(Editor’s note: Dispatches operates at the intersection of international talent and capital. This post about Sport eXperience will go to our network of U.S.-based early stage investors.)
This might be Europe’s most interesting – and aggressive – startup outlier.
Eindhoven is a ultra-high-tech hardware town, built on the global semiconductor companies that make digital possible. Now, a new generation of hardware startups is building on that foundation.
The exception is Arno Hermans, whose Sport eXperience sports accelerator is already spreading across Europe from Eindhoven after only 18 months.
Sport eXperience’s strategy is to identify the most promising sport-oriented startups across Europe and in the U.S., then connect them to investors, mentor networks and support networks with other entrepreneurs.
“We want to go as quick as we can to as many countries as we can to build that network,” says Martin Stockman, Sport eXperience team manager and part of its expansion team. “And that’s what we offer that’s different from some of the very focused approach of the other accelerators.”
The long game is not just entrée into the United States, but positioning Sport eXperience as the gateway for U.S.-based startups who want to expand into the larger European market, Hermans said. Which is difficult to do.
Europe has 30 different cultures and 30 different sets of rules, Hermans said. “I’d imagine for a U.S. startup, it’s hard to say, ‘Okay, where do we start? Ireland? Netherlands? France? Italy?’
“Just name a country.”
Sports interests vary from country to country, with rugby popular in Ireland and France, and handball in Denmark.
So, Hermans says he’s doing their prep work for them starting with Denmark. Hermans, Stockman and Suzanne Plesman and a 6-person team are developing the model to make Europe and its 700 million people too tempting to overlook.
Hermans & Co. conducted their first accelerator program in Eindhoven in January 2016. In 18 months, they did four editions of that program.
From August 29 to September 1, they’ll present Scandinavian Sport Business week in Copenhagen. (You can see the program here.)
From September 6 to October 3, they’ll present the IDAN Sport eXperience Copenhagen accelerator again. (You can see the program here.)
At the end of 2017, the plan is to open a hub in Copenhagen “because that’s a very nice gateway into the Nordics,” Hermans said, who sees Denmark as a “Top 10” country for innovation, with the culture similar to the Netherlands.
Plans call for Sport eXperience to move into the Republic of Ireland, signing a memorandum of agreement with Sports Tech Ireland, as well as to Milan and the U.S. by next year.
Hermans first came up with the idea of a sports startup bootcamp, an idea that evolved into an accelerator in 2015. (At this point, Sport eXperience gets fees for the program, but no equity stake.)
The first accelerator cohort drew four teams. Then, it went international with a team from Milan coming to Eindhoven.
“We came to the realization that internationalization is essential. It’s crucial,” Hermans said. “The Netherlands is too small to build (this) business. You have to go outside. Sports is predominantly an international playground.”
Big-money sports world is just waiting to be disrupted
If you hear “sports accelerator” and have a hard time imagining what that is, there’s a reason. The concept of putting sports startups through the same sort of rigorous product-and-business development as a digital or tech startup is new. So new there are several operations in Europe – including Sport eXperience – that bill themselves as “Europe’s first sports accelerator.” We’re not even going to go there. But clearly, a revolution is brewing in the world of “Just Do It.”
As a business category, Sports is stuck in the 1970s, just waiting to be disrupted.
European Football generates billions of euros, but it’s “dumb money,” Stockman said.
As a generalization, sport in Europe lags behind the U.S. in terms of commercialization and use of performance-enhancing tech, he said: “Smart application of technology can have a massive impact helping clubs improve on and off the field.”
Clever innovations that will bring improvements to coaching and training such how effectively teams use your players, he said. “How you get players to play 80 percent of the season rather than 70 percent? Take (Dutch soccer star) Arjen Robben and you can put a very obvious value on that.”
Stockman offered the hypothetical example of using innovations from another Eindhoven startup, USONO, on Robben. “If before he goes out to train, you say ‘Arjen, you have a tear in your hamstring. If you go out today, you’re likely to tear it further and you can’t play on Saturday.’ That’s huge.
“That says to me there’s a big gap in the market here. I think there’s a huge opportunity – more here in Europe than in the States. So there’s a gap in terms of what we need to do in sports to take it first to being a business and then make it a clever business.”
As the person who’ll be the lead in the U.S. next year, Suzanne Plesman’s role is key.
At first blush, the Dutch native’s background in music royalty law doesn’t seem like an obvious fit. But she has deep entrepreneurial experience in the U.S. as well as sports experience as a former field hockey player at the University of Maine.
Plesman was a founder of what is now Sound Exchange, a firm that identified a lucrative niche … outstanding music royalties in Europe from radio play for American performers. She researched royalty legislation in Europe and found out American artists could collect outstanding royalties. “Then I went to the U.S. and basically convinced everyone to sign up with us … that we could collect that money.”
That was a hugely successful business that represented the biggest acts, among other clients, Elvis Presley’s estate, Rhianna and Kelly Clarkson.
And they collected huge fees.
“Now my focus is on sports and innovation and helping businesses grow, not just commercial interests, but also legal, admin and tax. How that all works for companies.” Not as much about sports organizations, but about the businesses that do business in sports, is the way Plesman puts it.
“What she used to do for the artists she can now do for the U.S. startups as well,” Hermans said.
Stockman’s background is in tech, working for Navteq in Silicon Valley and Chicago as it evolved from a mapping company to a digital software company. Arriving in Eindhoven in 1998, he helped expand Navteq, one of many Philips tech spinoffs, into digital maps and content used on platforms from phones to car navigation systems.
He also worked with the HighTechXL accelerator at HighTech Campus Eindhoven.
Founder Hermans, who owns Sport eXperience with business partner Victor Beerkens, is a traffic engineer by training. He worked also for the Royal Institute of Engineers where he founded the Sports Engineering department in 2011.
He played soccer and was on the Dutch national youth team for volleyball.
Collectively, they know digitalization of sports is going to be a huge opportunity. They also know innovations such as DNA testing will be hot as teams try to predict not just susceptibility to injuries but whether that 12-year-old star can mature into the next Messi, or maybe a 1.9-meter defender Premier League teams so covet.
That brings up the potential of Big Data to replace the scout who uses a book and his gut to decide which players to sign.
Finally, they realize sports intersects with health care and the leisure industry.
To some extent, the money is already there, with UnderArmour and other companies signing on as sponsors.
Moreover, Sport eXperience has already achieved one big victory: Proving that Eindhoven can break out of the Dutch startup syndrome of focusing on a domestic audience and think globally.
A sample of the startups that have gone through the accelerator:
ForistAxis (Vilnius, Lithuania)
“Corden” is the key product of FortisAxis company. “Corden” is an innovative device that eliminates the main cause of the problems of the spine – spinal muscular hypertonicity. “Corden” can be used to relieve muscular pain or tension, especially neck and back pain. It also appears to have sedative effects and may alleviate insomnia. In a broader sense, “Corden” is believed to enhance physical vitality and emotional well-being.
FreeSense Solutions (Eindhoven, Netherlands)
Unlike mass sports such as running and cycling, using a smartphone app for swimming is nearly impossible. Nevertheless, swimmers do want to keep track of their instant and overall swim performance. FreeSense Solutions created a solution by using Bluetooth smart communication, dedicated sensing technologies, wireless battery charging technology and 3D printed packaging technology to fit ergonomically in the ears of the athlete. A real-time algorithm processes the biometric sensor data and gives audible feedback to the swimmer. The Smart Swimbuddy can also be connected to other wearable devices and sensors or can be used in other sports such as fitness, running, cycling, etc.
Icebyk (Assen, Netherlands)
Cycling on ice is an amazing experience – with the right equipment. Icebyk has developed a range of bikes which are fun, fast, safe and suitable for practically anyone. Now it is time to introduce them to the world!
SHFT (Copenhagen, Denmark)
For the past three years, SHFT has been working on creating the world’s most intelligent virtual running coach. SHFT is here to help runners worldwide reduce the risk of injury while improving their running technique and energy consumption. This is done by eliminating unnecessary and inappropriate movements in the running pattern and instead, focus on how every body movement can be more efficient, contributing to the maximum propulsion possible.
Smartsport (Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine)
Smartsport.com is the first global booking platform for sport facilities and sport teams to offer smart training schedules at a globally selected 1000-plus facilities. During many years of experience where Smartsport organized sports training camps, they learned about the ultimate challenge of coordinating teams’ training time and sports facilities.
SwimGames (Eindhoven, Netherlands)
SwimGames gamifies the pool. Move together and relax, that’s what SwimGames achieves in the pool. With more than 10 years of experience in games, motivation and recreational sports, SwimGames develops digital entertainment in the pool. SwimGames appreciates creativity and collaboration over competition and excellence. Research shows that gamification has a positive effect on people’s motivation to move.
Talents of Tomorrow (Copenhagen, Denmark)
ToT’s ultimate ambition is to help young athletes and their coaches become the best they can be. Instead of approaching all talents as one big mass, they believe each athlete’s unique profile must be identified and worked with accordingly. Talents of Tomorrow started with a discussion on a subject that is familiar to many in the sports world: the relative age effect. In short, it is the pattern that young athletes who are born early in the competitive year have had longer time to mature than their peers. This gives them an advantage and therefore they are overrepresented on the rosters of elite sports teams.
WannaSport (Copenhagen, Denmark)
WannaSport wants to help people organize and participate in sport activities with each other. Through their app and webpage they connect users and show available sport activities. You can book a sport activity in five easy steps: find a place, find and book an available time slot, pay, invite friend(s) and play. WannaSport cooperates with municipalities, federations, individual sport facilities, and sport clubs.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.