PlayerData has showcased and tested its wearable technology at the Homeless World Cup in Mexico, where the startup company was the official Sports Performance Partner.
Founded by University of Edinburgh computer science graduates Roy Hotrabhvanon and Hayden Ball with support from Edinburgh Innovations, the company supplied 150 of its EDGE units to the Mexico tournament, providing real-time performance metrics to the 40 teams playing over the week.
The Homeless World Cup Foundation empowers homeless people around the world to transform their lives through football. It was co-founded by Mel Young, who started the Big Issue in Scotland and holds an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh.
As two of only 14 students on their Computer Science & Electronics degree programme, Hotrabhvanon and Ball often revised together at Hotrabhvanon’s kitchen table. On one of these occasions the two started discussing electronic sensors. Ball’s aim was to track his heart rate, whereas Hotrabhvanon wanted to improve his archery performance. They decided to combine their ideas, and PlayerData was born.
“That’s where the business started and was based at for the first two years – my kitchen table,” says Hotrabhvanon, Chief Executive Officer of PlayerData.
Finding the edge
The kitchen has since been upgraded to an office in Waverley Gate, in the centre of Edinburgh, where neighbouring tenants include tech titans Amazon and Microsoft. “Hopefully we’ll take out this entire building one day,” Hotrabhvanon laughs.
In developing both their product and the business model, Hotrabhvanon and Ball have consulted sports coaches and drawn on their own sporting backgrounds – Hotrabhvanon picked up archery at university during Freshers’ Week in 2012 and went on to represent his native Thailand at the World Archery Championships in 2015.
While other wearable tracking technology does exist, high subscription costs put it out of reach for many. The pair noticed a gap in the market and aim to fill it.
Hotrabhvanon explains: “We’ve developed a model that allows the software to be used by less experienced coaches – so it’s much more user friendly. It’s a pay-as-you-go subscription, so everyone from pub kickabout level to grassroots to amateurs can afford it.”
PlayerData EDGE is the company’s first product. It is currently in beta-testing and has won some early adopters. With a small removable control module, it provides data on biometrics and performance. In Mexico the device measured how far players travelled in a match, players’ agility (calculated from acceleration data, which indicates how quickly an athlete or team can change direction), average speed and peak speed.
With their early-stage business idea, Hotrabhvanon and Ball approached Edinburgh Innovations’ LAUNCH.ed service for student entrepreneurs. A business adviser provided the pair with useful contacts, which had a ripple effect in helping them to network further and gain wider support.
“LAUNCH.ed also gave us a grant for just under £1,000,” says Hotrabhvanon. “We bought a 3D printer, which meant we could do prototyping in-house a lot quicker.”
This 3D printer also generated income for PlayerData, as they rented out spare capacity, putting the revenue back into product development. In doing so, Hotrabhvanon estimates that the value of the initial grant quadrupled over time. And the printer is still working to this day.
The company also benefitted from early-stage support from the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Scottish Enterprise.
Drawing from experience
Hotrabhvanon says the constant research and development “slog” can be tiring, but you just need the drive to get through it. “You’re working on 100 different little pieces and you don’t see the full product until you put it all together. So it looks like you’re doing nothing for six months and then suddenly you have something.”
Hotrabhvanon’s personal highlight has been gaining the backing of high-profile investors, including former Tesco Chief Executive Sir Terry Leahy and Mike Welch, founder of Blackcircles.com, who is the company’s Chairman. Their business experience has been invaluable to PlayerData.
“You have former corporate lawyers, former CEOs of global corporations. Someone who was actually in our position – Mike [Welch] – who started a company from nothing and then exited – bringing all that wealth around one table to draw from, learn from, and apply to your own business,” says Hotrabhvanon.
Having received advice from LAUNCH.ed, experienced business leaders and peers, Hotrabhvanon is now in a position to share PlayerData’s experiences with others just starting their entrepreneurial journey.
He recently delivered a masterclass to physics students at the King’s Buildings campus on the invitation of the School of Physics & Astronomy’s Royal Society Entrepreneur in Residence, Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne, Founder of Genius Foods. And the day after arriving back from Mexico, he gave a talk to the student Electronics and Electrical Engineering Society.
Roy Hotrabhvanon’s advice for budding entrepreneurs
Speak to support services
“Talk to LAUNCH.ed, talk to the Scottish Institute for Enterprise. Very simple. Definitely do that.”
Look it up
“It’s not as hard as it looks. You can do a lot yourself. Google it. If you want to do anything, just look it up. You don’t have to be an expert to do some of it. A lot of people fall into the trap of thinking they need an expert in this and that. But what you end up doing is outsourcing everything and you don’t understand what these people are doing for you. It means that when it comes to it, you have less information to run your business. You want to try at least to do some of it yourself. I’m not advocating for you to write your own legal documents, but you can do the basics.”
Don’t seek approval elsewhere
“When you’re starting a company, you can’t be driven by other people’s approval. It’s a lesson that a lot of people don’t learn. Because at the end of the day, you’re the only one who will drive your business. You have to get up in the morning and really want it. Otherwise it’s not for you.”
The above story is a version of an article originally published by Edit, the University of Edinburgh alumni magazine.