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Validating Sports Tech for the Olympics

Scott Munro

Curator, Health Startup Digest
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This last weekend the Rio Olympics kicked off with all the glitz that we’ve come to expect from Olympic opening ceremonies as each of the 207 countries paraded their own unique culture for the world to see. The celebration and joy that shone on each athlete’s face masked the underlying, singular goal each one of them has: to bring home the gold.

Athletes in the Olympics, and otherwise, are increasingly able to rely on the power of technology to train and execute at a much higher level than ever before. In many ways, professional sports have been pushing the health tech revolution forward for years.

Before Rio had built up its stadiums and began preparation for the Olympics, professional sports teams and venture funds have been pouring money into making athletes perform at their peak. Teams and athletes are moving well past traditional “activity” trackers to get smarter about how they train and play.

Unfortunately, not all of these technologies have the scientific proof that they should. PUSH is a sport technology startup with a wearable product used by many of Canada’s Olympians and professional sports teams such as the 49ers. The startup’s CEO, Rami Alhamad, said,

“Even as we see an explosion in sports technology companies, we are also seeing a real lack of validity in some of the underlying technology.”

That lack of rigor can be seen in a number of different technologies that have been highlighted leading up to the start of the Rio Olympics last weekend. For example, WHOOP is a wearable that Olympic athletes are using track sleep patterns and determine how the long travel to Rio might impact their performance.

While there has been research on how sleep can impact performance, all of WHOOP’s validation studies are white papers instead of peer-reviewed scientific research. Even if consumers don’t think of these white papers as biased or problematic, sports scientists look with skepticism at technology that doesn’t have third party validation.

Halo Neuroscience says it is helping athletes to increase performance via brain stimulation. However, as Charlotte Stagg, head of the physiological neuroimaging group in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford points out in the MIT Technology Review, the positive impact of brain stimulation on performance is only really understood in lab settings, and, “it’s unlikely that we understand enough to be able to successfully use it for that kind of thing at the moment.”

These two companies represent a larger trend in sports tech where companies validate their technologies through smaller, self-directed studies that may not actually demonstrate the positive impact of their technology.

Going the Distance

The news is not all bad for athletes using new technologies to train before and during the Olympics. Luckily, there are a number of technologies that do have the sort of rigor that can be lacking.

Rami’s company, PUSH, works very closely with academic institutions such as the University of Toronto and East Tennessee State University to conduct validation studies proving that their algorithms indeed help athletes train smarter.

There is also NormaTec, a workout recovery device, which athletes like Simone Biles are using to recover faster and train harder for the Olympics. The recovery device has not only been validated by third party academic institutions but has also demonstrated efficacy via peer reviewed studies that have been published in publications from the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research to the European Journal of Applied Physiology.

According to Rami, it actually makes sense that more companies aren’t investing in scientific studies and third party validation. He said,

“After you’ve raised some amount of capital, your burn rate might be high, you’re not profitable, and you might be thinking, ‘I need to show my investors some real growth metrics.’ And to do that, you’re going to cut corners and maybe publish a white paper instead of a third-party study.”

Much of this pressure to cut corners is coming from investors expecting high returns on relatively short time horizons to satisfy their limited partners. That in itself could be the larger issue with sports tech — and health tech more broadly — that has caused the implosion of companies like Theranos in the last few years.

Impatient investors incentivizing founders to grow at lightning speed in industries that need to grow in a measured manner with scientific findings. So, as the Olympics continue and more articles are published on the next big thing in sports tech, be sure to dig a little deeper, and understand whether the technology is real or nothing more than slideware.

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Scott Munro

Curator, Health Startup Digest

Scott is the curator for the Health Startup Digest where he manages a weekly news update on the intersection of health care and technology for more than 5,000 subscribers globally. Previously, he…