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Sportstech Is Booming Globally; Does Denmark Already Have a Secret Advantage?

@sebastian

Danish sportstech already has several successful startups leading the way as well as sports federations betting on technology and athletes ready to use it. All of this has happened without a unified, focused bet on the industry – but that might soon be changing.

Danish sportstech already has several successful startups leading the way as well as sports federations betting on technology and athletes ready to use it. All of this has happened without a unified, focused bet on the industry – but that might soon be changing.

Using state-of-the-art radar and data technology, Trackman is helping the stars of golf and baseball improve. Additionally, they have made three-digit million profits in recent years. The running app Endomondo secured 25 million users before it was sold for a quarter billion kroner – about 40 million dollars. And with a recent investment of 150 million kroner (about 24 million dollars), the company VEO is, with its intelligent camera, well on its way to becoming a worldwide leader in its field.

Anne Mette Trier, Head of DIF Innovation Lab.

Beside their successes, the three Danish companies have another thing in common: they combine sports and technology. And they are far from the only guiding lights in the emerging industry in Denmark. That does not mean, however, that they all come from the exact same ecosystem.

Despite the industry’s strong position, there is still no unified initiative or association for sportstech in Denmark, as is the case with robotics and fintech, for instance. But that may be changing. DIF Innovation Lab was launched in 2017 to unite companies, start-ups, sports associations, athletes, and universities around sports technology. The enterprise believes that it is a benefit to both companies and sports life if cooperation can be achieved across stakeholders.

“Our vision is to make Denmark the Nordic capital of sportstech. And we fully believe in its growth potential. We have a position of advantage that just needs to be utilized,” says Anne Mette Trier, Head of DIF Innovation Lab.

DIF Innovation Lab gives start-ups the option of validating their sportstech concepts with real users. DIF helps companies connect with various sports associations, which can then provide access to association members, as well as coaches and volunteers. The goal is to give Danish companies a larger share of the international sports technology market – here with an export delegation to ISPO in München.

An Industry Growing Explosively

The sportstech industry is not only on the move in Denmark. Companies are also seeing the potential of mixing sports and technology globally as well.

The latest numbers from SportsTechX, which specializes in data and analytics in the industry, shows that in the first half of 2021, more than 5 billion dollars were invested in sportstech start-ups globally. That is more than what was invested in total each year in the previous five consecutive years. At the same time, rounds of mega-investment have become increasingly common; in 2021, there were 14 investments in start-ups exceeding 100 millions dollars. For comparison, 2020 saw 10 rounds of that size overall.

That is why this is the perfect time to start taking interest in sportstech, says Carsten Couchouron, who has a long career in various sports association, agencies, and events behind him. He started in sportstech a year and a half ago with Sports Lab Copenhagen, where he is applying 25 years of experience from the sports industry to help improve commercial opportunities in sportstech, as well as drawing on his international network to give Danish start-ups a chance of connection with the rest of the world.

“Things have happened very quickly over the past 3-5 years. We already have some impressive success stories in Denmark, and I see no reason Denmark and the Nordics shouldn’t be global frontrunners. With strong companies and organisations, we have many reasons to regard our position as incredibly advantageous,” says Couchouron.

With over 200 Danish start-ups working with sports innovation in various ways, he sees a strong base with potential for becoming the next beacon of sportstech. And combined with a range of strong actors - including the Sports Confederation of Denmark, DGI, the University of Southern Denmark, SportsHub Denmark, and of course Sports Lab Copenhagen itself - also seeing the potential of the industry, a robust ecosystem is already in place. The various parties just needs to be tied even closer together.

Sports Lab Copenhagen was started a year and a half ago as a meeting ground for sports entrepreneurs. At the same time, their aim is to inspire the next wave of innovation and tech entrepreneurs in sports by organising joint activities and initiatives with the University of Southern Denmark (such as workshops, co-creation projects, and collaboration models). This will form part of the seamless entrepreneurial pathway from student-entrepreneurs to international scale-ups.

Outthink, Not Outspend

Danish IT firm KMD started its foray into sportstech in 2017. This was when Frans Hammer was hired as chief consultant on the area, having been a handball coach for several league teams, as well as for the Italian national team. And now that the first years of the enterprise have passed, he sees great new opportunities for businesses, which also motivates innovation for the rest of the company.

“This might turn into something of a NASA-project for us. In sports, everything is gambled on being just that one-and-a-half percent better than the competitor. While it might not be directly transferable to the municipalities, we also work with, it might create some technological perks that can be used elsewhere in the company,” says Hammer, who today is Advisory Director at KMD.

But for Hammer, it is not only the business of sportstech that is of interest. He is also a part of the management of the Danish Olympic Commission and is newly elected Vice Chairman of the Sports Confederation of Denmark, where sports technology is also one of his key interests. He believes that, from a sports-oriented perspective too, Denmark has much to gain by implementing technology this way.

“We need to think about digitalisation in elite, wide, and social terms, and how we can innovate in sports with technology. I would argue that Endomondo has done more to combat inactivity than most Danish sports associations have. And us in the elite will have much better ground in international competition if we open our doors to data and technology,” he says.

“When a small nation like us has ambitions of Olympic medals, or of competing in the best football leagues, it is a given that we cannot challenge our opponents economically. For instance, the Italian national football team has more employees than the entirety of the Danish Football Association,” says Hammer.

We nevertheless win more Olympic medals than our population size suggests, and FC Midtjylland has managed to qualify for Champions League as the smallest club in the league’s history. Hammer believes this is a sign of our tradition for working smarter than others - and technology is the strongest weapon in that arsenal.

“FC Midtjylland is a fantastic example. They have used technology and data to figure out their own secret advantage. And subsequently, they chosen to fight where they had the greatest shot at winning. In popular terms, it is not about outspending the other party, because we simply don’t have that edge. Instead, we need to outthink them - and technology may be the answer to that,” says Hammer.

Frans Hammer, Advisory Director i KMD, part of the management of the Danish Olympic Commission and newly elected Vice Chairman of the Sports Confederation of Denmark.

Gather the Building Blocks

The first commercial beacon in sportstech is already shining bright, and the sports world is ready to embrace these new solutions.

The Danish Gymnastics and Sports Association has also since 2018 been involved through ‘DIG Impact’. And even though the larger sports organisations - both the Sports Confederation of Denmark and the Danish Gymnastics and Sports Association - have ambitions more directed towards sports than towards entrepreneurs, Jacob Breddam, who manages DGI Impact, sees nothing mutually exclusive about the two areas. Quite the contrary - he believes that all the conditions for creating a successful enterprise for both sports and commerce are in place. All that’s needed is a stronger joint effort.

“That is our goal with DGI Impact: gathering all of us in a vertical ecosystem, where everyone working with sports innovation are gathered, and where we can agree on who will be doing what, so we don’t have to re-invent the same wheel. The work with other actors has started as well, and the goal is to give sports innovation in Denmark a strong ecosystem with a one-stop-shop,” says Breddam.

He would rather see a joint effort to make Denmark the field leader worldwide rather than many efforts to determine who will be field leader in Denmark only.

“If we want to be the sportstech hub of the Nordic region, we need to cooperate across the board. We already have some experiences from various actors that we can build upon, and we are now applying them in the preliminary work to find structure and the right ways of cooperating. Because this will only succeed if we all join up and agree on what needs doing,” says Breddam.

Since 2018, DGI Impact has been involved in the industry by annually selecting 4 to 8 start-ups to receive a total investment of two million kroner (300.000 dollars).

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