This is the first article of a series of blog posts in which academic spin-offs in sports tech are discussed and best practices are shared. For each of these articles, we conduct research into the spin-off’s activities and interview one of the co-founders in order to extract the key insights and lessons learned for the future.
For this first one, we spoke with Lode Goossens, one of the founders of Hylyght. Hylyght provides a talent identification platform in which a variety of test results can be implemented, benchmarks compared, and maturity and talent assessed. Aside from those features, Hylyght also provides injury prevention tools. The company is the continuation of a Ghent and Brussels University spin-off called SpartaNova.
Collaboration with research institution
Early spin-off process
Hylyght’s predecessor SpartaNova was founded in 2010 and focused on translating the research evidence on injury prevention, rehabilitation, and training & monitoring of athletes into an online tool for professionals and field practitioners. Researchers across different disciplines from the Ghent University and the Free University of Brussels collaborated on this initiative. During these times, little market research was conducted and the needs of potential customers had not been accurately mapped. As a result, SpartaNova’s problem-solution and product-market fit was out of context and, therefore, the company was rebranded taking the best elements from the past, but with a new team, technology, and business model. Throughout their first 10 years in the market, the current founders (who were employees during the SpartaNova activities) learned about the various elements which can make or break a research driven sport startup.
Translating research into a spin-off
Going from science to business is not the easiest thing to do. But let’s start with the basics and make the difference between fundamental and applied research. The latter is the one that can possibly be converted into a spin-off, whereas the first one serves as the solid foundation of the academic knowhow being gathered. When researchers want to convert the insights of their applied research into a product or service, it is important to accept the resulting trade-off. Although the product and service can and should still be evidence-based, adjustments will have to be made to meet the market demands. Usually, these types of adjustments are found on the level of usability, design, integration level, etc. In short: the aspects that are often neglected by the research experts.
The key lesson here is that knowledge within a certain academic research discipline is something totally different from creating a technological solution for a particular user group within a certain market. The better individual researchers are aware of the fact that end-user needs, product usability, and market potential could & should be taken into account if they want to create a technological solution for particular sports. As a result, they maximize the chance that they actually create something valuable on the basis of their scientific insights, at least when the creation of a spin-off is on the table.
Going back to Lode from Hylyght. What is (according to him) the main difficulty in bridging the gap between the research world and the industry? Market insights and having a network of partners! Although it is often not that difficult to see how particular research insights could improve specific practical issues within sports, it is often more complex to evaluate in which product or service this should be done, and whether or not potential customers are willing to pay for it. With the experience of SpartaNova in this domain, Hylyght now has a network of partners that they were lacking in the beginning. This network consists of both research and industry partners so that they have an accurate understanding of the whole field. The startup was also part of the SportUp Start program, which consists of the 12-month program of the university-linked accelerator imec.istart, offering high quality support to innovative startups with extra support on top when related to sports science and innovation.
Continued collaboration with research
People and organizations from various backgrounds (academic, industry, and practice) can be of much more value to each other than they often think. Hylyght also sees the importance of staying connected with universities and research disciplines. In addition to this, the tools created by a spin-off can also be used by researchers in order to attain even better results and insights with their work. Consequently, this can lead to an improvement of the spin-off’s product and service again. Furthermore, academic spin-offs are a great in-between entity to translate the specific industry needs towards the research community, thereby creating new project ideas for both fundamental and applied research.
Lessons learned for both researchers & spin-off entrepreneurs
1) When conducting research, look at the needs in the field and talk to people who are already offering solutions in the market within your specific area (even if they might seem too commercial). 2) Besides academic validation, also seek end-user validation of your work early on in the process. Conduct in-depth market research and seek out partners that can map the industry needs and connect with potential users and customers, even though it is not always easy to find the financial resources for this. 3) Once the idea has become an actual spin-off, maintain the connection with the university and research partners so that benefits can be created for both sides. 4) Conducting research and launching a spin-off are both risky but in totally different ways. Don’t underestimate the role of intra- and entrepreneurship as an academic, and don’t underestimate the value of science as an entrepreneur.
As has often been said, bridging the gap between research and industry is not an easy task. Spin-offs are trying to do this in practice and thereby gaining a lot of valuable insights. With STRN, we try to combine these insights and find the right partners so that more research can be converted into practical solutions and so that the industry could more easily develop evidence-based solutions that are effective in what they’re trying to do.
If you are interested in learning more about Hylyght and its talent identification platform or the possibilities of injury prevention, you can always contact Lode. Hylyght is currently expanding in other countries in Europe as well. For all other STRN-related questions, you can find us here.