A Bavarian unicorn

The German sports data startup that's moving into the billion-dollar league

Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Chris Andersen
On the winning team. Source: AP

This century, every winning move that your favorite athlete makes — be they a basketball player, a footballer or a soccer star — can be recorded and analysed. For example, the sportsperson might be wearing a sensor embedded in their uniform, which can measure their movements — down to the centimeter.

One of the world leaders in measuring this kind of action is a Munich-based startup, Kinexon. The firm has developed a system of sensors and analytical software to measure humans and machines in action and supply the results to coaches, athletes, TV broadcasters and factory managers alike. The company, which has captured 50 percent of this kind of high-tech business in the NBA and counts the basketball teams like the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs among its clients, is valued in the triple-digit millions.

But now thanks to new plans to cooperate with German software giant SAP, Kinexon could soon be moving into another league. According to Handelsblatt’s sources, new products, based on technology from both SAP and Kinexon, are to be announced this week. Initially the new products will be used by German premier league soccer teams. As a result the company’s optimistic owners predict a new valuation in the billions, which would make Kinexon one of those statistical rarities — a privately held startup worth over $1 billion — known to tech investors as a “unicorn.”

Opel, Siemens, Blackstone

SAP, Kinexon’s new partner, is already in the sports-data business: For the last five years, it has partnered with Germany’s national soccer team. SAP “video cockpits” offered an unprecedented array of information to coaches and players.

As for Kinexon, it seems to have been doing everything right, regularly posting growth figures over 100 percent. Kinexon’s founders still hold a majority stake but the advisory board includes former Siemens and Opel executives, and David Blitzer, co-owner of several sports clubs and managing director at investment fund Blackstone.

When it comes to sports data, there is much more to come, says Oliver Trinchera, co-founder and CEO of Kinexon. “This market is in its infancy,” he told Handelsblatt.

Founded in 2012, Kinexon’s earliest clients were sports broadcasters. Mr. Trinchera and his business partner Alexander Huttenbrink got the idea after visiting a sports arena in 2012. Everyone wanted to know how far the players had run on the soccer field that day — but to find out, staff had to physically measure their steps on a television screen. It was “expensive, personnel-intensive, slow and prone to mistakes because so much was done by hand,” Mr. Trinchera explains.

Today, most processes have been automated. And there’s also a lot more competition in this sector. Impect, founded by former soccer pro Stefan Reinartz, has several European soccer teams as clients. Beyond Sports, a Dutch firm, concentrates on virtual reality technology and Munich’s Simi Soccer specializes in high-speed cameras. Britain’s Opta Sports is among the world’s best-known sports stats producers.

Forklifts, not football

This does not appear to worry Mr. Trinchera and his colleagues. They actually believe that Kinexon’s potential lies elsewhere: in industrial software applications. Tracking components in complex manufacturing and logistical environments may be less glamorous than counting game-winning assists, but there are a lot more forklifts than soccer games in the world.

For the Kinexon CEO, the shift from sport to industry is obvious: “Real time analytics will be the basis for optimizing and automatizing processes in production and logistics.” The firm says its sensor technology will soon integrate analytics with control, allowing drones and autonomous transport vehicles to be managed directly from its interface.

The company is already working with a large car manufacturer that has used their analysis to speed up assembly lines. Online retailer Zalando is another client.

German industry’s sights are set on computerizing processes, something that is often referred to as Industry 4.0 here. “In order for that to happen, you need to know exactly where, and in what condition, things and people are,” Mr. Trinchera explains. Instant feedback from Kinexon sensors means that in the future, companies will be able to anticipate problems before they happen, as well as eliminate waste, he boasts.

Axel Höpner is head of the Handelsblatt office in Munich, focusing on the state of Bavaria’s companies, including Allianz and Siemens. To contact the author: hoepner@handelsblatt.com

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