Next Wave of MoneyBall: Sparta Science
Author: Patrick Eggen, (@peggen) Managing Director of North America for Qualcomm Ventures
Over the past decade, the sports industry has become infatuated with statistics and analytics. Much of these efforts focused on fielding the best collective team. A notable employer of these methods is Theo Epstein, the brilliant architect behind the Chicago Cubs’ recent World Series victory. This type of roster-level optimization culminated in the Cubs ending the historic 108-year-old “curse” and making my father, the most die-hard Cubs fan I know, a happy man. A critical component of Epstein’s success was using analytical gauges of player performance to field a well-balanced and superior team.
How far can this be extended? Can we use analytics to push each player toward their maximum potential? Think of it as optimization at the individual player level with constraining factors like injury prevention kept in mind. On the surface, there’s nothing novel to the approach — individualized training is commonplace among elite athletes. However, many times athletes embrace flawed techniques and regimens that are actually detrimental to their overall development. Technology and the tools it can bring can be an incredible blessing as long as they are harnessed in the right way.
Today’s athletes are spoiled with choice, given access to new technology and an abundance of data. But, in most approaches three primary problems are often ignored: (1) Many athletes over-train and purely focus on performance gains without much regard for increased potential of injury. It is critical to take a holistic approach and balance both performance and injury reduction. In addition, there is a significant opportunity cost when an athlete is injured and exiled to the sidelines. (2) Too much data can lead to analysis paralysis. Data should lead to actionable insights. (3) The popularity of mobile fitness apps and data collection tools doesn’t necessarily translate to improved results. It’s important to not confuse digital with being scientific.
Enter Sparta Science into the equation. Dr. Phil Wagner, CEO/founder of Sparta Science, embraces a simple premise: the athlete who trains the most effectively, gains an advantage over the competition. Sparta uses machine learning to deliver mobile training plans to each individual’s device that is based on aggregated best practices from individuals using the system around the world. Whether you are an elite athlete, weekend warrior or physical therapy patient, individuals have immediate access to a scientifically tailored plan on their device. This is another great example of the mobile platform leveling the playing field.
Sparta’s solution starts with a simple “90-second” patented baseline force test, usually a jump or a balance assessment. Force-plates, vertical jumps, and balance tests aren’t anything new, but the novelty is in the methodology. Sparta uses a standardized, reliable assessment that measures meaningful variables and prescribes the ideal training plan that will steer the athlete toward their maximum physical potential. A key differentiator is their proprietary, mobile plans which allow considerably greater compliance from individuals, allowing this data to be aggregated for pattern recognition to break the current trend of just collecting assessment data. Rather than randomly assigning an entertaining workout like many devices, Sparta provides an automated mobile plan specific to that athlete’s sport and playing position, and incorporating key attributes at the individual-level (recent playing time, prior injuries, sleep patterns). Think of Sparta as the ultimate intelligence platform to predict and optimize human resilience alongside intense physical stress. Maximum performance with minimal injuries. Athletes, not patients.
Sparta’s market traction speaks for itself. Over 40 major professional teams and Division I athletic programs are paying customers. All these clients seek an edge and competitive advantage. The value does not solely lie in the data itself, but also the timely interpretation and appropriate intervention by teams, which is accomplished in large part due to their real time collection from individual’s mobile devices. For instance, MLB teams pro-actively rest pitchers based upon Sparta’s predictions around vulnerability to injury. Professional soccer teams leverage Sparta data to assess when players are ready to return to the pitch after ACL surgery. NBA teams incorporate Sparta data into their draft analysis, even swapping data with universities who use the Sparta platform. In their early days, Sparta even served as a transformational catalyst for Jeremy Lin’s rise from an obscure Ivy League hoops player to taking center stage in Madison Square Garden. It’s a shame my Philadelphia 76ers don’t incorporate Sparta data into their “Trust the Process” gospel.
However, Sparta’s addressable market is much bigger than just professional sports teams. Elite athletes, and now the military special forces, validate the platform’s efficacy and demonstrate the promise of what is possible when applied to a broader demographic. Beyond athletic teams and the military, there is incredible opportunity to tap into large enterprise markets, namely orthopedic clinics, physical therapy and outpatient facilities. With such a powerful mobile solution, the remote monitoring and feedback system can drastically improve the recovery and preventative processes that currently rely on the old metric of time. Sparta’s solution empowers the average patient with the customized training program typically reserved for elite athletes and soldiers.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Sparta is that the company has been bootstrapped to-date. This scrappiness and tenacity is a testament to Dr. Phil Wagner and his team. Phil has a unique background: a USC-trained physician, practical experience as a strength & conditioning coach at Cal & UCLA, a football player at UC Davis and semi-pro rugby player in New Zealand. His broader team has ample experience across multiple D1 NCAA and professional sports. 85% of his team moved to the Bay Area to join Sparta as they believed in the mission.
It is the potential for the Sparta platform that excited us when we first came across them as a QPrize contestant. After seeing their solution live and what they have been able to accomplish in such a short period of time, they were named 2016 QPrize North American winner. Today Sparta takes another step forward as they announce their $2.7M Seed round which represents the first external capital to scale the business. We are thrilled to support Phil and his team at Sparta Science as they expand their platform and represent the new wave of “MoneyBall”.
Patrick is the Managing Director of Qualcomm Ventures North America and leads all U.S. investments. He previously launched Qualcomm Ventures’ Bay Area practice and started the Global Early Stage Fund, focused on Seed and Series A opportunities. Learn more about Patrick https://www.qualcommventures.com/team/patrick-eggen and follow him Patrick Eggen