Bridging the gap between academia and the sports tech industry

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For scientists or budding entrepreneurs with the next big idea in sports tech, the road from conceptualization to product can seem perilous, with many pitfalls along the way. To stand a chance at getting your research out of the lab and into the hands of athletes, it’s essential to start off on the right foot. Read on to see how the collaboration of scientists and sports tech development experts is helping this unique ecosystem in Belgium to flourish.

Sports tech ideas on the shelf?

Personalized sports tech is an innovative and ever-growing industry. The sports wearable devices market size alone is estimated at over USD 90 billion in 2024 and is just one of many examples of personalized sports tech that can influence how athletes train, compete, and recover from injury.

Products aimed at helping you improve your performance and recovery time include GPS-tracking sports watches, heart rate monitors, advanced data analytics platforms, and adapted nutrition, among countless other innovations.

However, many ideas start life in university academic research labs with only a minor focus on commercialization possibilities. The challenge of navigating the convoluted commercialization pathway makes this situation worse. As such, most ideas never make it to market, meaning athletes miss out on potentially revolutionary advances.

“There’s a lot of research out there that is ending up on the shelf, and more and more companies need research for their product development. There’s still a large gap between academia and industry,” says Kristof De Mey, a sports technology and business developer at Victoris who acts as a single point of contact to bring together scientific and sports tech experts from within Ghent University and beyond.

“There’s a lot of research out there that is ending up on the shelf” – Kristof De Mey, a sports technology and business developer at Victoris 

Advancing sports tech development

Victoris is a consortium of experts in sports technology and innovation at Ghent University that aims to help bridge the gap between academic research, the sports tech industry, and end users while providing professional services, advice, or input to accelerate the commercialization of research projects. They also take a boots-on-the-ground approach to deliver direct services to high-level athletes, including elite rowers and football and cycling teams.

The approach is part of a larger strategy encompassing the Flanders region supported by the Industrial Research Fund, which provides proof-of-concept funding for developing application-oriented knowledge and technology. The fund supports the consortium of sports and business development experts at Victoris alongside similar initiatives in other domains and at other Flemish universities. It also provides ‘gap funding’ for projects that originate at universities and have the potential for later commercialization through licensing or a spin-off.

A helping hand for funding and innovation

However, finding funding for different stages of the process while aligning the outcomes of multiple funding streams like academic, entrepreneurial, and governmental sources can often be challenging. “It always comes down to who will pay the bill. If it’s research, who will fund the research? If trying to launch a spin-out, who will be the entrepreneur? Where will they attract funding?” suggests De Mey.

De Mey also highlights a potential disconnect between the academic and commercialization mindset, where the end goal is largely different despite the potential of both to converge into products for end users. “Trying to create a solution for a problem that people experience is something totally different to asking one specific research question on one specific topic.”

“Trying to create a solution for a problem that people experience is something totally different to asking one specific research question on one specific topic.” – Kristof De Mey, a sports technology and business developer at Victoris 

These barriers often mean that end users, such as individuals, teams, or federations, might not see a product materialize despite their essential role in the research and development process.

So-called boundary spanners like De Mey and Victoris bridge this gap by bringing complementary people and organizations together and acting as sounding boards for ideas for both academics and startups. One of their key roles is to advise, and the chance for entrepreneurs and academics to discuss their ideas with experts allows them to avoid the pitfalls of pursuing an idea or research question that is too narrow or has previously been unsuccessful.

A flourishing Belgian sports tech ecosystem

The Ghent-based experts at Victoris have helped over 30 innovation projects through collaborations with regional or international entities and have coached or aided startups in applying to local accelerator programs, including imec.istart.

Using the local network to its full potential to discover and nurture collaborations is key to this approach’s success. Having a finger on the pulse at the interface of universities and companies has also contributed to a changing mindset within academia, where people are starting to see the value in the eventual commercialization of sports tech research projects from the outset.

It has also attracted more funding by showcasing the potential of sports tech from Belgium and has broadened the outlook of industrial research to this sector. “Over ten years ago, almost no one was doing this. However, we were able to show it’s not only about large sectors such as life sciences, engineering, agrotech, food, or pharma. Sports tech is also a sector in itself,” highlights De Mey.

De Mey also aims to develop a more globally collaborative approach between initiatives similar to Victoris. “My ambition has always been to connect as much as possible with other initiatives and link up collaborations cooperatively with industry.” Another prospect for the future is to bridge the gap between different tech industries and create novel opportunities for all. “The other side where I see a lot of potential for the future is the gray zones between sports tech, health tech, and med tech, which often are in totally different ecosystems… I want to bring those different fields closer together and set up initiatives that can create impact for both.”

Advice for budding entrepreneurs

Overall, research scientists and entrepreneurs must consider a crucial mix of elements if their aim is to develop a product that will be successful with end users like athletes, coaches, or physiotherapists.

For any budding sports tech entrepreneurs out there, De Mey has four main points for success:

  1. Keep it simple

“Don’t create dashboards with ten features because there’s a very high chance that only one or two will be used, or your product simply won’t be used. It’s not true for all contexts, of course, but overall, I would say keep it as simple as possible.”

  1. Talk to people

“People in sports tend to be very open and collaborative. They will give you advice and link you up with other people.”

  1. Appreciate different perspectives

“Look at the product from a scientific perspective, end user’s perspective, business perspective, and product development perspective.”

  1. Have a proven product

“Make sure that the product does what it’s supposed to do.”