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Kitman Labs breaking into US sports market after excelling in Irish rugby

We spoke to Stephen Smith, one of the company’s co-founders, about their growth in the States.

THEY STARTED BY revolutionising the management and reduction of injury risk in Irish rugby, but the ambitions of Kitman Labs extend far beyond the world of the oval ball.

Since July of last year, the highly-respected Dublin firm have been busy breaking into the US sports market, with co-founder Stephen Smith now based out of the company’s office in Silicon Valley, California.

Smith is a former Leinster strength and conditioning coach/head of rehabilitation, and a man whose deep expertise in the field of injury rehabilitation and sports physiology was a key driver behind the production of the Profiler system.

Stephen Smith Smith had some good times with Leinster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht are all users of Profiler, meaning the national team gets major knock-on benefits. Essentially, the systems allows the backroom staffs of the IRFU’s teams to highlight, manage and reduce the risk of injury in their players.

Daily screening of the likes of Paul O’Connell and Robbie Henshaw builds much of the data that powers Profiler, with a range of tests such as body weight, sit and reach, groin squeeze and joint mobility carried out each morning.

Well-being feedback, muscle soreness ratings and historical injury status feeds into Profiler too, making it a comprehensive tool for managing injury.

All four provinces and Joe Schmidt’s Ireland camp are wholly committed to the value of Kitman Labs’ systems, while the likes of Everton FC in English football have signed up to gain the benefits too.

Now, Smith and his partners are breaking the most difficult markets of all in the US.

We came over to have a look last year when we started to put the feelers out,” explains Smith. “We came to the Major League Baseball spring training, met with a couple of teams and they had a look and were very interested.

“The product fit wasn’t exactly right because it was tailored for rugby and soccer, and baseball is a hugely different sport. Whilst the principles worked, the execution was actually very different.

“We’ve been working alongside teams over here, they gave us some feedback and told us about the problems they were trying to solve. Our engineers have been working non-stop since July to customize the product for baseball and now we’re ready to launch into the start of their spring training.”

Smith is speaking over the phone after a day of testing with the San Francisco Giants, and outlines that Kitman Labs have also been in discussions with Major League Soccer teams and several US universities.

Source: Sisu Strategies/YouTube

The injury patterns across sports are “very different, very specific,” explains Smith; what rings true for rugby is not the same in baseball. That has meant “a huge learning curve” for Kitman Labs, but they have found their feet in the US and are now leading the way.

“They’ve never seen anything like this before,” says Smith. “Obviously the Moneyball thing was huge in baseball; they use the stats they have on players to help recruiting and things like that.

“But as far as the competitors we’ve met, none of the big league teams here have looked at the link between that data and medical data. That’s a problem that’s not just in baseball, it’s everywhere. That’s where it’s such a big opportunity for us.

All of these different teams, leagues, sports across the world all collect medical data, all collect S&C and fitness data. All that information is siloed and kept in the IT department.

“The idea of our company is to bring all of that together, aggregate that data and understand the impact of what game performance or game data means in terms of how the athlete presents the next day at training.”

A $4million investment from BlueRun Ventures back in July has greatly aided the US growth of Kitman Labs, who now employ 16 people across their Dublin and Silicon Valley offices.

Bringing Profiler and its various component parts into US sports is not the only area of development, however, with the company set to introduce ground-breaking technology into the sphere of athlete screening.

Source: O2Rugby/YouTube

The launch will take place at this month’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, with Smith having carried out a number of validation studies on a remarkable new piece of equipment with the likes of the Giants and other teams.

“Essentially, we’ve developed a markerless biomechanical analysis suite. So essentially what it is is a very sophisticated camera with a number of high-tech sensors within it.

“Instead of having all those pieces of hardware that athletes have to run through, test on and then input information onto screen forms, what they now do is walk in front of the motion-capture system, log in very easily and it guides them through a number of movements.

They just move freely with no markers, no nothing, no set-up, nothing in front of this camera. The system collects all of the data points that we need and imports them straight into our platform for analysis.”

The entire process takes each athlete only 30 to 40 seconds and provides their coaching staff with an incredible level of detail pertaining to injury management and risk.

Susan Giblin, one of Kitman’s sports science team back in Dublin, has been working diligently alongside Smith and the rest of the company to bring this to life, something Smith says “had never before been possible” in sport.

Previously, such testing would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and taken over an hour for each athlete to undertake. Kitman’s technology crosses over every sport imaginable and opens up exciting possibilities.

“It’s taken us quite a while,” outlines Smith. “We’ve been working on this technology, this whole project, coming up on nearly a year, but we’ve really accelerated it over the last six months.

data 2 An example of some of the layout of some of Kitman Labs' software. Source: Kitman Labs

“We very much feel like we’re only at the beginning with this particular technology and what it’s going to be able to do for sport and what it’s going to be able to do for us. We’re very excited about it.”

Alongside these developments and the US expansion, Kitman remain fully committed to their work in rugby. That means playing an important role once again in Ireland’s Six Nations campaign.

Smith says “you won’t meet many people in your life that are as competitive as Joe Schmidt” and points to the head coach’s search for marginal gains as an important element in Ireland’s use of Kitman Labs’ services.

“Ireland have the info set from all four provinces, so when the athletes come into national camp, all the data flows in with them,” says Smith. “They know exactly what X player from Connacht does and they know what a different player from Munster does, what’s normal for them.

“That transition can be so smooth because the communication line from province to national team is so open and there’s no confusion.

The management of the players is top drawer and I think the IRFU are probably the envy of most associations around the world because they’ve had the foresight to do something the other associations haven’t done.”

“The fact that they’re looking at screening athletes every day when they come into camp and doing that in their provinces as well, the amount of data that gives them really empowers their decision making every single day.”

Smith, who was an important part of the Leinster family as recently as last year, admits to missing “the training environment” in rugby, but points to four separate phone calls to Leinster players on the day we speak as evidence that they very much remain in his thoughts.

data 4 More example data from the Profiler system. Source: Kitman Labs

He is, however, enjoying life in Silicon Valley, where the relentless work ethic matches his own.

“This company was my vision and I’m very, very passionate about this,” says Smith. “I think that where we’re at now with the concept of injury prediction or risk management, it’s really only at the beginning.

“I’m very excited with where we can go with this. I’m also really liking getting to understand different sports and trying to figure out different problems.

“It’s definitely been a huge change from a lifestyle perspective, uprooting my family and moving across to the States, but we’ve enjoyed it so far. Life is about experiencing different things and new challenges. You only do it once, so we might as well throw ourselves right into it.”

Kitman Labs’ reach now extends beyond pure physical data and they have brought in software such as a sabremetrics works manager for baseball. Their intention is to be the driving force behind entire sporting organisations.

We are starting to push into a lot of new areas,” explains Smith. “We’re looking at performance profiling, we’re looking at the ability to perform scouting and recruiting, building and comparing data on the athlete. There’s a lot happening.

“I would love to see us as being the universal platform for sports, like the operating system for a sports team. I would like us to be the Microsoft Windows of sports teams. We’re going to give it a good blast anyway.”

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Murray Kinsella

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