide certain nutrients.
For O’Reilly, Ireland is producing companies that are punching above their weight across the industry.
He credits the impact of the top-quality tech talent here, an excellent research ecosystem and the country’s passion for sport.
Indeed, the global industry may be worth over $40bn (€34bn) in 2026, with O’Reilly believing Irish firms are well placed to bite into that figure.
“If you look at the companies that are the unicorns in this space… there is every opportunity for Ireland to produce really large-scale companies in this area because of that high-quality research,” he said.
“I can’t see any reason why Irish companies shouldn’t play a major part in that market growth.”
Output is not alone among the promising firms making a name for themselves in sports performance.
Some of the names across the island of Ireland attracting attention include Newry-based StatSports, Sony-backed Kitman Labs, golfer Graeme McDowell-backed Orreco and protective headgear company N-Pro.
Sports nutrition is also huge for Irish dairy companies, with Glanbia and Kinetica, sold by dairy processor Carbery to Boyne Valley in 2018, big players in the world of whey protein powders.
Serial entrepreneur and investor Pat Phelan recently entered the sports/health performance space when he became chairman of US-based tech company VIV – Vitals In View.
However, sports technology was not immune to the Covid-19 pandemic. With lockdowns affecting the amount of sport played from grassroots up to the elite level, revenues were hit and opportunities to grow were tight.
The small size of the Irish market also means it is essential for domestic companies to think international straight from the first whistle.
With sports now reopening and innovation running deep, the sector is booming across the world. Will Ireland’s sports technology companies make it to the podium, or will they come up short?
One Dublin-founded sports-focused company has already shown its compatriots the road to business glory. Kitman Labs, which counts backers such as ex-Irish rugby player Jamie Heaslip, provides client organisations with a performance intelligence platform to track and analyse athlete data. Its cloud-based system allows coaches to integrate data about players’ fitness, performance and overall health to enable better decision-making on development, training and game strategy.
Counting around 700 clients, including members of the English Premier League and the NFL, Kitman recently concluded its second acquisition in two years when it bought Presagia Sports from employee-management software company Presagia.
Stephen Smith, founder and CEO of Kitman, said the sector is thriving, with investors starting to get excited about the potential for business success by backing sports performance firms.
“We’ve started to see some huge companies prevail in this space and the shift technology is creating across all sorts of different industries,” he said. “People have seen the growth in companies like Kitman and what we’ve been able to achieve, and that paints a really promising future for this industry.”
Kitman’s international success is doing more than attract attention; it is also fuelling an impressive growth story. Smith said it is set to employ between 50 and 100 more staff over the next year, mostly in Ireland.
“For us, it’s about continuing to pour fuel on the fire,” he said. “We’ve grown dramatically. In three years, we’ve gone from working with 200 teams to 700 globally, 25 people in the company to over 100 people.
“I think what the market has told us is that people need this.”
For Smith, one of the keys to success was his decision to go international and move to the US right from the start.
“For us, moving internationally at the very beginning and making the decision to do that has been crucial to the story that has unfolded so far and will continue to be,” he said
Hoping for similar success by focusing attention across the Atlantic is Dave Kearney, founder of sports mental skills training app Champion’s Mind. He founded the company alongside US-based sports psychologist Dr Jim Afremow in early 2019 after spotting a gap in the market. The company already counts around 50 US colleges as clients, with interest also starting to mount in the UK and Europe.
Kearney, who is now focusing on bolstering sales of Champion’s Mind across clubs and individuals and plans to raise about $1m around September or October, is optimistic Ireland could develop an internationally recognised hub in sports technology.
“Companies don’t tend to grow in isolation,” he said. “If we build a successful community of sports products here, we will all start to learn and grow off each others success.”
Ireland’s research expertise in this field isn’t just pouring into the tech side of sports performance products. There is an abundance of other products which Ireland is excelling in developing.
Galway-founded protective headgear designer and manufacturer N-Pro is an example. Its rugby headguard can reduce impact to the head by up to 75pc compared with competitors. It has launched in Ireland, France and the UK, with a distributor in Australia and New Zealand also secured. It also has plans to enter the US and Canadian markets this year.
“Export is huge,” said Mark Ganly, co-founder and CEO of N-Pro.
Ganly developed the product with his wife Sandra, who has a PHD in biomedical engineering. The pair kicked off a long research and development phase with the rugby headgear to ensure the start-up had the unique selling point to help it stand out against big-name competitors.
Ganly believes Ireland’s excellence in innovation, an internationally recognised med-tech hub based in Galway, support from Enterprise Ireland and skills from third-level education have all combined to help create an exciting sports tech sector.
From the start, N-Pro decided to ensure its brand was visible on the product.. While Ganly said he decided not to pay players to wear the products, preferring them to select the headgear themselves and wear it for the right reasons, athletes wearing the headgear has helped with brand recognition. Big-name rugby players wearing the product include Ultan Dillane, Seán O’Brien and Foster Horan, who is representing the Irish Sevens team at the Tokyo Olympics.
“In terms of the children watching games, if you ask any young footballer what brand of football boots does Messi or Ronaldo wear, they’ll tell you straight away,” he said. “That was important for us in terms of brand recognition.
"They’re all wearing it because they are really happy with the product.”
Ireland is also excelling in nutritional supplements and engineered food and drink to boost professional and budding sports stars.
One market for Leonie Lynch, founder of Juspy an Irish functional food company based in Limerick that has a collagen drink protein blend, is “lifestyle athletes”. The drink can provide nutrients essential for sports recovery and a healthy energy boost to gym-goers, yoga students and pilate fanatics.
Juspy recently had reason to celebrate after securing a listing on global tech giant Amazon’s Launchpad, which helps emerging brands grow online.
Lynch believes the sector is thriving across the world thanks to the growing interest younger generations have in the benefits of participating in health.
“Everybody wants to know what their bodies are doing, how it is working and how to feel better,” she said. “You wouldn’t have had that interest in sports nutrition or health ten years ago. It’s growing and growing.”
Output Sports’ O’Reilly agrees with Lynch that the Irish sports technology and product sector is on the cusp of achieving great things. His own company has ambitious plans to open a US office, build research projects to make access to its data easier and complete a €5m Series A round.
Just like the athletes' Output supports, O’Reilly believes it won’t be long before Irish sports tech companies make their way up the podium to get their hands on the gold.
“The size of the opportunity here is just massive,” he said. “We are unbelievably excited.”