The SportsTech 10 is Mills & Reeve’s series of ten question interviews with some of the most important stakeholders and disruptors in the SportsTech ecosystem. This will include investors, start-ups and purchasers of cutting-edge technology utilised in the sports industry, all of whom are clients or good friends of the firm.
For the fourth interview in our series, we were delighted to meet up with Alex Zurita, one of London’s best-known (and best liked!) SportsTech experts and evangelists, at the ‘House of Sport’ in Borough.
The House of Sport is a co-working space and home to a number of the capital’s leading grassroots sports organisations and charities, including the Invictus Games, Sported, Women in Sport, England Netball and Badminton England.
It’s also the HQ for Alex’s employer, London Sport, which is the groundbreaking organisation set up by Sport England, London Councils and the Mayor of London with the vision of London becoming the world’s most physically active city and generally to use sport for the good of the nation’s capital.
The interview covers London Sport’s use of technology to achieve that vision (and particularly its creation and operation of the Sport Tech Hub), Alex’s obvious passion for tech as a tool to improve communities and accessibility to sport, his ideal of true fan engagement and much, much more.
“The ecosystem is flourishing. People are now talking about an established SportsTech ecosystem in the capital, which didn’t even exist 5 years ago.”
1. What is your background in the sports industry?
Although I’m involved in the sports technology ecosystem now, my career started in a sport for development and elite sports performance and coaching background. I first started out working at Millwall Football Club and Millwall Community Trust, coaching and managing programmes using football in communities as a means to tackle, for example, knife crime, anti-social behaviour and increase local participation levels.
While at Millwall, I also had a role in the women’s football department directly with the Lionesses (the Millwall FC women’s team) and their Centre of Excellence. I helped to develop and make sure young, local female players had a pathway into the club’s 1st team and/or international programmes.
In turn, that led to a job with The FA’s Girls’ National Performance Camp, in particular working with players identified as having international potential and ability to progress through the England talent pathway ultimately with the aim of playing for the Women’s Senior Team.
My work in Women’s football led me to take on the role of Great Britain Women’s Football Team Manager for the World University Games in Kazan, Russia in 2013.
What is by far a career highlight culminated in our team winning Gold, beating Mexico in the final 5-2. The squad included a number of players who have gone on to have very successful playing careers, including Fran Kirby, Mary Earps, Isobel Christiansen and Demi Stokes.
After that, I took a new position working on an initiative called ‘Active People, Active Park’, a partnership between 25 organisations looking to encourage residents local to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to participate in sport and physical activity. This was part of the legacy programme for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
While at the role, I started to adopt and develop a relationship with tech innovators which could solve operational and consumer-focused challenges, developed strategies to make better use of data in terms of investment, programming and to work on open data and the now Sport England funded and Open Data Institute led OpenActive initiative. I also ran open innovation challenges with the likes of Future Cities Catapult.
I then joined London Sport in April, 2017 to lead our work on developing the SportTech ecosystem in London through initiatives like Sport Tech Hub.
2. On what project(s) / for whom are you currently working?
My official job title at London Sport is ‘Specialist Adviser, Technology for Participation’. What that means in practice is that I lead London Sport’s commitment to use technology to achieve its vision of being the world’s most physically active city. That includes working with start-ups, SMEs, technology giants and others that are involved in the city’s technology market, while also creating a closer link with the public sector – in our instance the physical activity and sport sector.
Importantly, my role also includes leading our Sport Tech Hub programme.
It was London Sport’s aim from the outset to create an incubator programme to support its wider initiatives and Sport Tech Hub was formed once I joined and pulled it together. Sport Tech Hub was started because we saw a real gap in the market. Back in 2017, there were no other SportsTech incubators/accelerators in London and the UK. While that’s changed over the past couple of years, we are still the only ones solely dedicated to increasing participation rates in physical activity, using sport as a tool tackle societal challenges, driving engagement in communities and improving facilities and infrastructure at a grassroots level.
“Sport Tech Hub can assist…uniquely…by leveraging London Sport’s experience, contacts and connections across the capital, particularly with London Boroughs, national governing bodies of sport, local and regional grassroots sports organisations and public health bodies.”
The core aim of Sport Tech Hub is to make it as easy as possible for founders to launch, grow and scale ventures that play a major role in solving the world’s physical inactivity crisis. We want to contribute to London’s vision of becoming the most physically active city in the world by embedding cutting edge technology into physical activity and sport in the capital.
Sport Tech Hub can assist in that by not only providing tuition and support, but also, and uniquely, by leveraging London Sport’s experience, know-how, contacts and connections across the capital’s public and grassroots sport sectors. In other words, our uniqueness is in offering direct route to market for the start-ups and SMEs with whom we work.
We provide our entrepreneurs with strategic guidance, introductions to investors, mentoring provided by leading industry executives, access to focused workshops and pitching guidance and also a range of other tuition. Many of our start-ups also get to trial their products on the market in collaboration with London Sport partners, which can be invaluable.
“Many of our start-ups also get to trial their products on the market in collaboration with London Sport partners, which can be invaluable.”
Our aim is to add significant value for every one of our participants, and to increase their future chances of success. That can only be a positive for London Sport, the Sport Tech Hub and the communities that will eventually benefit from their products.
3. Can you explain how companies/individuals are chosen to participate in Sport Tech Hub?
We are currently in mid-programme for our 3rd Cohort of start-ups and we are always refining the programme. For example, Cohort 1 comprised 18 start-ups. Looking back, we now realise that was probably too many.
We also took on a wide range of start-ups in Cohort 1 that were at different stages in their development and that is also something we have rectified for Cohort 2 and 3.
We currently take on between 10-12 start-ups, most of which are companies with at least 2 founders with a mixture of technology and business expertise.
For the first 2 Cohorts, the selection process essentially involved us looking at what each candidate could contribute generally to making London a more active city and to see, in particular, how their business could reduce levels of inactivity, make our society healthier and reduce burdens on the health sector.
“Since our 1st cohort, we have supported over 40 startups, provided more than 250 hours of support, and connected 70,000 + Londoners with Sport Tech Hub products.”
The selection has been refined for Cohort 3. We consulted with various representatives of central and local Government, the business world and partners and sponsors of London Sport and the Sport Tech Hub to help understand how we could make our selection process stronger, more targeted and more value-focused.
For Cohort 3, the selection process is broken down into various themes and we look at how our candidates can specifically benefit the city’s population through any of these themes:
Children/young people (and reducing levels of obesity)
Improving lives of those with long-term conditions
Making London an urban playground
Re-imagining sport through cutting edge technology
4. Talk me through the Cohort 3. How are things shaping up?
We eventually selected 10 start-ups into Cohort 3 and we’re now just over half way through the programme, which is going really well. It runs for a total of 24 weeks and each start-up founding team is allocated 3 or 4 mentors (the mentor-company link-ups are chosen by selection from both sides, which works well). We meet every Wednesday.
“We can also connect start-ups to our wider network of industry contacts across the sports industry, 33 London Boroughs, various national governing bodies of sport and other stakeholders.”
We don’t deliver a set programme, but adapt the approach based on the needs of the founders and businesses we have chosen. It’s more of a ‘pick n mix’ chosen by the Cohort members. The scope is actually really broad. We can help identity or solve challenges with their business models or products. We can connect start-ups to our wider network of industry contacts across the sports industry, 33 London Boroughs, various national sports governing bodies and other stakeholders.
We also arrange product trials via our network. We often know which organisations in our network will have the demand or interest to take on a specific product and to work with a Cohort member in trialling it, refining it and making it ready for market.
“We can also connect start-ups to our wider network of industry contacts across the sports industry, 33 London Boroughs, various national governing bodies of sport and other stakeholders.”
5. How are your Cohort alumni getting on?
We frequently check back in and keep a close connection to most of our alumni network. Since our 1st cohort, we have supported over 40 startups and provided more than 250 hours of support. We estimate that over 70,000 Londoners have used or trialled Sport Tech Hub company products and that, in total, Cohort members have received over £1.5m in seed investment.
The first of those figures is more important to us than the second – but the investment figure is crucial to our start-ups; assessing both sides of the equation is really important to proving the mutual benefit of a program like Sport Tech Hub.
“We estimate that over 70,000 Londoners have used or trialled Sport Tech Hub company products and that, in total, Cohort members have received over £1.5m in seed investment.”
Some of our start-ups now have entered into paid-for contracts for their products, including by way of example:
Street Tag: this company is based in Barking and Dagenham and is working with the local community to increase levels of activity. They do so by offering digital ‘tags’, which are like a redeemable coupon which you earn if you complete any type of physical activity – so walking the dog, or jogging, joining a sports club or getting the whole family out on a walk. They have a contract with the local authority now, which based on success to date is rolling out the scheme beyond physical activity, but also for things like loaning a book from the library. It’s going beyond sport.
Run Friendly: showers on demand. They are described as the Airbnb for showers in London. They have a range of agreements now with leisure centres/gym providers, such as Everyone Active, which opens their facilities to RunFriendly users. Users can also find shower facilities in hotels, co-working spaces and other facilities. It’s great if you work in an office without a shower and want to run or cycle into work. Those facilities and hotels are now seeing users as a secondary income stream by offering drinks and food at discount and other facilities.
TrainAsONE: their service is for runners. They offer bespoke training programmes so beginners in particular don’t over-train and do train at the right pace and over the right distances. Their software is AI driven and will create a specific programme for a user based on their age, weight, experience, the distance they’re planning to run and time targets. They have really impressive numbers of users, with a solid 15% month on month growth rate. They have contracts now with race organisers and public health programmes looking to add further value to users.
6. What’s your view generally of the London SportsTech ecosystem?
In April this year, we co-authored (with SportsTechX) the London SportsTech Report 2019. We contributed our expertise and know-how of London’s sports health/grassroots/participation sectors and SportsTechX contributed theirs of the media/professional sports/esports sectors. It was a genuine collaboration and shone a light across the whole sector and SportsTech activity across the city.
“As expected, the Report found that London is the leading European market for SportsTech. The reasons for that are fairly obvious in my view… It’s like a perfect storm.”
The context to the Report is important. In previous reports on European markets released by SportsTechX, it became clear based on data that London is the leading European SportsTech market, but we wanted to delve deeper into the data.
As expected, the Report found that London is the leading European market for SportsTech. The reasons for that are fairly obvious in my view. We are the home to so many leading men’s and women’s professional clubs, sports events, governing bodies, agencies, stadia and so on. Also, some of the world’s leading venture capital and investment funds are located in the City. London has an array of leading academic institutions, such as Loughborough University London, Brunel, Imperial, Kings College, and there are countless leading technology companies here, plus we have a large population and a culture that historically has always embraced sport. It’s like a perfect storm.
As such, the ecosystem is flourishing. People are now talking about an established SportsTech ecosystem in the capital, which didn’t even exist 5 years ago. I really believe that the London SportsTech Report helped in that. We generated some deep and fascinating insight. I’d personally now like for there to be more noise made by others about SportsTech, including more news and reports about deals that are being done and companies that are standing out, and importantly how products are impacting businesses and consumers.
The key thing for us, and this really comes back to what Sport Tech Hub is about at heart, is leveraging this ‘perfect storm’ for its ability to have a meaningful, long-term impact on grassroots physical activity and sport. I’m confident that’s within our grasp, but it won’t happen if we don’t continue to back programmes that seek to address this specifically.
“We generated some deep and fascinating insight, and now I’d personally like for there to be more noise made by others about SportsTech, including more news and reports about deals that are being done and companies that are standing out.”
7. What are the key challenges for the market?
Without doubt, the levels of investment. As we showed in the London SportTech Report, had the Otro/23 Capital investment not been made in 2018, the total amount of annual investment in the sector would have shown marginal growth between 2017 and 2018. That’s a bit of a worry.
So I’d definitely like to see investment levels rise, but I think that will come with more success stories, more positive PR and more acceptance of SportsTech conceptually. We, as an ecosystem, have to do more to entice capital.
The position is also slightly different for London Sport/ Sport Tech Hub’s market (i.e. in participation, health and grassroots sports). There’s perhaps currently more market acceptance of the types of commercial SportsTech that aren’t our focus, for example technology used in professional sport for performance or for fan engagement.
“As we showed in the London SportTech Report, had the Otro/23 Capital investment not been made in 2018, the total amount of annual investment in the sector would have shown marginal growth between 2017 and 2018. That’s a bit of a worry.”
Aside from increasing investment flow, there needs to be a wider and more established acceptance that technology can be an enabler to increase participation in sport or for communities to improve access to sports facilities. Again though, successes in this area will breed further success, so it is on the ecosystem to elevate the stories and showcase the commercial viability of the businesses and this part of the market.
Then there is trust. For a potential public sector purchaser of a product or for an investor it can also be a simple question of trust and credibility.
Take, for example, the start-up ‘Let’s Do This’, a races and endurance events platform. It’s had two investment rounds in the last couple of months, one for US$5m and another for US$15m. It has a host of celebrity sports investors, including Serena Williams, Paula Radcliffe and Usain Bolt and some well-known corporate investment from the likes of the lastminute.com and MoneySuperMarket. I am not saying that raising a high level of capital is a given, but it should help to generate credibility and trust among public sector stakeholders and instigate a desire to understand more.
For the part of the ecosystem that is focused on mass participation, grassroots and physical activity, this type of breakthrough should help more generally on the maturity, growth and air time compared to other verticals within ‘SportsTech’.
For us though, it’s important to remember that success doesn’t necessarily equate just to user numbers, investment levels or App download numbers. It’s more important for us that a product is having a positive impact on its users and is leading to increased levels of physical activity.
That’s where Sport Tech Hub can provide real insight and research-led innovation. We want products to solve problems, and we can really help start-ups to build the right products. Tackling inactivity is the currency that talks and has weight.
“For us though, it’s important to remember that success doesn’t necessarily equate just to user numbers, investment levels or App download numbers. It’s more important for us that a product is having a positive impact on its users and is leading to increased levels of physical activity.”
8. In your view, what/who is the ideal investor for a Sport Tech Hub start-up?
Our start-ups need investors who are genuinely passionate about the positive societal impact that sports participation can have on communities and the population. Without wanting to sound cheesy, they must appreciate that, to make the world a better place, your company has to make an actual positive difference.
“If a company is aiming to tackle a societal challenge, it obviously makes a lot of sense to partner with a recognised influencer who is aiming to do the same thing.”
I’d also like here to talk about the involvement of athletes as investors. I think this type of investor can be a really positive influence. Take, for example, the likes of Raheem Sterling. He has an influence that transcends football and sport. He talks about racism and inclusion and we’re seeing generally a lot more professional athletes who stand and utilise their platform for more than just the good of their sport or personal brand. If a company is aiming to tackle a societal challenge, it obviously makes a lot of sense to partner with a recognised influencer who is aiming to do the same thing.
The key for a start-up is to find the right athlete investor; one whose interests are fully aligned to those of the company. Athletes have a reach that exceeds that of most companies. It also shouldn’t necessarily be simply about the monetary return. An investor can also buy into a cause, and provide a platform to promote it.
9. Assuming unlimited access to funds, in which 3 SportsTech companies would you personally invest? I can’t choose any of the Sport Tech Hub companies! There are too many conflicts of interest!
However I would go for early stage and bet on the team. So out of the others I’ve seen or read about, I really like:
(i) Blinder. I really like the simplicity and potential of this company. Its aim is to open up an effective communication flow between professional athletes and the media/sponsors in a non-conflictive, secure manner. It dispenses with the need to involve PR managers in every communication or interview and I love the ability to unlock the power of storytelling from high performance athletes.
(ii) Let’s Do This. This is kind of breaking my early stage rule, but they have become the leading platform for races, endurance and events for the population to participate in, from long-distance runs or cycle events, those opportunities are there. More impressively is the team that has been assembled and the level of investor they have attracted. The culture, look and feel of the company is very impressive. Lastly, the size of the operating market is huge.
(iii) Fan Engagement. I’d also invest in the right fan engagement platform, but I’m just not sure the right company exists at the moment. Most fan engagement platforms currently operate to persuade fans to like clubs or athletes, to follow them on social media, to attend events or buy merchandise.
However, I’d love to back an engagement platform that creates a much deeper and more meaningful relationship than that and which is uses sports participation to build that relationship. It is a bottom up approach. How can I make a genuine impact on someone which might then lead to a commercial value as a relationship?
“I love the digital engagement work of AS Roma, including their Missing Persons campaign. It’s not marketing and it’s not cynical. It’s doing a lot of good, which is organically generating loyalty from fans and others who buy into the club’s core values.”
The nearest example I can think of is the ‘FanActiv’ initiative that various London-based football clubs ran in conjunction with the NHS and FitBit a few years back. Fans had to compete in sports to earn points for their club ‘badge’ and for positioning on a leader board. It was a form of community activation to generate engagement. But the purpose was also the fact a high percentage of season ticket holders are of an age and lifestyle that puts them at risk to chronic illnesses.
I love the digital engagement work of AS Roma, including their Missing Persons campaign. It’s not marketing and it’s not cynical. It’s doing a lot of good, which is organically generating loyalty from fans and others who buy into the club’s core values. They might not become everyone’s team, but due to the nature of the campaign they might become everyone’s second team.
10. Your 3 bits of advice to aspiring tech entrepreneurs…
(i) Don’t marry your idea. Just because it’s your pain point doesn’t mean it’ll be everyone else’s.
(ii) Don’t say you don’t have any competitors. All companies have competitors! It’s not a bad thing. You have to make yourself better than the competition.
(iii) For me/Sport Tech Hub, you must evidence your impact. User and download numbers are good and can be impressive, but how can you demonstrate the positive societal impact you have made and will continue to make?
Get in touch
Please do make contact if you would like to meet or speak with any of the Mills & Reeve specialist SportsTech team. We work with a wide range of stakeholders in the sector, including funds and other investors, start-ups and established technology providers and purchasers. We would be delighted to hear from you.