SaaS businesses, app development startups and digital media groups have flourished in the Triangle for years. But a growing sector of the entrepreneurial ecosystem entwines the region's largest industries with its longtime interest in sports.
Led by sport-focused tech players like Automated Insights, Soccer.com and StraightCast Media, along with academic institutions and sports powerhouses like UNC and Duke, the region is shaping up to be a young mecca for fitness and sporting technology, new event businesses and increasingly, sports analytics. Between the Blue Devils’ use of STATS’ player tracking technologies, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s annual Basketball Analytics Summit and both schools’ strong focus on medicine or "medtech", thought leaders in monitoring body metrics and providing solutions for athletes have reason to flock to North Carolina.
We reached out to some of the newbies in the sports startup world to learn about the businesses they are building to impact the future of sport and fitness not just in the Triangle, but around the world.
The market for wearable body monitors is flooded. From the Apple Watch to GPS trackers to Jawbones and Fitbits, there is a large and crowded field of companies seeking to quantify and track the functions and health of the human body. However, BioMetrix
stands out from the pack. Instead of monitoring heart rate or calories burned, this company tracks the stride and motion of the human body. While others target the calorie counter or athlete looking to shave a few seconds off his or her mile time, BioMetrix targets the elite athletes who either need rehabilitation or to reevaluate the way they move.
Relying on inspiration from technologies such as accelerometers, motion capture and pressure sensors, the BioMetrix wearable hip, heel or knee sensors provide athletes with precise and robust data on their bodies' movements. The combination of advanced sensors, alongside analytics and AI, aim to detect and correct irregularities in running form or other areas of athletic training.
Most people who have been active at some period in their life have dealt with the horror of physical therapy and and rehabilitation. Founders and Duke athletes Ivonna Dumanyan and Gabrielle Levac probably know about the struggle far better than you and I do. The company was actually formed as a result of their own injuries and rehabilitation. The two met in the training room at Duke after a series of injuries that took them out of their respective athletic pursuits, and BioMetrix was born.
Now, in 2016, the pair plans to release the BioMX sensor to teams and trainers in August. Through pairings with Global Technology Investments and the Motion Analysis Corporation in addition to an Indiegogo campaign going on now
, the company has sprinted to market since inception nearly two years ago. Right now, BioMetrix is looking for more backers and athletic organizations to help support and test the BioMX.
High-tech, laser-focused and with R&D the main component of its DNA, this venture-backed bio-sensor company aims to fulfill a tiny yet profitable niche within the wearable consumer electronics sector. The company produces what is known as optical heart rate sensor technology through a process called PPG
—essentially using optical sensors to calculate heart rate.
Horizontal integration is the name of the game for Valencell
. Instead of developing both wearables and the internal sensors, this Raleigh startup focuses exclusively on creating the best sensors possible, which it licenses to other companies for their own products. Some of the notable names among its more than 25 licensees today include Sony, LG, Jabra and Scoche.
I had the chance to speak to Ryan Kraudel
, VP of marketing at Valencell, who was unrelentingly and unabashedly vocal about the quality of his product. Sensor technology in consumer products such as watches, chest straps, bracelets, etc. is old news. However, the accuracy of many devices is dubious
Valencell attempts to create sensors that, even within the housing of licensee prototypes, deliver results indistinguishable from chest straps (considered the most accurate but also clunkiest products). In order to provide the best data possible, the startup has its own biometrics facility where over 50 volunteers come to test prototypes weekly. As a result of exhaustive efforts to provide the most accurate heart rate sensing possible, Valencell has delivered products that allegedly outperform high-end, expensive devices
such as the Apple Watch.
The company was founded in 2006 by three electrical engineers with PhDs—Steve LeBoeuf, Michael Aumer and Jesse Tucker—all of whom have strong ties to North Carolina. The former two earned their degrees from NC State and spent the next four years at their desks working on the methodology, hardware and algorithms that became the core intellectual property driving Valencell to become a core tech firm in the wearable technologies world.
When asked about plans for the future, Kraudel reinforced the existing business strategy—“accuracy.” Laser-focused is a term used by many in the industry, something I’ve heard and noted (but not from Kraudel’s mouth) in research for this article. This company embodies the philosophy wholeheartedly.
is a racer first and an entrepreneur second. He’s completed his share of marathons and Ironmans, and it shows in his attitude towards his racing event company, Race 13.1
. This startup, branding itself as “the Southeast’s Premiere Half Marathon” company, arose five years ago from a mix of passion, business-savvy and (perhaps most importantly) boredom.
After college, Kane was working out of his father's real estate development firm in Raleigh’s North Hills shopping area. One weekend afternoon, he found himself looking out of the office window onto a deserted parking lot.
Having run in plenty of larger races, Kane understood the chore it was to get ready for one. Between parking, finding the starting line, registration and all of the other hassles involved, race day could become a hassle. In front of him was an empty lot inside of a growing mid size city on a weekend. It was then John thought, why not start a race in Raleigh. Why not park here. Why not now.
The company has been profitable since day one. While the business was “completely born out of passion” for endurance sports, Kane has done well in the business of events in low tier-1 or tier-2 cities. Kane describes himself as “completely focused on customer service… from finding parking, to the finish line”. However, he’s also found success in turning runners into customers for local businesses, something that might help expand his company and entice new cities.
This year the startup is hosting about 25 races in 10 states. Over the next few years, it plans to host 60-70 both in the US and internationally. Kane is also interested in becoming a part of larger and more unique “one-off” events. But for now, he’ll continue to provide great experiences to half marathoners. In his own words, “Race 13.1 exists to serve runners. That's what gets everyone my team up in the morning. That’s what gets us into work for every day.”
The Train App
The Train App
has two main tenets—utility and frugality. Since day one, the founders have been focused on the idea of organic growth. Grassroots marketing and bootstrapping have led to the growth of a “lean” startup that strives to facilitate the sharing of fitness tips to amateurs and enthusiasts alike.
The product is essentially a platform for sharing weight lifting tips and exercises through short videos filmed and shared by users in a similar vein to Vine. Founder George Dimopoulos’ vision is that gym-goers can open the app when they walk into the gym, and leave after a great workout derived entirely from user generated content on the app.
The Train App launched just a month ago, and already has nearly 500 users across three universities in the area. Dimopoulos doesn’t plan to buy ad space or bombard potential consumers with marketing efforts, instead opting to let users share and grow the product at their own pace. In addition to keeping costs low, this allows the company to be in almost a “beta” stage where the founders can see how users take advantage of the platform before it hits a wider audience. This isn’t to say the product looks like it’s in a beta, a quick look at the website or app shows it’s a polished product.
George explained the difficulty in bridging the gap between interest in fitness or weight training and actually being an active weight lifter. For many, a lack of knowledge about how to complete a constructive workout is more of an impetus to getting fit as opposed to a lack of motivation to get to the gym. Dimopoulos hopes his product can be a solution for those college kids not knowing how or what to do once they actually step into the weight room, and he plans most of his company’s growth within this niche.
Dimopoulos is being patient when it comes to monetization. He hopes fitness personalities begin using the app to promote their product or brand, and to introduce sponsored content down the road.
After what he described as a foundational experience at The Startup Factory Bootcamp event in Greensboro, George’s loyalty to the area he’s called home for years was reaffirmed. He’s built solid relationships with angel investors and mentors in the area like Chris Heivly and Dave Neal, in addition to all founders of the company having strong ties with local universities.
While the Train App is still in its infancy, Dimopoulos has solid foundations to build on, and a strong community of friends and entrepreneurs to help him along the way.
is one of the more established companies on this list, with near 10 years under its belt. But the Durham company is still growing and changing to fill client needs and exploit untapped niches in the organizational and communication software solutions field.
Founded by former Duke football player Zach Maurides, Teamworks is a SaaS company which provides tools to help athletic organizations communicate, schedule, plan and evaluate. From creating practice calendars to workout schedules with full attendance lists or aggregating paperwork for athletic trainers and other staff members, Teamworks aims to take the hassle out of running an organization.
The suite of solutions is already pretty staggering
. For example, the platform would allow for the near instant retrieval of data showing how much a second string quarterback’s bench press rose from 2013 to 2015.
It’s this knack for simplifying the operations of an organization that’s led to expansion into other industries. While VP of collegiate sales Paul Dudley says Teamworks is “laser focused on college athletics”, it recently signed deals with one of Adidas’ sales teams—the Arizona Cardinals—and, interestingly enough, a large bus line in Illinois.
The type of business or team doesn’t matter. Dudley says that the only thing that matters is that the service should be “the glue that holds everything together.”
Maurides fell in love with the Triangle area during his time at Duke and is adamant that the “vibrancy of this community is great for startup culture”. The company has some big plans for the coming year, so be sure to keep an eye on Teamworks.
is a big startup with some pretty minuscule beginnings. The workout tracker app started out as just a personal tool for founder and CEO Ying Lin
when he was in college. Recording his lifting progress with pen and paper wasn’t his style, and yet, there were no other real comprehensive workout tracking tools available for those looking to record their progress with their smartphone or computer. After spending some time developing an interface and analytics tools, Jefit launched in 2010.
Six years later and Jefit is one of the biggest names in the business. Boasting seven million downloads in the App Store, a user base of about 3.5 million, and a database of over 1300 exercises, the company has a strong hold in this niche. Its closest rival is BodyBuilding.com’s BodySpace app. When I asked Lin why he has a foothold over competitors, his response was simple—analytics. The software allows for the calculation of percent increases in weight or reps in an exercise over time, as well as rest time between sets, the length of time it takes to complete a set, and many other metrics notably absent from competitor’s suites.
To top it all off, the company is cash flow positive, and has been bootstrapped since day one.
Lin has one of the more interesting reasons for staying in the Triangle despite an extremely popular and profitable product, “It’s quiet. We can focus on what we do. NYC and the West Coast just has too much noise.”
Jefit is working on app updates that make it the go-to tool for trainers and coaches to track the progress of athletes and fitness enthusiasts, a logical next step for the company. When asked if he had anything else planned, Lin had this to say, "We’re in the process of talking to a few more top fitness brands. The next phase of the business is raising capital, and there may be big news for the company in the next year.”
So if you do (or don’t, ignorance is bliss) want to keep tabs on the progression of your back squats, give Jefit a peek.
is another company in the area helping lessen the burden of bureaucracy in sports team management. Its mission statement? Keep it simple, says co-founder Doug Myers
The startup was founded in 2008 with the mission to provide colleges with a platform to manage, run and schedule intramural leagues with ease. The platform tracks team and player stats, while simplifying communication between league administrators and team captains and members. In addition, it works to gamify intramural sports leagues by offering trophies and point recaps in an effort to make “every participant on campus becomes a fantasy player” in the words of Myers.
Myers is a true Carolinian, having received his bachelor's degree at Wake Forest and MBA at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC. He loved Chapel Hill so much that he stayed “‘til I got too old to go out on Franklin anymore”, a sentiment I imagine many in the area might echo. Eventually he and his brother Greg took IMLeagues to Raleigh, where the company is currently headquartered. The area “provides everything we need,” including tech talent.
IMLeagues has cornered almost the entire market, with 95% of colleges in the US using this software tool to manage their recreational sports programs. IMLeagues has even ventured into fitness classes and club leagues as of late. In the next five years, its goals are once again simple, “keep the market penetration and level of trust, branch out into club sports further, and simply provide the end user the best experience possible.”
In the words of cofounder Aaron Averill
is a “premium subscription-based website that allows performance-based elite athletes to track their performance.” The Durham company’s solutions integrate with wearable technologies and allow marathoners, cyclists and triathletes to integrate data gathered from their hardware into SportTracks software where it can be analyzed by proprietary analytics tools and monitored by coaches or athletes themselves.
One of the biggest draws of SportTracks is its focus on training algorithms—models that help create and evaluate regimens in order to prevent over or under-training, a serious issue for high level endurance athletes. Integrating with GPS trackers allows for precise tracking of pace, distance, heart rate and even hill climbs.
This self-funded, profitable, two-employee company is anchored to the Triangle due in no small part to the American Underground. It’s Averill’s “number one reason” for staying in the area. Aside from the business opportunities, the culture is also a major draw. The SportTracks team views the area as almost a smaller Brooklyn, but without the ridiculous cost of living.
Since its inception in 2009, SportTracks has focused exclusively on the accuracy of measurements and models. Now, it’s branching out from the athlete sector into the coaching industry. According to Averill, “We’ve addressed coaching regimens and athlete tracking, but we’re looking to find way to help coaches build their businesses. Much of this comes down to marketing.”
Ultra and endurance sports are a rapidly growing business, and athletes don’t take their pursuits lightly. Data is key, and companies that make use of this are worth interest.
Cindy Cone has been a professional soccer player, World Cup winner, Olympic gold medalist, professional soccer coach and she now adds CEO to her list of accolades.
ImVere is a concussion-monitoring wearable device developed by UNC grad Cone and a team of engineers designed to help gather data that could help in diagnosing concussion injuries in athletes. Cone was one of the world’s leading women’s soccer players, known for her penchant for heading and physical play, until these repeated impacts caught up with her.
In 2004, Cone suffered a blackout
. She woke up in an MRI machine after what doctors referred to as a “mini-stroke”. Her career as a professional athlete ended shortly afterwards, but she found new callings as a coach, advocate for concussion awareness and prevention and tech entrepreneur.
ImVere uses impact-sensing technology previously developed for military uses, but modified for the arena of contact sport. While not the only company to venture into this niche, it has placed a premium on accuracy and utility. The company is testing the device with unspecified groups in addition to working with cadavers.
Fit for 90
In soccer crowds, John Cone is already a well-known coach, trainer and sports scientist. The once professional soccer player has a Ph.D. in kinesiology, a master's degree in sports physiology and a national-in-scope consulting practice on athlete readiness. Now, he's turning that knowledge into software to reach coaches of all kinds of sports and athletes of all ages. His big goal is to thwart risk of career-ending injury by better preparing athletes to play and coaches to train them.
It comes down to personalization. At Groundwork Labs, a program recommended by Cone's entrepreneur-wife Cindy (above), Cone and team are working on a business around monitoring athletes to determine their readiness to train. Launched earlier this year, Fit for 90
allows athletes to self-report soreness, sleep, hydration and more and then provides advice on recovery, stretching and other activities to promote readiness. Coaches can use the data about each athlete to better tailor workouts and training sessions to avoid injury. Eventually, wearable devices could be synced with the platform.
There are also some beta customers, and they're high-profile, including the U.S. Women's National Team that won the World Cup last year, the Duke Women's Soccer Team and Wake Forest Men's team, both of which are among the best in college soccer. U.S. Club Soccer is also a partner. Cone has applied for an SBIR grant to continue his work. Until then, the company will be funded by its own profits.
Groundwork Labs is helping Cone prepare to scale his company—so far, he's gotten by on his own connections. The biggest thing he needs help with? Business development.
"The sales strategy will be key for us as we continue to grow outside the word of mouth that has driven our business this far," he says.
We’ve saved the most complicated for last here. I’ll do my best to keep the medical terms to a limit, but Bioventus is a biotech startup that branched off from the medical equipment company Smith and Nephew in 2012. It specializes in orthobiologics, or bone healing technologies.
Bioventus provides two different products—active healing therapies focused on bone fusion and arthritic pain and surgical implants that aid in bone growth following procedures.
I had the pleasure of a great conversation with director of corporate communications Thomas Hill. For such a niche and technically-focused company embedded deep within the medical community, Hill gave off an ineffable sense of bravado. Despite being just a four-year-old company, Hill and team know exactly what they’re doing and how to progress in their sphere, to a surgical degree.
Bioventus was founded in 2012 and is headquartered in Durham. While its roots are planted firmly in North Carolina soil, reach extends to Amsterdam, Boston and Memphis for manufacturing and R&D. In just four years the company has amassed over 600 employees and a broad pool of technologies, solutions, processes or products to be licensed or sold.
So why is it here? “Economics and talent pool”, according to Hill. Many competitors are in California, Boston or Indiana. In places like SoCal, the cost of living can be completely prohibitive to more frugal companies. Additionally, Hill cites the quality of life for Triangle residents. Home to several fantastic universities, hospitals, businesses, public school systems, restaurants and bars, the Triangle is both a fantastic place to live and a fantastic recruiting tool, he says.
The future of Bioventus lies both within internal R&D and acquisitions. At the time I spoke to Hill, the company had just acquired BioStructures
, a Newport, Calif.-based biotech company. In the next few months, they hope to combine strengths to develop stronger medical solutions for Bioventus. In addition to already operating in 25 countries across the globe, Bioventus plans to expand into several more.