Monday 20 January 2020

In person: Galway scientist giving elite athletes the inside track


Brian Moore, CEO of Orreco, says the support he received from Enterprise Ireland was ‘amazing’. Photo: Andrew Downes/Xposure
Brian Moore, CEO of Orreco, says the support he received from Enterprise Ireland was ‘amazing’. Photo: Andrew Downes/Xposure

Dr Brian Moore, Orreco Co-founder & CEO

Starter for 10: What do Sonia O'Sullivan, the Dallas Mavericks, and Padraig Harrington have in common?

Aside from being consummate professionals with incredible success in their fields, they have all had Galway native Dr Brian Moore, and his company Orreco, in their corner.

In high-performance environments that kind of edge has a real value.

In layman's terms, Orreco uses science to generate customised indicators for athletes of injuries, of optimal training regimes, and of recovery strategies.

The idea is to "help the best athletes in the world get better", says Moore.

"To get better they have to train hard, sometimes there is a fine line between training really hard and too hard, and so we can use data from blood tests and from all the wearables that we are all becoming more aware of help navigate that fine line for the athletes," Moore says.

"We know that if you train too hard, or work too hard, your risk of getting sick or injured increases, and we have found signals in data that are carried sometimes the day before, or up to two days before people get sick or hurt."

In the US, Orreco customers include Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, which plays in the elite NBA league.

Cuban is a tech billionaire with a huge US profile thanks to his regular appearances on ABC's reality-TV business show 'Shark Tank'.

The Mavericks owner is a fan of Orreco's application of technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to sports science, Moore says.

"It is the way of the future and is going to change industries, we are deploying that kind of technology in our solutions to pick up signals [in a person's body]."

They reckons the proof of Orreco's work is in the pudding.

"The Mavericks last year had zero days lost to illness. They are the kind of impacts you can have, and we really are just scratching the surface."

I'm struggling with a head cold as I interview Moore over the phone from his home in LA.

He and his new wife Lorraine, herself a professional basketball player, recently moved from Ireland to be closer to the US client base.

Ever the scientist, he queries whether lack of sleep is contributing to the cold lingering.

"That's what we have seen with the athletes," he says.

"All the work we are doing with Orreco, it will eventually be able to help everyone. We can learn from what the elites do, how they manage something like that (minimising illness).

"Can you imagine waking up with tonsillitis on the week of an Olympic final? Or a Champions League final? It's something that you want to avoid at all costs."

I throw a glance at the dust my gym bag has been gathering as he describes the application of products created for high-performance athletes will have on the rest of us.

"We do a lot of work with the NBA and the whole point is - 'Can you peak?'," he says.

"We often find with athletics it's in the build-up that they get injured, not right before but a couple of months beforehand.

"Sometimes it can be a blessing in disguise because it protects them. Basically, elite athletics are wired to overreach - wired to push themselves.

"That's what they are wired to do all the time and our job is to use objective data to navigate it."

Having graduated with a PhD in London under the late Professor Craig Sharp, founder of the British Olympic Medical Centre, Moore returned to Ireland.

Back home he tapped into Enterprise Ireland as he shifted from academia to business. "I was fortunate to get on one of their [Enterprise Ireland] Accelerator programmes on the EI High Potential Start-Ups (HISU) with my co-founder, Dr Andy Hodgson.

"He had the clinical side, and I had the sports science side and we started to build from there."

He says the support from Enterprise Ireland was "amazing". "They gave us a crash course in business," Mr Moore says.

"At each stage of our journey they have followed the investment. We couldn't really have done what we have done without their support."

The company has raised just over €5m from backers including angel investors in Ireland such as former Glanbia managing director John Moloney, and Arzyta CEO Kevin Toland.

"We have great support from very successful business people in Ireland, and obviously Enterprise Ireland helped us really to get off the ground. We have also had VC investment here from True Ventures, the first investors in Fitbit."

Majority ownership of the group is split between Moore, True Ventures and Hodgson.

While the team is confident it has nailed down the science, the business environment is competitive.

"Sport is pretty ruthless, if you don't add value you are not kept around, and to be honest, I like that. It's on us to keep getting better all the time.

"We are heading into our fourth year with the Mavericks. With Newcastle United football club we are heading into our eighth year."

Moore says Orrecco has the advantage of being "an early mover in the space".

"We have competition in adjacent spaces, and slowly but surely competition is arriving from some of the bigger multinationals, this validates our space, which is great for us."

While some of those emerging rivals have scale, Orreco's early-mover status makes a difference, he says.

"The advantage we have now is the data set we have accumulated over the 10 years - that leaves us uniquely positioned.

"It is very early yet in the space but there is growing understanding and acceptance of AI and machine learning in sports science and the potential it has, but broader than that again is the future in consumer [products]."

Shifting from elite sports to the consumer space is already happening.

That includes work specifically for women in developing the app 'Fitrwoman', its first-ever consumer product, but one that's also being used by high-performance women athletes.

"For the last 40-50 years women have been completely overlooked by sports science, in that they weren't included in clinical trials, and often solutions that are put out there are done so with men in mind.

"We have been developing this [Fitrwoman] for the past three years and launched it eight months ago, and it has had phenomenal uptake.

"It has been downloaded all around the world. It is being used by the New Zealand All Blacks 7s, by Chelsea women's football club, and New Zealand High Performance are rolling it out across all their elite female athletics.

"USA Swimming have taken it on - the most successful swimming team in Olympic history."

Throwing another glance to the gym bag I ask if non-professional athletics could use it? "Absolutely, the same principles apply," he says.

The future focus is a mix of building out in the elite space, "particularly in US pro-sports", and to further advance its consumer offering "and really eventually allow us all to personalise our own training".

"So when you are preparing for your next 10k run or triathlon or park run, that's really our future," he says.

"We have managed to get our technology on the blood side [so] that we can do it with just a pin-prick, from a small drop of blood. We can give really powerful insights into someone's readiness and their wellness."

Would he ever consider selling the company?

"My responsibility as CEO is to bring the business forward and get the best possible return for shareholders," he says.

"Any sale offer we would obviously give due consideration, but right now we are focused on building our business and taking advantage of the 10 years of work that we have."

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