Technology Insights
5 min read

Sports Tech Meets AI: A Conversation with OnTracx Co-founder Kristof De Mey

For this interview, we had the privilege to sit down with Kristof De Mey, a key player in Sports Technology, Innovation, and Business Development.

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April 24, 2024
Technology Insights
5 min read

With a PhD in sports physical therapy, Kristof serves as the innovation manager at Victoris, Ghent University's sports innovation hub. Supported by UGent TechTransfer, he connects academic research with real-world applications. Kristof's extensive network in sports technology fosters collaboration across sports, health, and tech sectors. As the program manager at SportUp, a Flemish accelerator for sports start-ups, he advocates for research institutes' active involvement in practical innovations, recognizing the importance of relevant networks in shaping the future.

In our conversation, we dive into the exciting world of sports innovation with Kristof De Mey. We explore how technology and data analytics are changing the game for athletes and teams. We also discuss the challenges and opportunities in using these innovations to boost performance, prevent injuries, and transform the sports industry. Kristof's insights offer valuable lessons for leaders and innovators looking to stay ahead of the fast-changing sports tech landscape. 

Could you share more about your journey? What inspired you to start with all of this?

I transitioned from working in applied roles to becoming a sports physical therapist in Brussels and Gent. The shift to academia was a tough decision, but my passion for understanding what works and doesn't work in aiding athlete recovery led me to pursue a PhD while still doing applied work. Eventually, an opportunity appeared to blend science, business, and communication as an academic business developer. Over the years, I've evolved organically, staying curious and open-minded, transitioning from physio to researcher to academic business developer, and now, a part-time entrepreneur.

What current innovations in the sports world are catching your attention?

There is immense potential for generative AI, extending its application from consumer contexts to professional and amateur sports settings. In regions like Flanders, where the demand for well-educated coaches is increasing, there's a notable gap in the availability of such expertise. Many youth coaches, though motivated, lack formal coaching education. 

Here, generative AI could revolutionize coaching by integrating principles of coaching techniques and sports science, for sure in those countries dealing with a lack of well educated coaches. Its impact could exceed professional sports, with implications for various sports-related fields.

As it evolves, generative AI is mainly utilized for content creation, including videos and blogs. However, I believe that there's a promising trajectory towards its integration into sports health and science domains. This transition could mark a significant turning point in using AI's capabilities to improve coaching effectiveness and athlete performance across diverse sporting contexts.

"In the sports world they don't invest as much in digital tools and coaches as they do in players and sponsorships."

Have you noticed certain sports that are already acting on it?

Some people are already experimenting with AI, using tools like GPT to create e.g. marathon training programs. While these programs aren't perfect yet, they're showing promise to further personalize classic non-adaptive running schemescompared AI-driven training adaptations are also gaining traction, but there's a catch. Current systems often can't adapt to unforeseen circumstances, like sudden illness or extreme weather.

This is where AI could step in. Take the Start To Run app, for example. It's popular and certainly valuable, but has a high injury rate. By using various data sources, AI could personalize these type of training plans, making them safer and more effective. The potential societal benefits, especially from a health economics perspective, are significant.

To better serve these runners, they also need good data. Which is also important in the sports world. How significant is the role of data and analytics in transforming the sports world?

Digital transformation is reshaping sports, especially on the business side, like professional soccer teams. The focus now is on connecting with fans and providing personalized experience. It's interesting though—this move to digital is happening faster in business than in actual sports activities. Even among pro teams, they're not investing as much in digital tools for coaches and trainers as they are in players and sponsorships.

But at the end of the day, it's all about the fans. They're the ones filling up stadiums and bringing in the money. So, it makes sense that there's a big push to digitize the whole fan experience and get the most out of it. After all, sports are all about entertainment, especially when it comes to the big leagues.

How do you see predictive analytics being used in sports, both for professional athletes and regular individuals?

It's pretty much the same idea. Many companies are figuring out what data they need and how it's useful, especially for things like preventing injuries or finding talented players. While the technology is getting better, predicting injuries raises e.g. ethical concerns. 

These systems can assist in managing a player's workload or signaling potential issues. The key is the relationship between people—the player, coach, physio—and the technology. It's not just about numbers; we need to listen to the experts too. Sometimes, companies forget to involve users early on, which can lead to disappointment.

To really succeed, we should start by listening to the folks on the ground and gathering feedback to show that what we're doing adds value. This feedback isn't just about making better algorithms; it's also about making sure the technology fits well with how people work. It's all about teamwork and listening if we want to make technology work for us in sports.

"The world of sports is like a jungle. Anyone can bring anything to the market."
Sports, Insurance, Banking, ... you name it. Let's make your Trend Board, today!

Which seems to make sense.

It makes sense, but how it often goes is that three young guys start a sports tech company, are very ambitious, and they aim high. So what do they do without a lot of sales or a lot of scientific evidence? They try to approach famous teams and people. But it doesn't work that way. But that's more an entrepreneurial lesson to learn.

What advice would you give to those aiming to succeed in the sports tech industry, especially if they overlook the basics?

The golden rule in sports is to keep things simple. Most people just want clear instructions: what to do, how much to lift, or if they should change their training. It's all about being practical.

Then, there's another group who prefers making their own decisions; they just need the data. But the bottom line is: that simplicity is key.

The world of sports tech is like a jungle. Anyone can bring anything to to market, and there have been cases of false claims. Remember the Vibra barefoot running socks? They claimed to prevent low back pain but got sued because there was no evidence. This and similar cases have taught the industry some tough lessons.

Storytelling is crucial for marketing. It's what makes sports tech so appealing from a business perspective. However, as consumers, it's hard to know the quality of what we're using, from data accuracy to practical value.

Read more: Game On: The Technology Driving Resilience in Sports

There would be a need for a holistic framework.

As consumers and sports organizations, we're bombarded with offers from countless companies. Sure, they need to comply with regulations like GDPR, but that doesn't guarantee their tools actually have added value. So, we had our doubts and decided to take a closer look. With a 'Special Interest Group' on the topic, we studied the medical world and industry standards, and we came up with a framework based on 5 key pillars. It's not a one-size-fits-all solution for every technology or use case, but it helps us navigate this complex business landscape.

Sharing your experience offers valuable insights for others. Have you recently been inspired by others in your field? 

I attended an IOF-TTO Flanders event and found two interesting points. Firstly, there's a mismatch between the R&D roadmap in universities and industry. Ideally, they should align so universities do the right research at the right time. My role is to bring research to market, but some companies are already ahead. This is something I need to consider further.

Secondly, from a governmental perspective, end users aren't incentivized in innovation projects. While universities and companies invest time and share knowledge, end users like athletes often get involved without clear benefits and follow-up, sometimes then rejecting the final product. This disconnect needs addressing, as it leads to wasted resources and missed opportunities for everyone involved.

If I were part of a team, I'd also be skeptical of new innovation projects. It's unfortunate because the government ends up spending a lot of money trying to solve issues that could have been avoided. This highlights another aspect we should rethink in the future.

Disclaimer: This interview was conducted on November 17, 2023. Please note that some aspects of the discussion, particularly those related to specific roles and technology, may have evolved since the time of the interview. Additionally, the content has undergone light editing for clarity and coherence.