Sport Tech Hub London: scaling tech startups to get people active

Sport Tech Hub is about empowering and scaling early-stage tech startups to encourage more people to live a physically active lifestyle.

Sportageous caught up with the program manager of Sport Tech Hub, Patrick Colbeck to discuss new starts up and entrepreneurs, FitTech and SportsTech and innovations during and post-COVID19.

Sport Tech Hub logo

Zushan Hashmi: Tell us a bit about yourself, your story and how long Sport Tech Hub been around.

Patrick Colback: I’m the program manager for Sports Tech Hub. I’ve been in the tech, innovation and startup industry for around five years now. I started off far more of technology working with the likes of MasterCard on biometrics and the future of finance and companies.

The future of autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles, all the way through to working on things like the Olympics, or PNG, and stuff like that. Following the experience, it gave me a broader understanding of technology.

I moved into the startup sphere. Here I worked with a company called uCreate, which was a venture build, being the fastest growing one in the UK at the time. It gave me a real understanding of the founders’ needs - ie. How to work with startups, the approaches that we need to put in place and taking an idea, all the way from concept through to seed investment. That was really, really useful.

My passion for sports and supporting founders aligned perfectly with the opportunity to join Sport Tech Hub arose. I’ve been here for the last two years supporting ventures, working with founders and helping them grow, scale and thrive.

In terms of the organisation, Sport Tech Hub was set up in 2017 as a means to use innovation to get people more active. The CEO at the time of London Sport saw a huge realm of opportunity to link technology, physical activity together to create impact and get people more active.

Since that time, we’ve worked with directly with 36 startups provided over 3600 hours of mentoring support, helped them raise over 4.2 million or 300k each, and created 42 pilots between the private and public sector. So Sport Tech Hub really acts as the gateway between innovative ventures and public sector organizations.

So this could be local fare of government organizations, NHS trusts, charities, anyone really has a link of a physical activity landscape Sport Tech Hub is involved with.

We’ve got quite a unique take on SportsTech, instead of focusing on, like many organisations, the elite and the media and entertainment side. For us, it’s all about finding the most innovative and best ways to motivate people to be active and really change and shape society.

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To summarise Sport Tech Hub, getting people active, or working with startups that enable people to get active is your key focus. Tell me a little bit about that?

That is our key focus summed up really, really well. A few years ago, we spotted an opportunity in the sector, noticing that SportsTech was emerging and growing out of its infancy.

But not much support was happening on the grassroots end, or at the end that was actually helping people become more active. Inactivity, for example, in the UK costs around eight billion a year as a huge societal issue.

Recent stats have shown that every one pound invested in physical activity brings a four-pound to the economy, so it’s well worth doing. That was really why we decided to focus along this line.

Also, as we’re powered by London Sport or run by London Sport. As we’re a part of London Sport, we already had all the connections in the London landscape and connections to national governing bodies, local authorities, and it’s that trust because of this already established network.

It was far easier for us to leverage this network to help educate upskilling on technology for benefits of how you can link tech to get people more active.

That has always been the real core sort of the Sport Tech Hub program, ie. opening up the startups to the public sector and introducing them to that area. The program is, however, just a small part of Sport Tech Hub.

Recent stats have shown that every one pound invested in physical activity brings a four pound to the economy so it’s well worth doing. That was really why we decided to focus along this line.

We offer several different key services as well, such as writing co-write reports, in fact, we recently worked for SportsTech firms to produce the first European city-focused sports tech report, which was on London. We run boot camps for early-stage ventures, they are people who are all from idea through to getting their initial users.

We also are interested in doing funding bids with people to create more impact. One of the key things that we’ve delivered recently has been our startup SME database, which is a comprehensive list of ventures that use technology to get people active.

This has been a huge success in the industries. We’ve had loads of different bodies use it to quickly to filter search for technology and find a solution they need. Instead of being bombarded with different emails trying to figure out who the best approach is.

I guess you could look at us from the public sector perspective. We’re there to kind of filter out and provide people with best possible solutions to get people active. We’re there to support innovation, accelerate it and help us scale.

Your program structure has changed since you first launched, tell me a bit about that?

We operate in a niche, and we are now further hyper-focused on technology that gets people active.

So it’s a much smaller arena. But it means we can add a lot more value to and nurture the startups. Previously we used to operate as a six-month incubator program. We were always thinking that we can do things better, but we were just waiting for the right time, to be able to enhance our services.

What we wanted to do is create something that was much more founder-friendly and focused on the venture and startup. I think as innovation programs, often we fail to innovate. We see time and time again, people plugging away on the same models might not be what’s best for the startups.

We want what’s right for the industry and how we can have an even greater impact on getting people active.

Because really, our whole remit is making London the most active city in the world and using technology as a means to make that happen.

To do this. First, you take a design thinking-led approach. We interviewed several founders and asked them what they were looking for, what would be their dream setup for a program, what could be the best kind of situation and what deal we can offer.

Based on this information and insight, we now have applications open all year round for the program. What this means is that founders can apply to join at any point and we will work with them to find the right time for them.

We’re there to double down when the best part for us to give had the greatest impact and the highest chance of generating more pilots and successes. What we’ve also done is differentiate from other incubators and accelerators. It’s no secret most incubator accelerator programs give people the same support across several key structures and pillars.

Whether this is on product strategy, or pitching and marketing, finance, legal, comms or HR. Most startups have been through it and understand it. Often if they’ve been through another accelerator, they don’t need to be retold these things.

They’re often babied, and we’re not in the process of doing that. Instead, what we’ve done is created a menu-approach where founders can pick the expertise that they want to learn or get information from. For example, it could be that there’s a hole in your marketing brand or brand strategy.

We will set you up with a brand strategy expert who will be able to talk you through these things to implement and give you some of that time to be able to advise you on this approach. On the flip side, it could be completely geared towards industry knowledge, which is also an area that we thrive in.

So we would be able to surround you, help you understand and measure track impact, and provide you with the right industry network to be able to keep growing. So our support is very much tailored to the individual.

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Because of this, we know what we do well, and we believe we have to educate every founder on this. This does include things such as the knowledge of the physical activity landscape. Another thing that we’ve changed is that we always now focus on problem owners.

We really recruit based on problem owners for the innovation program. So this could be a national governing body or a facility or a series of facilities across London that are looking to be revamped and changed into a place where people can be active throughout COVID-19 and continue to, if they want, leave home to embrace physical activity.

Pretty much like the gym methodology before. When you’re in the gym, you’ll be active because you’ve gone out of your way to get from A to B. We’re in that situation, we can do a call to action and look for innovation. Startups that have the ability to transform spaces into virtual playgrounds or new ways to get people active.

Sometimes we’ll meet a great startup but it won’t be the right time because we won’t have a pilot or product in place to link them up with so sometimes we’ll wait until we can get a perfect storm.

So this could be transforming a library into a future of technology where you could have startups with interactive games, or it could be as simple as having TVs in them at livestream sessions and creating booking platforms that enables what happened and just sorting all those startups around one problem.

Being able to carry that through to make sure we’re having real impact. One of the last stages or changes we made as well was moving to a stage-agnostic program. By this, I mean that we work with everyone. We understand that support is very different, but don’t worry, that’s where our bespoke support comes in.

We are there to give the right support to you to create the biggest impact and we’re here to work with the best, most innovative, interesting startups.

What is the reasoning behind this change?

So the reasoning behind the change I thinks I’ve kind of mentioned, is that innovation programs usually fail to innovate. We don’t want to be seen as one of those organisations who aren’t moving with the times.

Creating a model which is flexible with the founders in mind, this was our core reasoning behind it. The other one is that we want to have a greater impact in London.

By moving to this approach, it means we’re much more in charge of the startups that are coming in, much more selective of the support we can provide them, and also how we can create the best deals for them to have real societal change.

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How do you think it’ll better cater to what you envision for startups in your program? How do you play the role of the intersection point between startups, the public sector and the private sector?

Well, as I said, we’re not babying startups, we’re here to provide them exactly what they need to know and understand.

Our alumni network offers regular kinds of events, meet and greets and other services so that even when they’ve graduated from the program, they’re still able to get support and meet people. So I think it will better cater by creating greater impact and by being more supportive of the founders.

Leaving them with a better experience and understanding how we fit into the sector and how we act as a gateway for the UK for them.

We also don’t believe in cohort models, and we believe in recruiting founders at the right time for them. We bring in a new bunch of founders every month, if applicable, to be able to solve and tackle soft challenges.

Sometimes we’ll meet a great startup but it won’t be the right time because we won’t have a pilot or product in place to link them up with, so sometimes we’ll wait until we can get a perfect storm.

Until everything perfectly aligns where we are able to give them what they need for pilots, what they need and link everyone at just the right time.

Who are some of the partners and mentors that work with you? And what do they bring to the table, for startups that are a part of your program?

The Sport Tech Hub could not exist without its partners and mentors. These are instrumental to our business. Mentors and partners are what makes Sport Tech Hub great. We rely on them to be able to tap into their knowledge, expertise, and they’re so generous.

To be able to help small tech thrive and tackle one of the world’s most global pressing issues especially as we move into a second wave of COVID-19, physical activity has never been so important and creating ways to engage everyone is central for us.

Some people just hate sports, some people hate the idea of running for 5k but some people love the idea of training for a zombie apocalypse or something completely different. It’s just breaking the norms of physical activity and creating this right for everyone.

Sport Tech Hub is by London Sport, and our two main partners are Fieldfisher, a global legal law firm and our other main partner is Loughborough University London. Fieldfisher has an insane and immense amount of legal expertise, particularly in the sports world.

They’re able to advise our startups on everything such as fundraising to just legal tax advice. Everything that they need to know from that standpoint, and they offer support to our startups during a program, which is of huge value.

We’re also looking at doing more viewing around corporate wellness to come as well. Then to be piled with Loughborough University London which is a global leader in sports, who offer world-class lecturers to be able to educate and provide expertise and insight to our cohort members.

It also gives us access to a student base to be able to test run pilot ideas and collaborate with them to create real change. We don’t really believe in passive partners. We want partners who understand our mission-aligned to it and want to get the world to be happier and healthier, and Feldfisher and Loughborough do that perfectly.

On mentors. You see, I’m not sure I can name anyone because I’m going to feel bad if I start doing that and people might tell me off for leaving them out. I can tell you that we rely on our mentors because they are always at the heart of this sort of program.

They bring a level of support and knowledge that exists outside of the hub. These guys have their own networks, connections and experiences which is so valuable for startups. I think it is essential for any innovation program. It should be centred or built around mentors’ expertise.

We’re so grateful for them. They all work with us on a yearly basis. Some of them keep going year after year. We’re always on the lookout for more mentors who want to get involved, help us find build and now help us develop coach and enable more startups to thrive and be successful.

In terms of mentors, they have industry knowledge, industry experience and investment experience. They don’t need to have it all free but if they have any of these experiences that they can pass on, give back and help other people thrive doing what they love to do and supporting someone else’s passion, we’re always so grateful for that.

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We are probably amid one of the most challenging times in history, and in the context of fitness and keeping healthy, due to lockdowns, lack of sporting opportunities and so on. Has this in any way changed how you do what you do?

I completely agree with you. We are in an immensely challenging time right now and our world is completely different especially the fitness and health landscape compared to how it was even a few months ago, especially when we’re looking at a second lockdown, but the world has changed drastically.

And the fitness and sports industry have to adapt to it. One of the great things we’ve seen is that London Sport continuously published COVID guidance for clubs, facilities and startups all online. So that’s always great to look at from that avenue.

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What’s been really interesting in this time, is that there have been a few key changes. For example, the use of digital data and technology has completely grown and arisen.

This has actually been really good from advancing technology standpoint, as especially things like VR and AR have come much more into play. I’m talking wider than just fitness and sport right now.

But this has also been seen in the sport and fitness program. We’ve seen the normalising of video, webchats,  how we interact and how you have the ability to get active from home.

You know, whether you use an app, whether you jump on the bandwagon with the likes of Apple fitness, whether you’re just working out by yourself, or whether you’re using things like the Nintendo Switch to get active.

There are loads of new ways and means that people can now work out from the comfort of their house. So in terms of what we do is we use COVID, to be able to reflect on our product and build something new.

What we’ve actually done completely new this time is making our program virtual, which I think it’s going to have its values, but there’s part of me, which is sceptical as well. I firmly believe that you learn more from being in person with a course than doing it online.

But that’s where I think moving away from traditional workshop environments and much more towards one-on-one conversations is a better way of learning virtually. So that’s what we’re trying to do more of at the Hub.

Really, it’s just been normalising the use of digital to activate our community, advise them on what is best to do, what the best procedures are, and how to try and keep our businesses going in this challenging time.

Many of them have been able to pivot digitally, which has been fantastic. But there’s been a huge amount of them who are participating in sport and this has posed some real challenges for them.

One of the biggest things that we’ve done in this time is to use this as an opportunity for the physical activities sports sector. Instead of looking at it as a detriment, what we’ve got is how can we support people’s health and wellbeing during COVID.

We launched our startup and SME database, which is a database containing roughly around 100 ventures but have the ability to get people active through technology. Basically, we have tried to support clubs, coaches and organisations all the way through to supporting individuals.

I think what’s been great is that fans have been embracing this and we can turn this into an opportunity. Previously Sport Tech Hub and how it was run would have been a bit of a barrier for founders working outside of the UK in London.

In this new approach, we are able to work with founders from all over the world and bring the best technology to the UK to get people active.

What we are trying to do is the positioning of technology as saying that, yes, what it is or means of convenience, but it is a means to better people.

If I had a start-up that fit the ‘mould’ of what Sport Tech Hub focuses on, why would I want to join your program?

I think it’s simple. If you’re a European salesman, you’re looking for a gateway into the UK market or a way to link to the public sector, educate them and upskill them and get people active.

Then we’re the perfect people to go to. No one else is really doing what we do, and providing them with a public sector network and helping them tackle and make a real difference. We’re here to help with everything such as positioning network gateways and expanding their horizons.

You also get amazing mentoring and the support we provide is completely bespoke. We’re there to fit around you and your needs, and make sure that you can thrive and get the support you need at the end of it.

You get a chance to make a difference. We’re here to support startups that are ambitious and want to change the world. That’s really why we do what we do. You get to join a fantastic community. We’ve got an amazing, cool bunch of quirky people, founders, mentors, and entrepreneurs.

It’s such an amazing group to be part of. Everyone’s so friendly, loves to get to know each other, and you get to hear about everyone’s different stories, how they make a difference, and ultimately all of us work together to get people active.

This has ranged from some of our guest speakers or from Olympic champion athletes, getting their advice on how to tackle resilience and entrepreneurship, all the way through to experts on the innovation and landscape in the UK.

If you want to have access to the network if you want to fast track and start meeting people to expand and create impact, it is the perfect place to be. We also have friends everywhere. Many of our startups have even greater impact across the world through our connections and stakeholders.

So it’s a really close-knit community of people that we bring in, expand your network and get you opportunities.

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What do you envision for the future of Sport Tech Hub and why?

AWe offer so many more services to now support other people. As we continue to grow, we’ll be able to have even greater impact and that’s it.

We have a centre for physical activity and technology and linking them both together. We have the ability to help governments across the world, bodies everywhere, advise them and be seen as the figurehead for physical activity innovation, but also for a benchmark of what people have to look for and what we have to compete against.

Our future focus is to create even bigger impact and work with more and more organisations to be seen as that body that leads on innovation in this space. Whether that could be opening hubs all over across the world, or as being a central data point.

Really, we’re just here to keep getting everyone more active, helping anyone who has the ability to be more active and advising them on it. As I say, we’ve already worked with loads of incubators and accelerators to get the right technology through, and we want to keep doing that.

Having more impact and being a figurehead or a body or a thought leader for innovation and physical activity.

There are a few technologies, which are obviously going to play a big role. A few of the coolest things that we’re seeing coming into SportsTech have a role of how you can work out best at home. And this could be everything from the smart mirror. So the likes of a company that Lululemon acquired, all the way through to the continued rise out of likes of Apple fitness and Peloton is at home.

Workout classes that motivate people to be active. So that’s going to play a huge role, we’re going to see increased personalisation thanks to the use of AI, and creating new ways to send data to get people active. I think one of the coolest things in the future would be a free gym that is powered by your data.

I think that’s something that’s really interesting. I honestly don’t understand how it’s not around already. We’re going to see also rise of wearables focusing on individuals’ health.

New generations are much more health and well being-conscious as well and understand the true benefits of physical activity, especially how it links to mental clarity as well. So people taking ownership of their own health, wellbeing and their own data as well.

We’re to be able to make better decisions on how to be active. We’re also going to see a rise in the gamification of physical activity, especially translating from the athletic side to the grassrots.

Technology is there to assist you and help you on that journey but you have to create a clear purpose on why you want to be active.

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Kinza Tahir assisted in the curation of this article. You can follow her here on Twitter.

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