Saturday 24 February 2018

The Irish entrepreneurs who caught a big break in the lucrative world of sports injury prevention

Keeping your star players fit and injury-free is often the difference between winners and also-rans. That's where former Leinster rugby rehab chief Stephen Smith comes in with his medical tech expertise, our Technology Editor discovers

Stephen Smith, during his Leinster days, putting Luke Fitzgerald through his paces.
Stephen Smith, during his Leinster days, putting Luke Fitzgerald through his paces.
Robbie Brady of Norwich City.
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

For Liverpool football supporters, the words 'Daniel Sturridge' have become synonymous with two other words: 'goals' and 'injury'. One gives the fans hope in their hearts, the other relegates them to also-rans. It's not just the Anfield faithful that suffer this tension. For die-hard fans of any sporting team, the threat of injury to key players haunts them every season.

For example, an Irish rugby team without the injured Sean O'Brien means third in the Six Nations instead of fighting for first. Similarly, a bout on the recovery table for star basketball player Reggie Jackson would seriously hurt the Detroit Pistons' prospects. And anyone who told the Miami Dolphins that their star defensive tackle, Ndamukong Suh, was unavailable because of injury would see a lot of crestfallen faces.

And it's not just the heroics of sporting success that are at stake with injuries, either. Sport is now very, very big business.

Late-season injuries to Leicester City's Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez would not only cost them an historic Premier League victory that is being cheered on by most football fans. It would also cost them millions - possibly tens of millions - in revenue over the next two to three years.

Injuries cost money and glory (over €300m per year in English football alone). Minimising them has taken on the tactical equivalence of signing a star player.

That's where Dublin's Kitman Labs tech firm comes in. Set up four years ago by former Leinster rehabilitation coach Stephen Smith and online entrepreneur Iarfhlaith Kelly, the company has moved to Silicon Valley and has hit a surge in professional sports adoption.

Using a combination of software, analytics, video, photography and trackers, Kitman's modus operandi is cutting the injury lists of teams that use its tech.

And these are not small teams. In England, Premier League football teams Everton and Norwich City have signed up to the company's system. Rugby sides Leinster, Bath, Gloucester and Grenoble have also taken the tech into their operations. In the US, NBA team The Detroit Pistons and NFL team The Miami Dolphins are now using Kitman Labs.

There are some signs of success. Norwich City, home to Irish players including Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan, currently has one of the best injury records out of 20 English Premier Leagues teams. Everton is not far behind.

"Norwich and Everton are going well for us," says Kitman Labs founder Stephen Smith. "And it looks like we'll be adding more teams in weeks and months to come. At least three of those teams have come to us from people in the industry just telling them about us. It's word of mouth."

Smith won't name the new football teams the company is negotiating with. But he says that the product is beginning to travel across the world.

"We now work in the NFL, NBA, baseball, US soccer, hockey, Australian football, rugby and others," he says.

"We have a number of deals with teams that we can't announce because they want to have a competitive edge.

"But they're really big teams. I just put pen to paper with a team that reached a world cup semi-final, the result of six months of work. This team's entire organisation has come on board."

Given Smith's previous close personal and professional ties with international rugby, it's a reasonable bet that this mystery team is either New Zealand, Australia, South Africa or Argentina.

"We'll have a much larger global presence in the next year," he says. "We signed our first team in China and Austria. They both came in randomly. But they're important because they remind us that it's a large market."

Kitman Labs' move to San Francisco 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, BlueRun 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."

And it's not just sports. There are other industries potentially on Kitman's radar. If a system can identify, analyse and track sports injuries and wellbeing, why can't it do the same for wider rehabilitation remedies? Why wouldn't it be just as useful in other parts of the health and medical sectors? "If you look at it, we're compiling one of the world's largest indexes of human responses," says Smith. "On a basic level, it's how to make people better or faster. So there's an enormous opportunity in healthcare and physical therapy."

One of the reasons Smith believes this is that Kitman Labs' analytical approach is not based on one-size-fits-all. It starts with the premise that every athlete is different and will react differently to treatment.

"If you go to a physical therapist today, how do they know what the best way is to treat you?" he says. "From the amount of data we have here, we can aggregate and anonymise it to offer much better treatment options in certain industries. It really can have a significant impact on the broader healthcare world."

The company also sees a golden opportunity in the proliferation of health trackers and other wearable tech.

"If we can start to leverage information from wearable sensors or Fitbits, as well as from medical records, there's no reason why we can't become an enormous company to revolutionise healthcare across the world," says Smith.

Other than the initial faith of Malloy and the professional sports teams already signed up, Kitman Labs' prospects are starting to attract attention at an accelerated pace.

Late last year, the iconic baseball strategist, Billy Beane, joined the company as an advisor. (Beane was famously portrayed by Brad Pitt in the 2011 film 'Moneyball'.) The association came after Smith cornered him with a 30-second pitch after one of Beane's public speeches.

"He was giving a fireside chat about the moneyball era," says Smith. "Somebody asked him about the next big thing and he said it would be injury prevention. So as he was leaving, I gave him a 30-second elevator pitch. I thought I'd ever seen him again, but we met up two weeks later.

"He's passionate about analytics in sport. He also introduced me to Daryl (Morey, general manager of Houston Rockets basketball team). And Daryl agreed to come onboard, too. They're two of the biggest brains in analytics. They're extremely helpful and very down to earth."

But if Kitman Labs does decide to add wider healthcare sectors to its portfolio, it will need a bigger war chest than its $4m kitty of 2014.

"Oh God, yeah," says Smith. "When we start to attack that market, it would become a very different go-to market for us. It might possibly need large amounts of money injected into the company."

This probably means a fresh round of funding pitched somewhere between $10m and $20m, although Smith isn't talking about specifics at the moment.

"As a founder of a company, funding is always hovering at the back of your mind," he says. "There will probably be news some time later this year about our plans."

For the moment, Kitman Labs is motoring ahead. It now has 33 people divided between San Francisco and Dublin and is currently hiring more.

And life in San Francisco is good for the 31-year-old Smith.

"We've just had a baby and this is an amazing place to bring a baby up," he says. "I miss home and family, but the lifestyle here is very nice. There's lots of outdoor living. From a business perspective, we're surrounded by incredibly intelligent people. Our funders have given us fantastic support. They've helped is hugely in growing the company. It feels like a family environment."

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