From rock‘n’ roll life­style to huge global en­ter­prise

Alan Clarke, co-founder of the sports tech firm, talks to Emma Deighan about the busi­ness’s im­pact on the world

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - Front Page - @Em­madeig

STAT­Sports co-founder alan clarke on the suc­cess of the newry firm’ s per­for­mance de­vices and some par­al­lels with the mu­sic busi­ness

Alan Clarke, one half of the found­ing team of suc­cess­ful sports tech firm Stat­sports, isn’t the usual cor­po­rate high-flyer. In 2007 he de­cided to swap the rock ‘n’ roll life of a tour­ing drum­mer for what is now a bil­lion dol­lar con­tract-sign­ing firm based in Newry.

And when he and his busi­ness part­ner, Sean O’con­nor, made an an­nounce­ment this month that the firm would be em­ploy­ing 237 new team mem­bers af­ter a mul­ti­mil­lion pound in­vest­ment, it was clear Stat­sports was more than suits and sign­ings.

Alan, a for­mer tour­ing mu­si­cian and en­gi­neer, and Sean, a for­mer tech­nol­ogy lec­turer, stood clad in a Rolling Stones T-shirt and denim, re­spec­tively, along­side the Sec­re­tary of State, Karen Bradley and In­vest NI’S Jeremy Fitch.

That pho­to­call said it all about the com­pany that has gone from con­cept to global star­dom in just over 10 years. It also spoke vol­umes about a sec­tor here that is break­ing stuffy cor­po­rate rules and thriv­ing.

“I try to make the com­pany a very re­laxed place to work,” says Alan. “There are no airs and graces and there’s no real hi­er­ar­chy, and even though we are cor­po­rate we try to mask that to make it more in­tu­itive.”

Set up in 2007, Stat­sports has shaken hands with some of the world’s most suc­cess­ful sport­ing teams — from Brazil to US Soc­cer (that last one was the big bucks bil­lion dol­lar deal).

It’s been a whirl­wind 11 years for the firm that came about from a pass­ing con­ver­sa­tion on a ter­race at a foot­ball match.

“I knew Sean over the years,” con­tin­ues Alan. “We bumped into each other and had a for­tu­itous con­ver­sa­tion about sports per­for­mance. He was lec­tur­ing in Newry tech at the time. We talked about a niche in the mar­ket and how it could be filled — it was a loose con­ver­sa­tion and from that it grabbed mo­men­tum.”

“Grab­bing mo­men­tum” is a hum­ble ref­er­ence to the ve­loc­ity at which his busi­ness has gone from con­cept to con­tracts.

Stat­sports’ niche is cre­at­ing sports track­ing de­vices that can send per­for­mance statis­tics to real-time de­vices. In ba­sic speak, coaches and team man­agers can com­pare and con­trast the ath­letic per­for­mance of their play­ers while watch­ing them in ac­tion. The de­vices, most no­tably the APEX Team Se­ries sys­tem, are used by some of the big­gest sport­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions in the world in­clud­ing the Brazil Foot­ball Con­fed­er­a­tion and US Soc­cer, and is worn by sport­ing stars in­clud­ing Cris­tiano Ron­aldo, Paul Pogba and Ney­mar. Stat­sports says the APEX Team Se­ries is unique in its field, ad­ding “there is no other wear­able de­vice on the mar­ket that can pro­duce mul­ti­ple on­field key per­for­mance met­rics in real-time while util­is­ing the level of ac­cu­racy re­lied upon by the world’s largest and most suc­cess­ful sports or­gan­i­sa­tions”.

It was 2009 when the com­pany wel­comed its first high pro­file cus­tomer, Le­in­ster Rugby. It was the name that marked the be­gin­ning of a star-stud­ded line-up of clients, from Liver­pool FC to the New York Knicks, Nike to Lu­cozade, and Hong Kong Rugby to Hous­ton Dash — an in­ter­na­tional port­fo­lio that saw the com­pany open an of­fice in Chicago.

Dis­cussing what was pos­si­bly the most lu­cra­tive sign­ing in its his­tory, Le­in­ster Rugby, Alan con­tin­ues: “Even though we were con­fi­dent from the be­gin­ning, you need that fuel to get that lift. When Le­in­ster Rugby signed up in 2009, that was the year they won the Euro­pean Cup Fi­nal.

“Then fol­lowed Ir­ish Rugby, also in 2009, when they won the Six Na­tions and the Grand Slam. And at the time peo­ple wanted to know what we were do­ing. And be­cause this in­dus­try is quite niche — a small sec­tor — be­fore you know it, in a whirl­wind pe­riod, we’d gone from two to three teams to what we have now.”

Nei­ther Alan nor Sean saw the Le­in­ster deal as a lucky break. The pair had un­wa­ver­ing con­vic­tion that their prod­uct was al­ways des­tined for the top.

“There was a fo­cus from the start and we were al­ways pretty con­fi­dent that what we were do­ing was unique, that it had value and once we got one or two teams on board we knew we would get all these big teams and clients.

“I didn’t think that was a big reach.”

Alan com­pares the firm’s un­flap­pable con­fi­dence to that of a plat­inum-sell­ing mu­sic artist. He says: “If you look at lots of mu­si­cians over the years they will also say that when they were do­ing demos they knew they had hits and it didn’t come as a shock to them that they made it big, the same way as it didn’t come as a shock to us. We knew it was go­ing to hap­pen and we just needed to work at it.” And work at it they con­tinue to do. As part of that job an­nounce­ment, Stat­sports re­vealed that it would in­vest six fig­ures into re­search and devel­op­ment to en­sure its prod­ucts evolve at a pace that al­lows it to con­tinue its cur­rent mo­men­tum and po­si­tion in the mar­ket. To that end, £5.5m will be in­vested in re­search and 26 of the 237 jobs will be solely ded­i­cated to that el­e­ment of the busi­ness.

“We are con­tin­u­ally evolv­ing. It’s a bit like the iphone. We now have iphone XS and any­body who has an iphone 4 will strug­gle and that’s the way we look at our devel­op­ment. We will con­tin­u­ally evolve with new sen­sors and tech­nol­ogy.

“We will build our prod­ucts, en­hance and im­prove them, pos­si­bly add an­cil­lary prod­ucts. The R&D fund­ing will also al­low us to branch into dif­fer­ent con­sumer ar­eas like run­ning, re­cre­ation and cy­cling.”

Alan says one of the firm’s big­gest tar­gets is to “make things more ac­cu­rate and fast so de­ci­sions can be made in real time”.

“The big­gest com­mod­ity we have is time so we need to make things quicker.

“That will in­clude a lot of cloud and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence,” he adds.

The progress made by the firm, Alan says, wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble with­out the fi­nan­cial aid of In­vest NI, one of the rea­sons the Dun­dalk founders set up shop in North­ern Ire­land.

“I’m south­ern Ir­ish and we’re on the bor­der. In­vest NI’S sup­port for us has been bril­liant over the years and all of that has helped us and made us push for­ward with our re­search and devel­op­ment. They have been in­valu­able in help­ing our busi­ness move on to the next stage of its devel­op­ment. They un­der­stand the com­pany and sup­port our plans.”

What’s most ex­tra­or­di­nary for Stat­sports is that its busi­ness model is debt and in­vest­ment-free. “We’ve al­ways been prof­itable,” Alan says.

“The firm is grow­ing 40% year on year and dur­ing the process of ac­quir­ing cus­tomers, we’ve done it with­out bank debt and in­vest­ment at all.”

Stat­sports’ near­est com­peti­tor is Aus­tralian firm Cat­a­pult Sports but Alan be­lieves his com­pany has the edge when it comes to seal­ing deals.

He says: “Be­ing Ir­ish is good. We’re of­ten seen as friendly and neu­tral and there aren’t many egos here as you would find in a lot of other na­tions. We also have huge tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies here and when it comes to in­no­va­tion and cre­ation, Ire­land’s pretty much up there and that helps.”

Asked if there are other teams or sports that he’d like to con­quer in the near fu­ture, Alan ex­plains: “I think we’ve dipped our toe in ev­ery­thing in sports, from rugby to horse-rac­ing but what we’re look­ing at is the con­sumer mar­ket. We want to make our tech­nol­ogy an essen­tial part of a sports kit, just like the shirt and for many of our young that’s al­ready the case.

“I re­mem­ber when we first started work­ing with the big teams we were seen as big brother, we were seen with dis­dain and as a stick to beat them with to make them work harder, but now they un­der­stand.

“Now it’s sec­ond na­ture that these teams will wear these de­vices and the younger play­ers com­ing through, the young pro-play­ers from 14 years old, are wear­ing these prod­ucts.

“Even in the IRFU [Ir­ish Rugby Foot­ball Union] kids as young as 12 are col­lect­ing data. And what we want to do is bring that to the con­sumer.

“We’ve just be­gun that process,” he con­tin­ues. “It’s the same for­mat and it al­lows con­sumers to get closer to their idols.

“It’s sim­i­lar wear tech­nol­ogy, per­haps not as in-depth but it gives the met­rics and al­lows am­a­teur play­ers to bench­mark against their idols and friends and there’s a big so­cial el­e­ment to it too.”

Alan says even­tu­ally par­ents will be able to mon­i­tor their chil­dren’s per­for­mance from the side of the pitch and com­pare and con­trast with the stats of some of the big­gest sports stars in the world.

“A par­ent could be stand­ing in Belfast watch­ing their kids play a soc­cer, rugby or GAA match and con­nect, see the speed, heart rate and per­for­mance all from their phone — it’s evolv­ing,” he adds.

On print, or rather the blue screen, it would seem that STAT-Sports is el­e­vat­ing the per­for­mance of the world’s big­gest ath­letes, but Alan’s not will­ing to take all the credit.

“You need the best play­ers, best coaches, for­tune and good luck,” he says.

The past decade has marked big changes for the tour­ing drum­mer who spent 12 years in or­ches­tra pits and on stages around the world, in­clud­ing lo­cal venues like the Eg, Lime­light and Queen’s Stu­dent Union, but mu­sic is not for­got­ten at Stat­sports says Alan.

“There’s a syn­ergy be­tween both. What I do now is all about cre­ation and per­fec­tion and a lot of what we do is cre­at­ing graph­ics and ap­pli­ca­tions so there is a bit of a cross­over, al­beit you have to look for it, but there is a cross­over,” he says.

Next Week, Small Busi­ness Can Fea­tures W&J Cham­ber Sand Glen A Moyle Farms

Stat­sports en­ables play­ers, teams and fans to track per­for­mance

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