Spin-offs in Sports Tech #8: Springbok Analytics
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This time in our series about academic spin-offs in sports tech, we’re focusing on a very exciting company called Springbok Analytics. We interviewed Silvia Blemker, Co-Founder, and Savannah Benusa, Director of Strategy and Operations, to find out about their key insights and lessons learned so far.
Springbok Analytics has an AI-powered platform that transforms MRI scans into 3D analyses of muscle. With these analyses, they are able to provide objective insights to inform physicians, physical therapists, athletic trainers, and scientists. These insights are then used for the benefit of injury management, performance optimization, or the treatment of MSK conditions.
Collaboration with a research institution
Early research & findings
Springbok Analytics grew out of a research project in 2010 at the University of Virginia. Prof. Dr. Blemker & Prof. Dr. Craig Meyer were looking into ways to help pediatric surgeons better target certain muscle groups for children with Cerebral Palsy, a neuromusculoskeletal disorder where patients can exhibit decreased muscle strength, range of motion, and muscle spasticity in accordance to decreased muscle size.
Through MRI imaging, analytical techniques, and 3D muscle modeling, they were able to accurately quantify individual muscles for each patient. It wasn’t long after, that they discovered that the application of these methods could be extended to many other use cases. This is when they brought on their third co-founder, Prof. Dr. Joe Hart, to look further into how their methods could be used in other domains as well. Using funds from the National Science Foundation, which supports translational research so that it can be implemented in practice, they continued their studies with different populations and were able to create a normative database for muscle volumes.
Throughout their journey, they’ve received significant funding from the National Science Foundation after these initial positive results. With this, they could create the commercial side linked to the research outcomes. They also received funding from the University of Virginia which they could use for further commercialization. In conclusion, Springbok Analytics’ research findings & commercial potential were so interesting that they were able to secure a lot of non-dilutive funding once the company was established.
The spin-off process
Because of Prof. Meyer’s experience, it became clear to them that they had to patent their technology and bring it to market. Dr. Blemker hadn’t really considered creating a start-up before, but as soon as the potential became more clear, it was obvious to go that way to create a bigger impact with their findings.
As with any spin-off, there were a lot of negotiations with the university during the early-stage process. According to Dr. Blemker, it’s best to untangle from the university as quickly as possible. As a professor, it can be quite difficult to combine the work at a university and at a start-up company. Although there is a lot of synergy and overlap between the two, lines can become blurred if the company is too closely linked to the university. However, Springbok still has good connections with the university. For instance, engineering students get to work on innovative projects at Springbok, which is still a win-win for both parties.
Finally, Dr. Blemker also shared with us during the interview that the incubator space which they were offered at the university appeared very valuable for their spin-off. They received quite some support and advice while staying there and were introduced to many other spin-off entrepreneurs, advisors, investors, etc. as well at the time. This opportunity appeared to be a great way to have resources that can be shared across different ventures that need technical equipment.
Bringing the technology to market
As mentioned earlier, the application potential of accurately quantifying muscle is very broad, as it can be used on different populations with different problems. Generally, the applications can be divided into 2 key categories. First, there is the whole injury management process. In this case, the process is usually as follows:
MRI Analysis & 3D Imaging
AI algorithm to understand the baseline and the current muscle volume
Create a rehab/physiotherapy/return to play program
Follow up on muscle volume & adapt the created program if needed
The 2nd category of applications is positioned within the performance optimization area. Historically, athletes & care providers used to wait until there was an injury and only then would they perform an MRI. With Springbok Analytics’ technology, experts can now look at ways to minimize risk and reduce overuse injuries. Normative data depending on the age of the athlete or their chosen sport can be considered as well to provide even deeper insights.
Of course, Springbok keeps expanding their technology to provide the experts with what they need. Some experts want exports from the 3D scans, for instance. Other experts rely entirely on the executive summary that is created. Springbok Analytics also integrates with Athlete Management Systems (e.g. Smartabase) to make it even more accessible. Every user has different needs & desires when it comes to the amount of visualization they need. With their tool, however, it is very handy for researchers or experts to provide easy-to-understand feedback to trial participants or patients.
As a next step, they’ll be looking at quantifying even more tissues, such as scar tissue, tendons, and more. Besides that, the algorithms and the normative databases they have created, become even more accurate when more partnerships are established with hospitals, researchers, sports clubs, and sports federations.
The 1M dollar question: taking the sports or the medical route?
In our fifth article with GaitUp, we’ve written extensively about going the medical or the sports route to market. It’s an important choice to make early on and something that many sports/health tech start-ups & spin-offs need to deal with. For Springbok Analytics, this was no different. This question came up very early on in their journey, and they decided to start in the sports field because the barrier to entry is lower. Eventually, they’ll move on to FDA regulation, and because of that plan, they’ve also been very careful with the claims they’ve made about their technology.
Dr. Blemker & Dr. Benusa mentioned to us that this choice is very specific to each spin-off/start-up. Going the medical route takes a lot of time & money. They decided to hold off on this and set themselves up slowly so that once they want to go that route, it will be more seamless. Dr. Blemker added during the conversation that there are also a lot of nuances to consider with FDA approval. What something is approved for specifically, for instance, is very important to be aware of.
As a result of this focus on the sports community, the team has also looked deeply at how to make information understandable. Consequently, their technology now is of large benefit to researchers and medical experts who do want to use the technology, mainly because they have been focusing a lot on the user experience (probably much more than in case they would’ve gone the medical route right from the start).
Key lessons learned for researchers & spin-off entrepreneurs
Springbok Analytics is a clear example of how innovative research can be brought to market and create an impact in different domains, such as sports & health. Dr. Blemker & Dr. Benusa shared a few other relevant points & learnings for researchers or professors who are having similar ambitions:
When you’ve been in academia for a long time, it’s crucial to incorporate a business mindset early on. In the case of Springbok Analytics, they brought on Scott Magargee, CEO, who had a lot of experience with business development. As a technical person, Dr. Blemker mentioned, you just don’t have that experience and it takes time to build that - time that you almost never have as a spin-off or start-up company. Additionally, they received a lot of advice from many people, but without Scott, they wouldn’t have had someone that actually puts in the time & energy to analyze the different business aspects for their specific case.
Dr. Benusa mentioned the importance of looking at each potential market from different perspectives. Each market can offer unique value in terms of revenue, credibility, or technological development opportunities. Looking at both the quantitative as well as the qualitative factors and finding a balance depending on the stage you’re in is key. For Springbok Analytics, this means being scientifically minded but also appealing to the general public at the same time. Those who succeed in doing this, increase their chances for success.
Finally, Dr. Blemker explained to us the importance of the academic environment. So far, the tenure system hasn’t really promoted spin-off creation by researchers. For a younger researcher who’s working at an institution that doesn’t support or value the tech transfer part as much, creating a spin-off can be a significant risk to their academic career. In the end, says Dr. Blemker, it’s very rewarding but it’s important that the institution is supportive if you still want to be active in academia as well. Aside from this caveat, we concluded with the message that creating a spin-off or engaging in more tech transfer activities results in building a broader skill set, network, etc. which in itself leads to having a broader impact in the field without limiting yourself in setting up innovative research projects (something which is supported by recent academic commercialization research as well).
If you’re interested in learning more about Springbok Analytics and its muscle quantification technology, you can contact Scott Magargee, CEO. Their solutions can be used in the sports field, as well as in medical and research fields.
For all other STRN-related questions, you can always find us here. Stay in touch!
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