How global tech companies promote sports innovation
Business Management

How global tech companies promote sports innovation

We tend to hear a lot about innovation and collaboration but what does it really mean? Is it just an excuse to put table tennis tables into clean and tidy workspaces, where walls are actually whiteboards, and soft chairs and coffee tables are called break-out areas? There’s a lot of nonsense attached to it but we are regularly told there’s also lot of value in enabling collaboration between individuals within organisations and also between different businesses.

Microsoft, for one, has taken this to heart and developed a chain of innovation centres around the globe – over 100 at last count – with the aim of helping startups and entrepreneurs build their ideas and work with other companies to form partnerships and overcome skills shortages. It has a few success stories on its site but perhaps one of its most ambitious centres was set-up in Madrid in 2015 to “develop collaborative technology solutions for the sports industry,” at least according to its launch statement.

Located on Madrid’s Calle de Goya, next to the WiZink venue, The Global Sports Innovation Center (GSIC) is actually a not-for-profit collaboration between the Madrid Government, Microsoft and a number of strategic partners including Camilo Jose Cela University, LG and Real Madrid CF, among others. It was initially backed by a 17 million euro investment with the aim of serving as a business incubator for 50 startups and to support 200 over a five year period.

Of course, two years is a long time in sport, so has it worked and what can we learn from it? 

On the startup collaboration front there certainly seems to have been a few success stories. Lidia Valverde Jimenez, comms manager at the GSIC reels off a few names of companies, or associates as they are called, that have, as a direct result of connections made through the centre, sealed impressive deals or partnerships.

She talks about Wildmoka, a French company providing a digital content creation platform for broadcasters, that now works with the likes of Orange and Fox Broadcasting and Triboom in Italy, a crowdfunding platform for sports communities. There is also G2K, based in Germany, a data management and analytics business that offers crowd security and personalised marketing capabilities. It’s already attracted interest from AC Chievo Verona and facilities management company Wisag, which looks after a number of airports in Germany.


Smart helmet

Perhaps the stand out example is a collaboration between US-based Vicis and Spanish firm Realtrack Systems. They have jointly produced a smart helmet for American football players which claims to reduce the impact of high velocity head collisions by as much as 50 per cent. The Zero1 helmet will be launched this year and will feature sensors providing information on health and helmet performance. Both companies met through the GSIC and Jimenez believes this reflects the philosophy of the innovation centre.

“We have detected a remarkable level of global collaboration among our partners,” she says. “Over two years, around 50 agreements between GSIC partners have been settled.”

Two major brands, Mediapro and Orange have also benefitted, partnering for the burgeoning e-sports market, while Realtrack has also recently signed a deal with FC Barcelona for GPS tracking. There are plenty more examples of companies covering health and fitness, as well as specific sports games and training ideas.

For Microsoft, backing the GSIC is apparently a no brainer. The company already has a close working relationship with local giants Real Madrid CF, providing cloud services to enable the football club’s relentless pursuit of digital supremacy. Real Madrid’s global digital director Rafael De Los Santos Navarro says the club was the first club to get over 100m Facebook fans and is now using data from 70 sources to improve its knowledge of fans and to extend its reach. Technology and sport clearly do mix.

Sebastian Lancestremere, general manager of Microsoft’s sports business cites a Plunkett Research report that claims global sports is a $1.5 trillion industry. Why wouldn’t Microsoft want a slice of that, especially as a lot of major sports clubs are virgin territory when it comes to cloud services and data management.

At the GSIC, they see this as justification for all the energy being thrown into manufacturing collaboration and deal opportunities. It hosts a number of events over the calendar year to bring businesses together and to focus on specific technology and business issues within the sports industry. One of the key events is the WFStartCup Challenge held at the World Football Summit in October.

Last year, UK firm Player LENS, a player knowledge base for transfers and loans aimed at club scouts, managers and agents, finished as a runner-up. Managing director Lee Hemmings is full of praise for the GSIC, which he says provides an invaluable shop window of shared interests.

“This event gave Player LENS significant exposure to the Spanish football market and senior figures from the local soccer industry,” says Hemmings. “Subsequently, Jose Ramon Capdevila has joined Player LENS after 10 years at Real Madrid, where he served as the Head of Football Operations. Through the GSIC we have also met other businesses who can complement ours and who also face the same challenges. We also make the most of the meeting and co-working space at GSIC to support our efforts in Spain. All of the above would not be possible without the GSIC.”

The next WFStartCup Challenge is already being planned with eight companies already selected from the UK, Germany, Finland, France, Sweden, Malta and Spain. Valverde Jimenez says the companies will get an opportunity to pitch to potential investors and leading tech business and sports companies, as well as of course getting valuable exposure. The GSIC meanwhile has just struck a deal with the Italian Football Federation to host a hackathon. More deals are in the pipeline. For the sports industry startups in particular, it must be welcome having someone fight your corner, trying to create links and work the room for you.

So what can other organisations and industries learn from this? Collaboration is good thing?

“Definitely, we deeply believe that being open to collaboration has great potential for every company and organisation, whatever the vertical,” says Valverde Jimenez. “Technology not only makes this possible but also represents an opportunity to develop new business models and increase competitiveness for industry.”

So what’s in it for Microsoft? Well, participating businesses do get a free subscription to Microsoft’s cloud platform Azure, for one year. Altruistic? Maybe. Good business development? Definitely but then you have to be in it to win it, so they say.


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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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