The Startup Disrupting Sports Analytics

They're using military-grade technology to measure player movement.

Hello 👋

Martin here. Welcome to another edition of Founders’ Hustle.

Today I’m sharing the startup story of Sportlight, a UK company on a mission to disrupt sports analytics.

I sat down with their CEO, Raf Keustermans, to find out how.

Highlights:

  • Why their technology is 10X better than existing solutions. ⚙️

  • Landing Premier League clubs as customers. 

  • Raising capital for a SportsTech hardware startup. 💷


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If you’ve ever watched or read Moneyball, you know data can be wielded extremely effectively in driving a competitive edge for professional sports teams.

In that particular story, it was used to pick undervalued baseball players for the Oakland Athletics using principles borrowed from Wall Street.

It worked.

The team, despite an absence of star-studded names in 2002, went on a 20 game winning streak in the summer of that year. And, banked a record winning 103 games in the American League.

They spent $41 million on players that season. The Yankees, who also won 103 games, spent $126 million.

It shocked the MLB to its core.

Much has changed in the professional sporting world since then. But, one element has remained constant. More access to quality data, and, better wielding of that data, drives a serious competitive advantage.

How?

Basically, across the board.

It can help sports teams reduce injury severity and frequency, increase the performance of players, identify winning strategies, source talent, and much more.

The more granular, the better. So, new technologies that enable sports teams to delve into previously inaccessible data can provide a potent edge.

Sportlight, a UK startup, is taking this to another level straight from the source.

How? By measuring and reporting player movement inside stadiums and training grounds on a whole other level.

But, why is it on another level? How does it work?

And, why is this data insanely useful for sports teams?

I sat down with their CEO, Raf Keustermans, to find out more. 👇


The Sportlight Story

The origin story of Sportlight is somewhat unconventional. Certainly not a startup stereotype.

But, that makes sense, since I’ve found the ‘longtail’ of startup origin stories greatly outweighs popular narratives—like college students dropping out of university to pursue a side hustle software project that ‘blew up overnight’.

It all came together via a financier connecting an R&D shop, Createc, with a gaming entrepreneur, Raf Keustermans.

Createc work on bespoke and highly complicated projects for the nuclear, oil and gas, and military industries. They specialize in sensor technology in the broader sense and also have a robotics arm.

They’re a team of about 40 very smart people solving very challenging technical problems, and as a by-product of all this they’re sitting on a lot of really cool technology and IP.

The underlying technology used by Sportlight today came out of a five-year technology R&D project for the UK military.

For the project, Createc developed a solution to help monitor and protect military installations in conflict zones, using a combination of LiDAR and AI.

You’ve probably heard of LiDAR before. Why? It’s often referred to in media coverage of self-driving cars. 👇

But what exactly is it?

LiDAR is an acronym of "light detection and ranging". It’s a method for determining ranges (variable distance) by targeting an object with a laser and measuring the time for the reflected light to return to the receiver.

Wikipedia

After the project wound down, the team at Createc obtained a government grant to develop the technology into a civilian and commercial application.

This happens quite often from UK government-funded military technology contracts. There’s pressure to mobilise tax-payer-funded innovation into a commercial enterprise that can generate jobs and stimulate the economy.

This is when Raf Keustermans joined the project, via an introduction by a financier with strong gaming connections, a year or two prior.

Raf says:

I stayed for a year at GSN and to help with the integration. But, I'm never going to be a VP in a large company. That's not really what I'm excited about.

I like to build stuff. I like to be in the trenches. That's where I add most value. At that early stage. Building a culture, building a product, getting it to market, getting traction. I'm not like a big company, VP, just managing stuff that actually works.

When I found out about these guys trying to put lasers in football stadiums, I thought that sounds pretty dangerous! But I was intrigued to learn more about it, so that's how it all started.

Jumping from gaming into military-technology-powered sports anayltics may not seem like an intuitive step, and that’s because it isn’t.

I probably underestimated how different and how much more challenging this would be. But, I like to watch football and other sports.

For me, it's really interesting technology.

It's quite real as well, it's not just software. It's actually proper, deep tech, in professional sports—a big industry that feels like it’s now embracing technology, science, and data in a meaningful way.

With Raf joining the project, it was now a well-rounded venture with both the technical and commercial know-how to develop a product and take it to market.

But, there was still a lot to figure out first. Whilst the underlying technology worked in conflict zones in a military capacity, converting it into a commercially viable product was something altogether different.

The team from Createc saw a use case with proffesional sports. Bouncing lasers off of players seemed like a highly accurate way to track and measure player movements.

But, how exactly can it be useful, reliable, and actionable in the real world?

A ton of R&D was needed.

To get the ball rolling, Raf put in some of his own money, and later raised £3m from angel investors, to figure that out.

To find out more, I asked Raf a bunch of questions. 👇


🔥 Q&A

What is your mission with Sportlight? And, what have sports teams used up until this point, without your technology?

Our goal is to replace legacy sports analytics solutions.

If you look at professional sports teams, most of them use wearables, mostly GPS, to track and record player movement in training grounds.

You might have seen them wearing ‘bras’ in the media, which has a GPS unit at the back. This tracks player movement on training grounds.

For the stadium, they're relying on camera-based tracking solutions.

Most clubs, especially in football and rugby, their ‘sports analytics stack’ is a combination of GPS in training grounds and camera-based measurement systems in the stadium.

There's a couple of clubs using RF-based systems. But, GPS and camera-based technology is 90%+ of the market right now, especially in football and similar sports.

Our goal is to replace them. Professional sports teams have had a 10-15 year run with this technology and gave them the basics. But now things have moved along. It's time to upgrade to something significantly better and different.

That's not going to happen tomorrow or next week. But that's what we're doing. We're building a 360-degree solution.

We're not just a stadium solution, we also cover the training grounds. That gives valuable insight to the physios, the coaches, the analysts, the performance people.

Sportlight goes to the heart of collecting data about athletes for professional sports organizations.

Why is LiDAR better than these legacy solutions?

Academically—sports science, biomechanics, and all medical aspects of professional sports is actually further ahead than technology.

For example, a lot of people within clubs and academia know how to avoid a lot of soft tissue and ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injuries. A lot of research has been done on that in labs and using theoretical models. To action this in the real world, you need data. But, the technology just wasn't there to measure that properly.

So that is where we come in. We fill in the gaps they know they need. And, it's mostly intensity metrics. It's things like acceleration and deceleration at a very granular level.

For example, if you look at GPS, that’s pretty good at measuring distance and speed, which is good for straight-line running.

But, the value you can get from that is limited.

Those things of course matter. But, all Premier League football players can run fast and for long distances overall. They’re fit on a ‘robotic level’.

You're not going to get somebody injured by running them 12km versus 10km over the course of a game.

Accelerations, decelerations, and sprints are much more important and have a much greater impact on injury risk.

For example, running very fast, coming to a hard stop, doing a sharp turn, and then accelerating again.

Running sideways, running backwards, running with your torso in a different direction to keep an eye on the ball.

It's these high-intensity movements that really matter.

That's when a player injures their hamstring. It can go in the middle of a game because there haven’t been enough of those forces exposed in training.

For example, decelerating from nine meters per second to a standstill. Players are always pushing their body to the max.

We provide reliable and consistent data in this area.

This can be used to adjust player training programmes and competetive activity, so less injuries occur.

When you say ‘reliable and consistent’, what makes legacy solutions unreliable and inconsistent?

GPS accuracy is impacted by lots of things, the signal can be blocked or disrupted by nearby buildings, bridges or trees. The weather can have an impact as well, and of course, it doesn’t work indoors. Overall, GPS was designed as a navigation system, not a way to measure elite athletes in training or games.

And, cameras are not fundamentally measuring devices. You basically have to figure out how to translate optical data into a measurement of speed and distance, which you can do, but it's never gonna be perfect. Cameras don't measure things, they see things. You have to work backward from there.

What’s a real-world example where that system has failed?

A couple of seasons ago, the league-wide optical tracking system showed that all players hit their peak speed of the season in the same stadium, which turned out to be the smallest stadium in the league at that time.

Oh, why’s that?

It's such a small stadium, so the cameras are at a much lower point than is usual. The angle is challenging, so the error environment is higher. It skews much more positive.

And that's just speed. If you start measuring acceleration and deceleration with cameras, it can be off by 60%. That’s a real problem.

So bringing that accuracy and visibility is the foundation of what we're bringing to sports teams.

On top of that, we can start building much more sophisticated software. Eventually, you can start thinking about predictive models. Providing warning flags based on certain thresholds.

Also, personalized training and performance. Not every player can withstand the same training load, you have to adjust it.

You can't do that all manually, that doesn't really work.

Here again, teams need clever technology, to translate accurate data into actionable insights for planning tools and systems.

Wow. That sounds pretty comprehensive. What are you building versus what can be used ‘off the shelf’?

We're building the whole stack, an end-to-end solution.

This is not easy, cheap, and fast.

Some of the hardware components are not from us. We don't have a LiDAR factory. But, we put everything together in a bespoke way.

On top of that, we are translating LiDAR data into something that makes sense. And, actionable.

So, we are building a data portal and a way to visualize that information.

We are also working on some API's. Some of the bigger clubs, as you can imagine, have armies of data scientists and also data visualization people. They want to create bespoke models and ways of looking at the world.

Some of them want an API, but most clubs want to get reports that they can use at halftime or after a training session. This gives them a standardised method to get a clear answer straight away.

So, we're building an end-to-end solution for sports organizations, from hardware, to data, to software, to specific modules for different departments as well.

This is a pretty ambitious setup.

So, where is Sportlight today in terms of customers?

We have been working (from pretty much the beginning) with Premier League clubs—we currently have four as customers.

There's always a couple of clubs actively looking for a new solution, because there is genuinely pain and frustration with data blind spots.

But obviously, some clubs are more keen than others.

The bigger clubs like our solution because it helps reduce injuries for their very expensive top players. The smaller clubs like our solution because they have less firepower in reserve, so it’s important to keep all of the first team players match fit and healthy.

Can you share images of your LiDAR technology operating in customer facilities?

Here are some photos.

What was Sportlight’s process in landing a Premier League club as a client?

We started with an amateur football team. Once we had a built and refined a basic product that worked, we went to the Premier League, because we had some connections there already.

Even though some Premier League clubs are happy to get involved early on, it has to work. Once you’re invited to a training ground, you're becoming part of their world, it has to work at a high enough level. They don't have time for super basic prototypes, that doesn't make sense for them.

So we worked with our first amateur club for about a year and a half after I joined, then we had our first Premier League trial.

What about the sales cycle. What does that look like?

It's quite different. It’s not easy to speak with the right people—coaches, sports scientists, etc.

Most of the time they are working with the players, which involves spending a lot of time in the gym and on the pitch. They're not sitting behind a desk, replying emails, so you have to also figure out what is the right time and place to contact them.

Plus, if they lose a couple of games in the row, suddenly all meetings are off. It's all hands on deck, crisis management. Decisions are very much driven by the results of the pitch. So you have to really navigate that as well.

We actually like it, because we approach it like an academic project. As in really focused on validation and studies.

And, a lot of sports club personel speak this language, especially sport scientists. They have PhDs and are actively conducting research and writing papers in this area.

It’s mutually beneficial. There is reputation, career, and brand-building involved for them as well. Like if you're a sports scientist, and you are involved in some exciting validation studies around sprinting, or change of direction, or deep analysis, or a specific biomechanical part, that is great from their perspective.

What’s it been like funding this business?

It was a hard pitch in the very beginning. It's a spinoff, it's hardware, it’s SportsTech. Many investors would rather not get involved in any of these things, especially if it's combined.

We found a group of (super) angels, mostly private equity execs, with personal wealth and a deep interest in both technology and sports, they have bankrolled us so far.

Right now, for our next round, we are speaking with VCs because we're raising a bigger round. We’re having conversations with generic funds, with sports-focused funds, and also with kind alternative funding sources like family offices, sports ownership groups, and franchises.

What I've found so far is that a lot of the sports VCs have a very specific thesis around every aspect of it, including athlete tracking, like where most of the value will be created, and so on, I think that's both good and bad.

They think long and hard about the market and develop their own thesis. And it doesn't always fit with our roadmap, especially those that are US-based.

As an example, the U.S. betting market is on fire. If you look at the valuations from some entities that are involved in U.S. sports betting, that's where the hype is if you're a VC. So, they see our solution as a way to provide data for that industry.

I'm not saying we won’t do that, but just not right now. We’re focused on the Premier League—building a product for clubs and leagues to use initially. Before it makes sense to build on top of this and service other industries such as betting, we need critical mass across leagues anyway.

So it’s interesting, but overall there are a lot of interested investors and I’m quite optimistic.

I’m speaking with many investors and we’re aiming to close the round after the summer.”

Sportlight seems like a ‘must have’ solution once it’s out there. If the data actually increases a sport’s teams winning ratio, everyone who doesn’t have it is falling behind.

Yes. Other sports tech startups told us that once you hit a certain percentage of market penetration, most clubs will adopt it quickly thereafter.

What is the future of Sportlight, beyond the Premier League?

Other sports—basketball, NFL, NHL, all of it.

Epic. Thanks Raf!


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