Spin-offs in Sports Tech #5: Gait Up
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This is already the fifth article in our series about academic spin-offs in sports tech. This time, we spoke with Patrick Pestalozzi, Managing Director, and Fabien Massé, Director of Technology & Engineering at Gait Up. Gait Up combines sensors, algorithms, and biomechanics to provide world-leading motion analysis.
The team at GaitUp focuses on the performance of wearable devices and collaborates with partners that focus on evidence-based motion analytics, rivaling the accuracy of legacy motion labs with real-life convenience.
Collaboration with a research institution
Early spin-off process
The Swiss Gait Up was founded by Benoit Mariani in 2013 with the mission to revolutionize sensor-based analysis with meaningful metrics and accuracy of the highest standards. Benoit was a PhD student and research assistant at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. After his research in the Laboratory of Movement Analysis and Measurement (LMAM) at EPFL with Kamiar Aminian (a leading professor in motion sensors), Benoit started working on Gait Up by licensing the IP of his own research.
From the beginning, Gait Up maintained its link with the research world. They started working in the lab of EPFL and also received initial funding from Switzerland focused on early-stage startups. EPFL has a clear program for spin-offs and agreements around IP, a crucial aspect for spin-offs to succeed in the early phases as outlined in our fourth spin-off article. The strong tech network in Lausanne - known as ‘the Olympic capital’ - also helped Gait Up in the early stages to connect with the right partners.
From 2013 to 2017, Gait Up improved its solutions and successfully grew its customer base. They then attracted interest from MindMaze, which eventually acquired Gait Up in 2017 to integrate its motion analysis solutions into the MindMaze VR platform. From 2019 onwards, it became clear that Gait Up would slightly change its direction, moving stronger towards the healthcare industry.
In 2020, Benoit started to work on several other projects, while Patrick & Fabien joined the company to support the transition towards healthcare. It is important to note here that spin-offs can best reassess the opportunities of their solution and adapt their company accordingly. This is exactly what Gait Up did. Consequently, they have moved into the healthcare industry with its precise motion analysis, while still having close ties with the sports world as well.
Continued collaboration with research
Besides growing and being acquired, Gait Up closely maintained its ties with the scientific world. They have partnered with more than 20 universities and they share PhD students with EPFL and the Lausanne University Hospital. According to Patrick & Fabien, they gain and keep the competitive advantage on the algorithm level by staying close to research.
Gait Up’s solutions have been validated in more than 500 publications, a great example of one of the benefits of closely collaborating with science. Motion analysis (in wearables) tends to not always be accurate, so Gait Up clearly differentiates itself by being accurate, backing this up with extensive validation research.
Furthermore, they also collaborate on non-validation research projects. In these projects, the goals of the research team might be different from those of Gait Up. In these types of cases, IP rights usually do not seem to be a problem because the goals are clearly different. For most topics, Patrick & Fabien told us, Gait Up starts from the market needs and then looks at the research that is already conducted at universities, which limits the amount of university-industry IP discussions.
For many startups, collaborating with research might often seem attractive. However, our discussion made clear that it is key for the startup that the research in itself is beneficial in some way. It is easy to take on every research project in order to maintain the ties to research, but if the benefits don’t outweigh the effort for the spin-off, then these collaborations won’t be feasible in the long run anyway.
Thanks to EPFL, Gait Up received great academic support from the start. As mentioned before, EPFL has a structured program designed to support spin-offs in a long-term manner. As for all spin-offs wanting to take a smooth start, it is recommended that Tech Transfer Offices are flexible at the beginning stages of the spin-off creation in order to give them the opportunities to grow. Revenues might not come immediately and market-fit might only be found after several iterations of the original idea.
Bridging the research-industry gap
Besides the flexibility of TTO’s, a strong local tech network is also very helpful for researchers to take the leap to the industry. What about collaborations between research partners and companies? On this one, Patrick & Fabien believe that it is crucial to set clear objectives from the start. This will enable both parties to have adequate expectations and will prevent future conflicts.
Before entering into a collaborative research project, however, both the company and the research institution need to be clear on the actual intended impact of the research. Plenty of research projects only lead to new publications, while product/service improvements for the targeted audience could be created as well along with the research. Naturally, not all research has to have a practical use, but the assessment of which research projects will or could result in such use can be improved. This is the precise area in which STRN intends to be of value.
Sports science solutions & healthcare
The starting point
Because of the precision of Gait Up’s motion analysis solutions, the company was able to move into the healthcare industry. The medical field requires certifications, whereas the sports science field often still doesn’t. With the acquisition by MindMaze, Gait Up had a very good partner to make it possible to move into the healthcare direction. MindMaze is a digital neurotherapeutics company and has been active in healthcare for years, so the company could leverage its knowledge and experience, again accelerating its market growth.
When (not) to do it?
Clearly, HealthTech/MedTech is a growing field and a behemoth of an industry. Consequently, many sports tech spin-offs might want to consider adapting their solution to this industry as well. Turning a non-medical venture into a medical one, however, is a very difficult process.
First of all, it takes much longer to validate products in the medical space and it requires a heavier investment. Second, there needs to be a market for the solution as well in this (new) field. Third, the solution needs to be compatible with other medical devices before it will actually be adopted. And finally, medical expertise (usually through collaborations with medical experts) is required to succeed.
How to go about it?
Here is some further advice based on our conversation.
When the medical market seems attractive for a spin-off, it is important to start working towards it as early as possible. If the financial means are there, it will still take a long time before the solution will actually be on the market in the medical space.
The other advice for new ventures in this context is to start small & focus on something that is very important and specific in the medical world. Validating several different use cases would take too long and would be too expensive. Each use case in the medical world needs to be assessed separately, so it’s usually not feasible to tackle multiple issues at once in the beginning. This is important to realize for people who aren’t familiar with the medical hardware and software development processes and regulatory frameworks.
Importance of validation in sports science
So although Gait Up has broadened its scope into the healthcare sector, they are still very much active in the sports field as well. For instance, their algorithms were used at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
With a sharp increase in wearable devices and sports tech apps available on the market, validation is obviously a crucial factor to determine which product or service to use. Therefore, it makes sense that sports tech companies with clearly validated solutions might have an edge in the upcoming years. Perhaps in the future, products that are validated in the MedTech market might, therefore, be more easily adapted to the sports field as well, especially when applied in a sports medicine and sports science-minded context, as is often the case in high-performance environments.
Key lessons learned for researchers & spin-off entrepreneurs
From all of the above, it is clear that Gait Up is a beautiful example of a successful spin-off. Here are some key lessons for current researchers or aspiring spin-off entrepreneurs which Patrick & Fabien were happy to share:
- Always conduct market research and look at the target user before diving into creating a solution. Create a business case and collaborate with business people who have experience in validating spin-off ideas.
- Ideally, the early team consists of a duo of a business person and a scientific/tech person. In order to succeed, there is a lot of work to be done, besides the initial idea and the specific algorithm/product. It needs to be marketed in the right manner!
- Build long-term relationships with research partners. Once your idea takes off, it isn’t smart to cut the connections with universities & researchers. Quite the opposite - it is better to stay in close contact so that you can further expand on your edge.
If you’re interested in learning more about Gait Up and its motion analysis solutions, you can contact Patrick for all commercial types of questions and Fabien for all things tech. Their solutions can be used in the sports field, as well as in the healthcare and research fields.
For all other STRN-related questions, you can always find us here. Stay in touch!
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