This Health Surveillance Tech For Athletes Could Come To An Office Near You

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I’m jumping as high as I possibly can, and not doing a very good job of it.

In the pale-brick office of Blue Run Ventures in Menlo Park, Calif. a startup called Kitman Labs is changing the way professional sports teams measure the risk of injury to their athletes. What’s exciting (and some may say alarming) is the potential for their technology to migrate to offices, to eventually measure the health profiles of regular people like you and me.

For now they’re sticking to sports, and people who can jump higher than 20 cm when they need to.

It could just be my shoes, or more likely my being out of shape. I can’t get higher than the threshold necessary for Kitman’s data-analytics tool “Capture” to actually scan my joints and muscles. On the other side of the room is a Microsoft Surface tablet plugged into a Kinect, which scans and displays my silhouette as it hops on the screen.

The chuckling sound from my right is coming from Kitman’s founder and CEO, Stephen Smith. Seconds later his jump registers at 48 cm and in the process of putting me to shame, it also gave me a demo of how Kitman’s technology works.

Smith’s silhouette immediately switched to a page of graphs and numbers, one of which showed that there was a discrepancy between his left knee and his right knee. That sort of detail isn’t relevant to Smith but it would be to a football player.

Today more than 20 different professional sports teams in the worlds of football, baseball and rugby are using Kitman’s tech to monitor the health of their athletes. The combination of a mobile device like the Surface, 3D scanning tech of the Kinect and Kitman’s real-time analytics tool means that NFL teams like the Miami Dolphins and baseball teams like the Tampa Bay Rays can monitor their athletes several times a week instead of a few times a year.

Kidman collects data comes from a range of sources: the arm and leg movements that players do in front of its scanner, for instance, as well as data from specialist wearable devices made by companies like Catapult, STATSports and Zephyr.

There are plenty of sports analytics companies in the market today, including Retrofit and Vicon Analysis, but most involve a lengthy trip to a lab a few times a year, while Kitman’s scan can take 30 seconds. Teams can carry them out as frequently as they like.

For athletes, it may be a little disconcerting to learn their managers are getting a far more frequent and intimate look at their biometrics. “There are definitely some [athletes] where they’re like, ‘Wow this is happening,’” says Smith.

He insists that Kitman isn’t there to make athletes more anxious about getting benched. It should instead help their coaches and physiotherapists avoid career-ending injuries before they happen.

The jumping scanner, which is still in beta and yet to be verified against standard testing tools, can reveal significant correlations between the mechanics of how a person jumps and their risk of injury, says Smith.

The changes in ankle, knee or hip inflection which can suggest stiffness and a looming injury can be so subtle that the human eye can’t notice that something is wrong. “We can tell them exactly how different the degree is.”

Screenshots of Kitman's analytics software (Image via Kitman Labs)

Kitman claims its Profiler and Capture tools have reduced injuries in professional teams by 10-30%. Statistics like that, if maintained, can have monumental consequences during professional tournaments.

During the 2015 Super Bowl between The Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots for instance, it’s arguable that Ravens lost 31 to 35 in part because 18 of their players were injured during the game.

Could the Ravens be the current SuperBowl Champions if they were healthier? I think so,” says Smith. 

Smith founded Kitman with college friend Iarfhlaith Kelly, who he met after studying at Ireland’s Institute of Technology, Carlow. Smith majored in sports and exercise rehabilitation while Kelly studied computer science. Years after they graduated Smith went on to work for professional rugby team Leinster, in Dublin, as a sports scientist specializing in injury prevention, before doing a masters on predictive injuries. 

As he played around with sensor data and started correlating the performance of players on the field with their injuries, it became clear that software could help measure when someone was getting into a risk zone.  

In 2010 he contacted Kelly to find out how much developing such software would cost. “The team I was working with wouldn’t be able to afford it,” Smith remembers. “We’d have to make a company out of it.” The duo founded Kitman in 2012, basing the early software on Smith’s research.    

Over the next three years and with the help of a grant from the Irish government, they developed Profiler scanning system and an analytics feature called the Analyser, which they used on Leinster and then a handful of other Irish rugby clubs. Their big break came in the summer of 2014 when Smith was introduced though his contacts to John Malloy, co-founder of Blue Run Ventures in Menlo Park.

“I thought they were neat,” says Malloy. “I didn’t meant to invest, [but] as I saw their story and saw how they improved the health management of professional rugby players I thought ‘You should try to push this.’” 

That July, Kitman closed a $4 million funding round led by Blue Run. Malloy also convinced Smith to move to Menlo Park, where he now oversees a team of six while retaining his engineering staff of 21 in Ireland. Kelly left the company last July to “seek new opportunities.”

Today Kitman Labs has sold its software to 20 professional sports teams, mostly in the United States. Typical contracts last a year but Smith says he’s had a handful of renewals in the last few months for three-year contracts. Revenue in the last quarter was up four-fold on what Kitman made in 2014, and Smith hopes to be profitable in the summer of 2016. 

“There’s huge scope for this to be way bigger,” says Smith. “It’s not entirely about sports but optimizing humans.” The health problems people pick up from sitting at desk all day aren’t so different from those that hit athletes, he adds.

You talk about a pitcher and you talk about repetitive strain. Why is that different to someone sitting in a chair at a desk who has build-up and overload, that makes them miss work or makes them less productive?”

Smith’s client base of professional athletes aren’t just the foundation to his company’s growth. They’re a test bed for how Kitman’s evolving technology could be applied to a wider base of regular people like me who can’t jump higher 20 cm.

It’s common for new technology to find a niche in early adopters before trickling down to mainstream users, says Ilya Fushman, a partner at Index Ventures in San Francisco, which isn’t an investor in Kitman. “When you start a company it helps to have a well-defined audience. You want to find that beachhead.”     

Blue Run’s Malloy admits the idea of athletes being guinea pigs for the rest of us is “pretty provocative.”  

“I think of them as pioneers,” he adds. “They’re the first humans who’s health we’re going to optimize. It’s a great test bed for the future of regular people.” Malow adds that injury-analytics startups like Kitman are part of a “quirky niche” that are actually on “the leading edge of healthcare.” 

Already a number of large, self-insured employers in the United States are using software provided by companies like Jiff, Fitbit or Jawbone to monitor the activity levels of their staff. The goal is lower health care costs as well as more productive employees. Such companies would probably see themselves cutting health care costs further in the long run if they could better detect injury or illness among staff.    

Right now Kitman is keeping its focus in the world of professional sports, which is in itself transforming thanks to an array of emerging analytics tech and more data-driven strategies that emulate the Moneyball story. 

But Smith has been doing his research. “Twenty-five percent of insurance claims are muscular-skeletal based injuries,” he points out. If things go his way, insurers and employers could eventually get the same kinds of insights as professional sports managers.

Parmy Olson

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