Dodger Stadium -- Game three against the San Diego Padres. The stands are overflowing, and a feeling of excitement, tinged with apprehension, is in the air.
With the entire stadium aware that he has a shot at a new record, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez walks to home plate. He takes a deep breath, grips his bat tightly, and leans in. At precisely the right moment, he swings. The ball soars up and out of the park, and the crowd goes wild. Gonzalez has just hit his 5th home run in the Dodgers first three games of the 2015 season -- a feat never previously achieved in major league baseball history.
Gonzalez, who four years ago signed an eight-year, $154 million contract, admits he still gets anxious making his approach to home plate. I recalled this fact as I sat in Dodger Stadium on Nov. 10th for a different kind of competition: The Dodgers Accelerator Demo Day. There I watched the founders of the ten companies chosen to participate walk onto that same infield. In contrast to Gonzalez, they were not surrounded by thousands of cheering fans; instead, they were being scrutinized by a 500-person gathering that included some of the most influential people in the world of sports and high finance.
Power Players Partner Up
Demo Day was the culmination of work that began in April of 2015, when the Los Angeles Dodgers and digital giant R/GA announced a joint accelerator program targeting innovative companies at the intersection of sports, technology, and entertainment.
"The sports industry is ripe with opportunities for innovation," said Tucker Kain, chief financial officer of the Dodgers. "There are countless ways for new technology to create more powerful consumer experiences, heighten fan engagement, and improve efficiencies. We're thrilled at the opportunity to work with some of the best sports-centric startups from the L.A. area and across the globe."
To get the program started, the Dodgers and R/GA put out a call for relevant startups to apply. To their surprise, they received hundreds of applications from companies based in 34 countries around the world.
From the 572 applicants, 10 companies were selected to complete the intensive ten-week program. Leveraging the full resources of the Dodgers organization and the global digital and design prowess of R/GA, the Dodgers Accelerator provided the startups with unparalleled access to industry partnerships and distribution channels. For R/GA and the Dodgers, the goal was to support companies that were developing great products and services, as well as creating enduring customer experiences and, ultimately, valuable brands.
Calling the Dodgers Accelerator “a watershed moment for sports technology,” R/GA Managing Director Dylan Boyd said it was inspiring to see how each company took advantage of the connections, mentors, and opportunities offered to them, and to watch how they grew during their time in Los Angeles. “I’m grateful to the Dodgers and the L.A. community for embracing and nurturing these companies,” he said. “It’s one of the fastest growing tech communities I’ve seen in a long time.”
The Moment of Truth
On Nov.10, the day had come for the 10 company founders to demonstrate whether all this effort and investment had paid off. Each founder hoped to hit that magical “home run” as he or she took the stage at home plate.
Sarah Kunst, Founder & CEO of Pro-Day (presents at Demo Day)
The presentations were polished and, home run or not, I found most of the business metrics compelling. At the VIP event afterward, all of the participants were inundated with demands on their time -- everything from interviews by the national media to requests for future appointments with investors and corporate partners. I was fortunate to get opportunities for conversations with several of the CEOs.
Kinduct: Human Performance Software Platform
Travis McDonough, Founder & CEO of Kinduct -- on right (pitching the media)
I first caught up with Dr. Travis McDonough, founder and CEO of Kinduct Technologies. He described his 10-week experience with the RGA/Dodgers incubator this way: “I don’t want to be melodramatic, but it was the turning point in our company. We’re from Nova Scotia -- off the beaten track. We felt we had this Ferrari in a garage, but we weren’t sure. We came down to L.A. and worked in the epicenter of the sports technology world with the best and brightest in the industry. We realized we belonged there.”
McDonough, who described his company as “the most advanced human-performance software platform in the world,” said the problem his company tackled is the difficulty elite athletes have getting access to the full spectrum of performance data, which is stored in siloed, disparate locations. As he explained, “The information is everywhere except for where it should be, which is in one location. All of the data being generated is completely disconnected to the outputter programs and interventions that make a difference -- until now.”
I asked McDonough who can use the platform, and he was quick to respond that it’s everybody inside a sports organization. “It’s permission based,” he said. “We provide the right data, at the right time, to the right person, in the right format to keep athletes healthy.”
Kinduct Technologies, currently a 40-person company, touts the fact that it has never lost a single client in its five-year history. Today it helps more than 50 professional and NCAA sports organizations collect, organize, share, and analyze their data in one centralized platform.
Appetize: Enterprise Point of Sale Solution
Kevin Anderson: Co-Founder of Appetize (presents at Demo Day)
Sports fans don’t like to miss any on-field action, any more than concert goers want to miss a song while they head out for a hot-dog, cold beer, or box of popcorn. To my mind, fighting the half-time crowd only to wait in a long concession line has always been the worst part of watching a show or attending a sporting event at a large entertainment venue. Now one company, Appetize, is addressing that problem, and I got a chance to talk to Kevin Anderson, the company’s co-founder and VP of Business Development, to find out more about it.
Simply put, Appetize allows fans to order concessions from their seats, so they never have to leave the event to go in search of food or drinks. They can use Appetize to pay as well, using options like Apple Pay, Google Wallet, or Bluetooth.
Appetize recently announced a partnership with the Sacramento Kings, which has implemented its point-of-sale solutions venue-wide at Sleep Train Arena and is planning to incorporate the system at Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento. “Our fans don’t want to miss a second of Kings basketball or world-class entertainment,“ said Chris Granger, President of the Sacramento Kings. “Now that our concession stands have the latest technology and fans can order from their seats, they’ll spend more time enjoying the action on the floor.”
Calling the partnership a “winning combination,” Anderson explained, “Working with forward-thinking partners like the Kings is absolutely our sweet spot. We’re putting faster, easier-to-use interfaces in front of operators and giving managers more controls and insights, all the while increasing fan experience. This is a huge win for Appetize to work with one of the true leaders of innovation in all of sports.”
When I spoke to Anderson, he told me that the founders of Appetize credit the leadership team at R/GA, including its chief operating officer, Stephen Plumlee, for helping to scale their team during a period of extreme growth. Appetize is already considered a market leader due to its proven ability to increase sales and provide powerful analytics at more than 300 sports and entertainment properties nationwide, and the company is projecting one billion dollars in transactions in 2016.
The company was recently selected by Live Nation to implement its payment platform across 32 U.S. venues, and it is backed by a strong lineup of other players, including Guggenheim, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the San Francisco 49ers family offices, Marc Geiger of William Morris, and Roar Entertainment.
DoorStart: Demographics & Insights for Large Venues
Cole Harper, Co-Founder & CEO of DoorStat (presents at Demo Day)
Toward the end of the evening I spoke with Cole Harper, co-founder and CEO of DoorStat, which provides customer demographics and insights to large sports and entertainment venues. He explained that his technology gives businesses access to real-time customer demographic data in order to increase marketing effectiveness, optimize staffing, and improve vendor accountability. He also walked me through the platform’s ability to help customers align product, brand, and customer strategy.
According to Harper, DoorStat can capture on-site customer data, including age, gender, ethnicity, and mood or “sentiment” in several different ways. It can set up its own on-site sensors in areas of key interest (ingress/ egress, concession stands, etc.), or it can tap into existing infrastructures like surveillance cameras or other equipment. It can also tap into data from a company like Fan Cam that captures images at sporting events by taking panoramic pictures of people in the crowd. The broad data capture allows DoorStat to provide vital analytics to sports venues, retail malls, and grocery stores -- data that was previously unavailable.
I asked Harper how important the retail sector was to the future of DoorStat, and he grinned. “It’s huge,” he said. “Of the $125-billion analytics marketplace, brick-and-mortar retail is one of most interesting to us.”
Field of Dreams
As I left the Dodgers ballpark that evening, I thought about what a great idea it was to hold the Demo Day in the stadium. It’s a place where emotions run deep and the stakes are high. Adrian Gonzalez has surely had his ups and downs along the way -- anyone striving to achieve something great always does. But he has talent, grit, and determination -- and maybe a bit of luck as well. Ultimately it paid off, and today it seems he can name his price.
Most of the founders who presented on Nov.10th have that same drive. They’ve encountered roadblocks but persevered, argued for a concept when others “just couldn’t see it.” The ones I talked to all believe they have created startups that will be great -- companies they hope will be successful enough for them to “name their price” in the not-too-distant future. The world of Silicon Valley is not all that different from the world of pro-sports, so there is a chance that some of them are right. With hard work, and, yes, some good old-fashioned luck, what is now a dream can well become a reality.
I’m a fan -- I’m cheering for them.