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Comcast NBCUniversal today announced it has picked 10 sports tech and esports startups for the first annual Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech Accelerator.

Comcast NBCUniversal is investing $50,000 in each startup and training them for 12 weeks, in partnership with Boomtown Accelerators. Two of the winners are esports companies.

It chose the winners from over 1,000 applicants in 70 countries. The companies will work with Comcast NBCUniversal and the SportsTech partner consortium, which includes NBC Sports, Sky Sports, Golf, NASCAR, U.S. Ski and Snowboard, USA Cycling, USA Swimming, and Comcast Ventures.

“Esports is really something that is important for us as a company to get ahead of,” said Jenna Kurath, the vice president of startup partner development and head of sports tech at Comcast NBCUniversal, in an interview with GamesBeat. “I think it is only a matter of time before, if it hasn’t already happened … esports eclipses traditional sports in terms of youth participation. They have all the advantages of being digital-first and learning from traditional sports. It’s probably a matter of not ‘if’ but ‘when’ esports becomes its own Olympic sport.”

Startups were selected based on their technology solutions focused on the accelerator’s eight target areas: media and entertainment, fan/player engagement, athlete/player performance, team and coach success, venue and event innovation, fantasy sports and betting, esports, and the business of sports.

Comcast NBCUniversal

Above: Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech has 10 startups in its first accelerator class.

Image Credit: Comcast NBCUniversal

The 2021 program kicks off today but will be held virtually, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The founders will participate in this accelerator from cities across the globe, including Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Geneva.

“We launched a year ago on January 14. And then we found ourselves two months later with sports on pause,” Kurath said. “We used to think that sports was recession-proof. But nothing is COVID-proof. But it really gave us an opportunity to lean in even more. It didn’t change our vision at all, which was really about investing in and developing the next great sports technologies.”

Comcast NBCUniversal also brought more brands into the partnership so that it could expose the startups to partnership opportunities with everything from the Olympics to NASCAR. Kurath positions the startups as being at the intersection of media, technology, and sports — not to mention gaming, with the esports connection.

For esports pitches, Kurath said, “We had two months before sports went on pause. So we saw a lot of applications come in that were really about live sports happening in live venues and events. A lot of those startups have had to kind of look at their business and pivot. How do you not only survive, but thrive during COVID, but then make sure you have a COVID-resistant business on the other side of it? That’s what’s been so interesting. At first, we had some concern about the pause in sports. It did not change the number of applicants coming in. If anything, it’s just a reminder of the grit, resiliency, the ability to pivot that the great entrepreneurs out there do.”

Focus on Sharper Sense

Above: Sharper Sense is using electrical stimulation to enhance performance.

Image Credit: Sharper Sense

I spoke with Charles Rodenkirch, president of Sharper Sense, one of the 10 companies named for the accelerator. The startup spun out of Columbia University, where Rodenkirch got his doctorate, to develop neuromodulation. It’s developing a noninvasive stimulation patch that  enhances the brain’s ability to accurately process sensory information received from the eyes, ears, and skin, Rodenkirch said.

For everyone from athletes to those with learning disabilities, impaired sensory processing decreases sensory acuity and reduces the ability to understand spoken words and written words, but it also interferes with performance at work, during recreation, and in sports, he said.

“There are clinical causes of impaired sensory processing, like sensory processing disorders … that long-term we can treat,” Rodenkirch said. “But even healthy individuals will have temporarily impaired senses from things like inattention or fatigue. So when you think about athletes at the end of a long race, [it’s about] making sure that they’re not having these types of misperceptions. I’m sure everyone’s familiar with standing in front of a cupboard looking for some sort of ingredient for all your cooking and then noticing that it’s been in front of your face for the whole last minute. So this is kind of a moment where you’re having this type of impaired sensory processing. For athletes, these types of moments are really strongly linked with errors. Things like, ‘I didn’t see that defender out there,’ or the ‘steering wheel didn’t feel right.’ We really think we can help improve both safety and performance.”

Rodenkirch said he was aware of pseudoscience hucksters out there who have been selling devices that reportedly help you with your physical and mental acuity. But he said his company will have research to back it up.

The company has completed its preclinical research, which has produced a proof of concept showing that the company’s tech could reduce error rates on sensory testing tasks and games. Next, Sharper Sense will spin up clinical studies for a patch that could send electrical signals into an athlete’s body to improve things like awareness and reaction time. The tech might be useful for gamers and esports players as well.

“We really think of ourselves as this new generation of neuromodulation technology that’s built out of true science,” Rodenkirch said.

NASCAR chief innovation officer Craig Neeb said in an interview that his group is watching i-racing and traditional racing converge through esports broadcasts. Racing simulators are getting much more accurate, and he said it has become fun to watch real pro drivers compete in the simulators during the pandemic. That also gave a boost to i-racing esports.

“Having something from Sharper Sense for either drivers to train or actually compete, where there’s lots of money on the line — and this can be a really excellent tool to help those just get that little subtle edge,” Neeb said. “A 10th of a second, 100 millisecond can make a difference, right?”

Accelerator details

The accelerator curriculum has workshops on fundraising, sales, marketing and branding, product/market fit, mental health, company culture, and working with corporations. The startup founders will meet seasoned founders who will share their insights on building and selling highly successful businesses. In the future, each company will have the opportunity to work at Comcast NBCUniversal’s Central Division Innovation Center in Atlanta at Truist Park, which overlooks the Atlanta Braves stadium.

Kurath will lead the startup teams as they work with mentors and business units throughout the program and beyond, and as they seek deals or proofs of concepts with Comcast, NBCUniversal, and Sky brands. At the conclusion of the program, the companies will participate in a virtual Demo Day on May 26 and present their businesses before some of the world’s leading venture capitalists, startup founders, business executives, and media.

The winners:

  • Ane Swim, a William Pleshette Company, in Atlanta, Georgia. The company designs advanced swimming apparel for diverse swimmers and aims to eliminate the barriers that keep people from enjoying the water. The flagship product, Ane Swim, provides hair protection and the ability to keep hair completely dry so swimmers can enjoy being in the water.
  • Dibz in Toronto, Canada. For event venues that have unsold seats, Dibz provides a text messaging solution for guests to instantly upgrade their seats.
  • Eon Media in Toronto, Canada. Eon Media makes a full-featured suite of next-generation video-streaming software with 60-70% cost savings and zero code change that can bring customers targeted, user-personalized experiences via advanced AI/machine-learning methods.
  • GlobalM in Geneva, Switzerland. GlobalM provides professional streaming solutions in broadcast quality to media outlets and broadcasters featuring an advanced secure video streaming network to meet the requirements for high-quality, low-latency live or file-based video delivery over the internet.
  • Nvenue in Dallas, Texas. Real-time predictive analytics designed for fan engagement, nVenue’s AI/ML software delivers powerful play-by-play predictive insights to fans before each play.
  • Safety Skin in Cleveland, Ohio. Safety Skin develops and sells reflective skin and body care products to help cyclists, runners, and others prevent accidents and improve roadside safety.
  • Sharper Sense in New York, New York. Sharper Sense develops a neural interface that enhances athletes’ perceptual ability, leading to improved awareness and reaction times during training and competition.
  • The Sonar Company in San Antonio, Texas. The Sonar Company uses proprietary ultrasonic tone technology to transmit and receive data, interactions, beacons, and messages between devices in locations where traditional wireless communications are impossible or impractical.
  • StreamRecap in Los Angeles, California. StreamRecap builds video solutions for teams, leagues, and streamers across all esports, with a focus on instant automatic highlights and coaching tools. It has a connection with Riot Games’ League of Legends tournaments, with a focus on high school- and college-level competitions. It could also expand to coaching tools as part of a suite for esports teams.
  • XiQ in Atlanta, Georgia. XiQ develops smart devices that replace the conventional key ignition on most non-automotive vehicles, including golf carts and construction vehicles. The devices enable security, fleet IoT, and mobility sharing solutions to alleviate the transportation challenges facing many communities today.

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