Thursday 22 February 2018

From rugby field to Silicon Valley: the tech chief leading a sports injury revolution

Dublin-based Kitman Labs is one of the fastest-growing Irish companies in Silicon Valley

Stephen Smith, founder of Kitman Labs
Stephen Smith, founder of Kitman Labs
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

'I'm getting old." Stephen Smith is only 32 but, with two young children, already feels an affinity with living in the "quieter" surrounds of Palo Alto than downtown San Francisco.

Smith's more exuberant days may be behind him. But the energy around his company, Kitman Labs, appears to be gathering pace.

The firm now has almost 70 professional sports teams on its books, from Premier League clubs to NBA and NFL outfits. In a short time, it has become one of the fastest-growing Irish companies in Silicon Valley.

Its basic functionality is to help sports teams predict and prevent injuries using a combination of analytics, sensors and software.

However, Smith has bigger plans for the "short term".

"What we're doing is not just applicable to sport," he says. "It goes right across the wider population in health. In the short term, we're looking at partnering with insurance companies, healthcare companies and employer groups. If we can have even a fraction of the success that we've had in the reduction of different types of musculoskeletal injuries in the general population, we can create billions of dollars of change across the healthcare system."

Sport is now big business. Injuries cost money, with some estimates putting it at over €300m per year in English football alone. Minimising them has taken on the tactical equivalence of signing a star player.

Big teams have been quick to take on Kitman Labs' systems. In the US, major franchises using its technology include the Detroit Pistons, the Miami Dolphins and the Oakland Athletics.

In England, Premier League football teams Everton and Norwich City are customers. Rugby sides Leinster, Bath, Gloucester and Grenoble have also taken the tech into their operations.

Most recently, the British and Irish Lions have taken the technology with them on tour in New Zealand.

In all, the company now has customers in the NFL, NBA, baseball, US soccer, hockey, Australian football, rugby and Premier League football.

Kitman Labs was set up five years ago by Smith, a former Leinster rugby rehabilitation coach, and online entrepreneur Iarfhlaith Kelly. It has offices in Dublin and Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley. The company's move to the US west coast came in 2014, the same time it wrapped up its first significant funding round - a $4m deal with John Malloy's Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Blue Run Ventures.

The investment was part serendipity, part empathy. Malloy, a veteran Silicon Valley investor who was Paypal's first institutional investor and now has billions in exits on his investment portfolio, also happens to be a rugby player.

Like many US venture capitalists, Malloy was a visitor to Dublin's Web Summit. In 2013, a chat with the Irish international rugby player, Jamie Heaslip, led to an interest - and ultimately an investment - in Kitman Labs.

"I talked to Jamie about his own investments and he loosely described Kitman," Malloy previously told the Irish Independent. "So I met them for lunch at the Web Summit. We started talking about other markets beyond Ireland. I wasn't sure that I would invest in them, but the core innovation behind Kitman is really applicable to lots of sports."

Five years later, Smith says that he can't keep up with queries from potential clients.

"One of the things we're struggling most with is actually getting to new clients or catching up with people who are interested in partnering with us," he says. "It's just a mess at the moment trying to co-ordinate schedules because there's so much interest and things are really starting to kick on. From a business development point of view, we're on target to have the best quarter we've ever had."

Despite describing the company's current trajectory in such terms, Smith says that it not yet making money and 80pc of its almost 40 staff still work in research and development.

"It was always the plan to invest really heavily in the product first," he says. "That's why we've gone with the venture model. If we wanted to take a different way, we probably could have been profitable very early on. But we would have had to have taken a very cautious approach to product development and it wouldn't be anywhere close to what it is today. There is nothing else like what we do on the planet today."

One of the reasons that the business model lags product development, he says, is that it takes years to fully develop aspects of the service.

"For the first three years, we were just building the foundations, getting the electronic medical system, tools and data up to scratch," he says.

"It's only over the last eight-to-12 months that we've really been able to dive into the analytical tools.

"Very recently we launched the world's first injury-risk qualification product. So within our system now, teams can look at any data point that they're collecting on an athlete with any type of calculation and they can relate it back to actual injury events to figure out whether there's a relationship or not."

Over time, he says, this logically leads to a much wider user base than simply professional sports. "Healthcare costs continue to rise and competition in that market is getting tougher," he says. "Clearly, we can give companies a competitive edge. We're giving people the tools to track their activities, which most people have today. Then we're linking that data back to their medical records and communicating that information to them to help them understand what's next and what to do and what best practice looks like."

Smith says that, for him, living in Silicon Valley is a prerequisite to grow the company as quickly as he wants.

"I'm there almost three years but the pace at which business moves is incredible," he says. "The dedication and time is, too. People eat, drink and sleep work in Silicon Valley. The energy levels are insane. Also, everyone understands the venture model. Whereas back in Ireland we're really just starting to get with that now. Here everyone's sharing in their successes or their failures. I find that really energising to work around.

"For me as a first-time CEO, it's very important to us to surround ourselves with good people who have gone through this before. The success that Blue Run have had with other companies here and their ability to surround us with members of their support team is really important to us.

"Then there's being based close to the biggest innovation hub in the world. This is important because what we're doing has never been done before. We have to surround ourselves with people who are solving problems like that in a different way."

Smith also says that he is not anticipating an early sale of the company.

"My focus is not on the financial outcome for things like that," he says. "My focus is on the problems we're solving. If we do the world's best job then we'll have options. We're very definitely not tailoring ourselves as a company to go and get sold or acquired or do an IPO."

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