Champions in Sports Tech: Spotlighting Innovative Startups

Ginny Howey
Nov 19 · 9 min read

Many segments within sports tech have been undergoing disruption, but two particularly exciting trends are sport-specific performance metric wearables and at-home fitness experiences.

Key Takeaways:

Technological advancements have undoubtedly transformed the world of sports for both athletes and spectators — can you imagine watching football without instant replay or on-screen television graphics superimposing the first down line? The tech possibilities in the sports space are extensive, and there has been a surge in start-ups in this sphere in recent years. This explosion in sports tech growth is projected to yield a $30 billion market by 2024. As such, it is no surprise there have been numerous sports tech investment funds and incubator programs entering the investing landscape. In 2020, sports tech venture capital funding reached a mighty $1.4 billion, and at the beginning of August 2021 investment was already at a record high sum for this point in the year, with an impressive $787 million in funding.

Sport-Specific Innovations Enable Athletes to Hone their Technical Skills

HOMECOURT

HomeCourt is a basketball-focused startup and official partner of the NBA that has received considerable acclaim for its fresh spin on taking training into your own hands. It has also raised an impressive $42 million to date, after amassing $25 million during its Series B round in September.

HomeCourt is an A.I.-based app that redefines personalized workouts for athletes. Users are able to complete skill-specific drills while their smartphone camera records and processes stats in real-time, offering audio coaching and feedback on metrics such as vertical jump height, release angle when taking a shot, release time, and running speed approaching the basket, to name a few. The app gamifies workouts with exercises that allow users to mimic graphics on the screen with their motions, increasing engagement and interactivity. HomeCourt also offers features such as Battle Mode or 1:1 Pick-Up, facilitating virtual competitions with friends, family, teammates, or other users around the world through multiplayer games.

What sets HomeCourt apart from the average app is the way it uses statistics for recruitment purposes, in addition to informing users about their performance. The platform has incorporated opportunities for players to show off their skills through virtual programs such as NBA Global Scout. Within the Scout program, HomeCourt’s Virtual Pre-Draft Combine was the first experience of its kind, and timely in its arrival with Covid-19 restrictions. In the Combine, players were able to capture their workout footage and share highlights and statistics with NBA teams. Twenty HomeCourt participants were drafted to an NBA team after this event, which is enough to say this app is changing the talent evaluation game. Not only does it help players seriously refine their skills — it connects them directly to decision makers who might otherwise never have seen them play. The app now offers NBA Junior Combine and NBA Varsity Combine workouts for young ballers who want to imitate training at the highest level. Coaches can utilize the app to assign team workouts and view each of their players’ benchmarks in a comprehensive, stats-driven way, illuminating areas where rosters shine and where they have room to grow like never before.

PLAYERMAKER

This smart sensor leverages the massive popularity of wearables and applies it to soccer. For some time now we’ve been able to assess the physical fitness of an athlete with stats recorded on a smartwatch or by using the old-school timer-and-drill method. Now, Playermaker gives athletes extremely detailed insights on their technical abilities, not just their speed and strength.

The Playermaker sensor is incredibly lightweight and surprisingly unobtrusive, and sits securely strapped to the player’s cleat. It reports on an enormous number of useful statistics related to running, like distance covered, sprint distance, work rate, top speed, sprint speed, acceleration/deceleration, metrics related to ball handling like ball touches, ball releases, possessions, one touch, short possessions, long possessions, and reports on lateral balance by touch by leg, receive by leg, and L/R maximum kicking velocity. Such stats give powerful knowledge to athletes and their coaches which allow them to adapt their training plans, understand proper recovery, track improvements, and more. Players can even compare their metrics to pro players, and, like HomeCourt, there are team solutions for coaches that wish to evaluate players’ strengths and weaknesses in dynamic in-field context.

SMARTCOOKIE/SKEO

Smartcookie Sports brings performance feedback to skiing through a smart skiing system, linking an app called SKEO with innovative “Snowcookie” circular censors. The company was brought to life by CEO Dr. Martin Kawalski, a physician who created the sensors, and U.S. Olympian Bode Miller, who is passionate about making alpine ski racing performance more measurable and transparent. In an interview with Authority Mag, Kawalski explained, “Wearables started to make their appearance in consumers’ hands over a decade ago. They quickly found their way to running, cycling, and general fitness. However, alpine sports always presented a unique challenge. Skiing can be a mix of aerobic and anaerobic activity, and as such, it doesn’t yield itself easily to measurements.” Until now, skiing has been a niche sport in this wearables space given the difficulty of monitoring it’s essential factors.

The system utilizes three Snowcookie sensors placed on a user’s left and right skis and chest; these sync with the SKEO app to track data which describes the skier’s technique in actionable metrics. The three sensor touchpoints are capable of recording over 100 ski performance and parameters, generating valuable information which can help racers, coaches, and instructors identify areas to work on.

The technology is staggeringly precise; it can even report on the exact edge angles of the inner and outer portions of athletes’ skis to ensure they are tracking in a smooth path and their turns are symmetrical, as well as hip angulation to gauge whether their body is positioned appropriately given the slope and turn direction. As a perk for the curious, the sensors also compare the G-force skiers have to withstand to that of a fighter pilot. All of the metrics combine to create a Universal Alpine Rating of overall performance to track how athletes are evolving in their ski abilities.

Another camp of innovations shakes up the ways we have traditionally exercised and makes the experience much more interactive.

ZWIFT

Zwift has achieved some of the grandest success of recent tech startups, having raised $619.5 million in funding since its 2014 founding. Zwift is an indoor cycling app that creates a truly immersive experience for users. Once users are in the saddle and make an account, the magic of Zwift begins, and peddlers can feel as if they are riding on various terrain, whether in a more theatrical Fortnite-like setting or real-world environments from around the globe mimicked onscreen. There are numerous routes to try and unlock, with new worlds introduced frequently. Riders can access a quick workout or embark on a training plan, and the over 1,000 on demand workouts with guided intervals mean users will never get bored. Zwift also acknowledges how tough it can be to stay motivated while working out, so it creates all kinds of games and challenges throughout the app, as well as goal-tracking and incentives to keep riding.

Barriers to entry are low and in tiers; getting set up with Zwift can be as low a financial commitment as buying a used bike, a classic trainer, or monthly membership; or as sophisticated of a set-up as utilizing Zwift’s own smart bike and smart trainer advanced with power meters and speed/cadence sensors. Zwift provides more flexibility than Peloton, as Zwift is compatible with a variety of hardware and users can decide which equipment to use to work best for their goals.

On top of personalized, directly delivered motivators, Zwift plays into the community aspect of working out by offering an engaging and sportively competitive fitness community. Users can face off in virtual competition in events with other players around the globe, join virtual group rides with friends, and cheer on or chat with other riders. In addition to cycling, there are now wearable running and swimming trackers that can also earn users badges and level-ups in the cycling app.

MIRROR

“Turn less than two feet of wall space into a personal fitness studio.” Although the next three technologies mentioned in this piece all pride themselves on being compact and perfect to integrate into your home, Mirror is the most elegant and unassuming exercise equipment of them all. It looks just like a mirror, but it packs a major punch and has the funding to back it, having raised $74.8 million since 2016.

Seeing your reflection while working out is helpful — looking at your technique and form gives valuable feedback — , but being able to do so while being coached, and lining up your movements with your instructor’s, elevates this traditional exercise practice. Mirror is great for the athlete who enjoys trying out a variety of exercise classes, and offers over 50 genres, like boxing, Latin dance, Tai Chi, barre, weight training, bootcamp, and more. Each class is offered in a range of levels and time frames and coached by certified trainers from top fitness studios. There are live classes to tune into, as well as recorded courses accessible on-demand. Not only are users able to self-correct based on their reflection relative to their instructor’s form, but the mirror also utilizes A.I. to give working adjustments based on a user’s set goals, preferences, and personal profile. There is also playlist integration with Apple Music, and users can compete against friends or their own personal bests.

TEMPO

Tempo is an A.I.-powered home gym that has raised $298.8 million in 6 years and has received high praise for its motivating, challenging workouts and intuitive, modern design. The Tempo Studio has a set of weight plates, dumbbells, and a workout mat that can be easily folded away in a sleek set-up, plus other add-ons such as a bench and a heart rate monitor. The Tempo Move is a new offering that comes as a more compact and affordable version to reach a wider base of athletes with varying budgets.

Although many of these gym startups boast about feedback and live trainers, Tempo seems to win in this area. A review said “Having tried both Mirror and Tempo, I think Tempo definitely has the edge because it provides real-time feedback that Mirror can only do if you pay extra for personal training.”

It calls its technology Tempo 3D Vision, which learns users’ body metrics to create personalized workouts. 3D sensors track performance and offer constructive and clear adjustments, such as “you’re leaning too far forward,” when doing a squat. It also provides a unique summary of each workout to show whether users are progressing in making an improvement in form, or if there is an area of potential improvement that they should be aware of and incorporate into their goals. It offers a virtual personal trainer fueled by this data to give form corrections, provide weight recommendations, track progress, and set pace and count reps, taking the guesswork out of how you should be training.

TONAL

Tonal is another smart home gym that has made a splash in this market, especially with Lebron James as the face of the brand, and its recent $250 million series E funding, which took total funding to $450 million and included athlete investors Drew Brees, Larry Fitzgerald, Maria Sharapova, Mike Tyson, and Sue Bird.

Although Tonal offers several types of classes, it is truly for the weight lifter. The major piece of tech here is a “patented adaptive weight system that makes thousands of calculations a second to deliver you a smooth weight lifting experience using magnets and electricity.” The wire system eliminates inertia, providing resistance throughout the entire rep, and there are also 4 Dynamic Weight Modes such as “Eccentric,” which adds weight when your muscles would typically relax during a particular move to create nonstop burn.

Its A.I. conducts a full-body strength assessment to determine the appropriate weights needed for different exercises, increasing resistance as athletes break personal records and get stronger. There is also a built-in spotter to detect signs of struggle or fatigue, temporarily reducing resistance to keep athletes safe and able to finish sets out strong.

These examples portray just a handful of promising developments for those looking to excel in their chosen sport or hobby, or for the living room athlete wanting to make their exercise endeavors data-backed and engaging. Advancements in sports tech are helping more people get into fitness by making exercise more fun and effective, which could have far-reaching effects on health and well-being on a large scale. Game on!