Martin O'Reilly CEO & Co-Founder Output Sports
19 Jul 2021
Gordon D’Arcy, Brand Ambassador with Brightwater is in conversation with Dr. Martin O’Reilly, CEO and Co-Founder of Output Sports.
GD: Good afternoon, Martin, really good to speak with you. We’re going to have a good chat about sports and the technology that goes on behind it. So really looking forward to it. Obviously it’s something that resonates quite strongly with me. There wasn’t an awful lot of technology at the start of professional rugby but it was absolutely smothered in it by the time I was coming out. So really interesting to see how Output Sports are adding to that. So, Martin, it might be a really good place to start at the start and give us a little overview of Output Sports and maybe where the concept came from.
MOR: Absolutely, thanks a million Gordon. It’s really great to get the chance to speak with you today. In terms of where Output came from, we’re from University College Dublin originally and we’re an interdisciplinary team of sports scientists, physios, but then engineers and data scientists as well. Our kind of mission is to scale that top level of sports science and technology that you would have experienced towards your later playing days, to a much wider audience than previously possible. What we’ve developed is a single sensor, it’s about the size of a matchbox and it can test and track many components of fitness and also modulate and measure training as well. So, all of the off-field stuff that you do in the gym like strength and conditioning and physio therapy then as well if you’re unlucky enough to get injured and need to return to play safely and effectively. A few of those things like balance, strength, power, jump height, the way you move when you’re in the gym and so on and that data helps inform coaches how to make the best decisions to improve their athletes’ performance as they prepare to go out and play rugby or any given sport.
GD: I assume one of them is the vertical jump. When I started, that was the belt you tied around your waist where you had a cable connected to the floor and you had to jump. You always had lads who were thrusting their hips through to try and get an extra couple of centimetres on the jump. Is that sensor now attached to your foot, your hips? Where would something like that go and what is the biggest score you’ve seen?
MOR: Ah, yes, there’s great progression in technology there. Our sensor is literally just a wireless unit that’s paired up to a mobile app. It goes on your foot and measures your jump height with the same accuracy as those old school devices that would be super accurate but quite cumbersome and messy and obviously one thing as well, they could be easily cheated with certain techniques. Athletes always try and find a way to do that. It’s as simple as putting it on your foot and then, we have Rugby 7 users and sprinters. We’ve had people jump as high as 85 centimetres which is incredible.
GD: Oh, that’s not bad. Ian Madigan was always a man for finding a nuanced way of operating in grey areas. I think I had a PP of 82 or 83 so nice to see. One of the few things I was good at. I might be shorter but I was bouncy.
MOR: That’s class!
GD: What kind of clients are you working with at the moment?
MOR: We kind of work on two levels. On the one hand we work with the likes of the English football team, the MLB teams, NBA teams, Limerick hurling, and most importantly for this conversation, Leinster Rugby as well. But what’s actually interesting beyond is that pro sports area that we work with universities, schools, gyms and clinics because really what we’re about, is making, at the top level, the process much more portable and kind of scalable. But at the other levels, they may have often relied on subjective assessment to give them quickly and effectively the data that you need to understand the athletes’ performance and make the right decisions for them. So it’s kind of across that board but we sell to sports practitioners, so the sports scientists, the physios and the S&C coaches.
GD: So a very accurate decision support tool in a lot of ways, collating all those data points and processing it in a way to help them to understand what’s happening in front of them.
MOR: Exactly and from the point of view of what the tool is, we always think of it as like a Swiss Army knife. You’re never going to need to measure the 150 things we do at once but if you have somebody coming back from an ankle injury, it might be about balance and flexibility and then into our strengths and power but it’s that personalised approach for each athlete as well.
GD: Yes, I think we’ll talk about the actual use of data later on in our chat but that is something I suppose we struggle with at the inception of data points honing in on what was the useful data and what wasn’t and how long it’s taken people or even just the way they process that but we’ll come back and have a talk about that.
GD: In 2020, Output Sports won, I think it was a Nova UCD Innovation award, is that correct?
GD: And then a UCD Community award in 2019, the Dublin Regional Award and the National Award, I hope I have that right, for the Best Young Entrepreneur. Awards are great and everything, I suppose for the team, it must be hugely validating for them but how important is it for you guys to be recognised like this? How important is it for your team to be recognised with awards?
MOR: Yes, I think it’s actually one of those things that I think is quite similar to sport. On a day to day basis you’re not sitting there at all thinking about winning awards or what you’ve done in the past. It’s all about what are you doing next and how can you create the most effective route forward. When you do look back, it’s obviously first of all, great for the moment in time and the memories and certainly for the parents’ approval rating for what you’re doing and that type of thing. But also then, awards from when we were doing research probably helped us get the funding that helped us then commercialise. Winning awards during that period probably helped play a part in validating what we do to move to the next level so I think they do have an importance but they’re certainly not what we’re setting out to achieve or do on a day to day basis. It’s much more important to have the right objectives for creating something valuable for our end users.
GD: Yes, it’s funny and it is exactly the same as what you do in sport. You’re a product of what you do on a daily basis and if you stay focused on the mission which is delivering the best possible version of Output that it possibly can be, there will be recognition along the way because the vision is correct. I suppose that the parallel for sport is that you don’t worry about the result, you worry about the process and if the processes are good enough and strong enough, the result will take care of itself.
MOR: Yes, I think that’s a fantastic way of thinking of it. Likewise with sport as well, it’s always a great moment for the team when you do win the awards with all the hard work and processes that you put in place and all the learning and iteration and tweaking that you do. Yes, exactly, it’s always about what’s next and where can you take this?
GD: This is obviously quite a technology rich environment, it’s multi-disciplinary but what sort of technologies do you work with? In such a technology rich environment, what technologies does Output Sports work with?
MOR: It’s kind of twofold in terms of the type of technologies that we work with. There’s what we use to develop Output and there’s what we use to manage the company and grow our business. On the tech side, we use sensors like accelerometers and gyroscopes. We use a lot of signal processing and machine learning and then cloud based technologies and app development technologies and so on. On the business side, in the Covid era, it’s been a lot about communication and management so the likes of Slack for communication, Airtable for managing projects and Jira for mile-stoning and planning out and monitoring the tech development. There’s really no end to it and something that we’ve recently found really valuable is using technologies like Amplitude that help us understand how our users use the system so we can reinforce the strong value points and further develop into those spaces to make the system better and better.
GD: I’m sure there have been plenty of challenges with the Machine Learning aspect of it but once you’re able to train the algorithms to get into their flow and you’ve ironed all the kinks of it, that’s the value proposition of it, isn’t it? Once your Machine Learning is up and running but there’s a time period and R&D, that iterative effect, there is no shortcut, it’s time.
MOR: Exactly. The datasets that allowed us to launch our first product last February took the guts of 7 years to create, 2 PhDs, being in the bio-mechanics lab week on week, synchronising the data you get from the web with the much more expensive laboratory-based tools and that allowed us to create Machine Learning algorithms that effectively continued to learn and learn how to be more and more accurate like those lab devices. What’s an interesting challenge is that we would have hundreds of athletes pass through the lab and some of them would have been top level like Leinster players and others would have been recreational athletes but when you put a product out into the real world, you get even more variability and even more types of people using it. You’ve always got to make sure that the system is learning everything from those Olympic sprinters jumping 80 centimetres to a beginner athlete jumping 10-15 centimetres in a very different technique and that’s actually really exciting for us. It means that you’re continually making the system more robust and seeing it used further and further afield as well.
GD: And again, validating that once you’re taken out of the control, everything is fine until it’s not. I’m sure there must have been some anxiety when you’re giving it to someone else and you’re not at the wheel and you’re just going “I hope it works” even though you know, you’re a scientist, you’ve built this, and you know it works but there’s still that natural human aspect where you’re going “oh god, I hope this works”.
MOR: Yes, I think that’s such a fair thing to say. I remember in 2018, myself, Darragh (Dr. Darragh Whelan) and Julian, (Julian Eberle) the co-founder team, we were putting our first prototype app out with pro-sports teams. It just had four measurements at the time, it was really just to get feedback on the interface and even though we’d developed those algorithms for literally years, just the thought of putting it out there and seeing people using it, it was like Julian giving his baby away, I think, (that’s our CTO). It was such a learning experience as well and it continues to be, day to day with our community. Absolutely though, it’s such a transition going from a laboratory to the field.
GD: It’s funny, I don’t think anybody has developed any technology to remove the human condition from any of these businesses. I don’t think there ever should be.
GD: Technology is, sport is embracing technology and the natural competitiveness of sport is, and again we’re going back to the early 00’s the teens, 2010 – 2012. GPS, the heartrate of that was pretty much the only datapoint we had. Everyone was super concerned with it but we didn’t really understand what the information was telling us. Now that’s par for the course. How far do you see technology integrating with sport?
MOR: I think it’s like really that type of thing where you can generate so much data and then the more and more value you can truly extract from it, the more and more valuable it becomes. With the likes of GPS as an example, it’s just amazing to see the value and application of that data. Originally it was like who’s running the fastest and who’s running the furthest and now it’s right down to position specific, drills and tweaks to people’s rehab programmes based on who they are, their programme and their history of data. It’s because it does take time with very different types of experts like the sports scientists, the S&C coach, the player themselves getting that data and interpreting it. It takes so much time to iterate it and improve it. I think it’s continuously improving and simultaneously there’s never been more of an appetite for performance data. If I go out for a cycle, I’m tracking all my stats. If I’m in the gym, I want to track all my stats and that’s really where Output comes in. We’re a system for what are often the missing pillars of performance; strength, power, movement that obviously you would have tested a lot in your day but many athletes were kind of guessing or they know what they’ve put on the bar but are they moving it quickly, that kind of thing.
GD: Yes, I’m smiling as we’re discussing this, as you’re talking there. I remember Donnacha O’Callaghan as we were doing the warm-up doing all these steps at really fast speed. I was there going, “what are you doing?” and he’d wink and say, “getting my metres up” for the stats board.
MOR: Well, our old research group were a very competitive bunch. We’d be guilty of the same thing ahead of a tag rugby match which is a lot less professional but it’s the same mindset.
GD: Yes, another colleague got caught out because he put his heart-rate monitor on his dog. And the coaches were asking “did you do all your training?” and he said “yeah, yeah, I did all my training” so they said, “well, you’re technically dead because your heart went to 230 beats per minute”.
GD: Let’s talk about how and where you got, I suppose, your journey going back to when you were in primary school and into secondary school and PhD. That, in itself is a phenomenal achievement. Do you think there is enough support to push, for everybody, for women in STEM, into sports and exercise and into engineering? Is there enough support along that road and has it grown or has it evolved as you’ve gone through the channels and then looked back? Is there enough support in the education system for both sports and technology?
MOR: When I look back on my own career journey thus far, I think I’m very lucky in the sense that I do feel that every step along the journey, in school, through university, into internships and into the PhD and now into the commercial world, there’s really been a great set of mentors and experiences that have helped me get where I am. As an example, in school, I was really passionate about problem solving, physics and maths and there were chances to do additional study in that space, competitions in that space and with sport likewise, there was always the chance to play more matches or travel and experience more. That kind of led me to mix my passion for sport with problem solving. That was really nurtured then through university and through the PhD by great mentors and great opportunities to work with people that are more experienced and experts.
I’d have many friends the same age that have been less lucky and taking a really kind of complex and meandering journey to get to where they are in their careers and now they’re very happy and there’s absolutely no issue with it. I’d always be a great fan of anything that can help people, find what they love, nurture, learning about what they love and ultimately becoming capable of creating something or working in an environment where they’re really really happy and invigorated. Because that’s certainly how I feel and I know that I’m probably quite lucky. The more and more people and more and more supports that can make that possible, I think is a great thing.
GD: Yes, I look back on my time in secondary school and I always had one eye on the rugby posts out the window so thank goodness for sports. Sport is a discipline that attracts people into the environment. That would always have been the road for me. Had it not been professional sport for me, it would have been something similar. I probably didn’t have the aptitude for maths but the strength and conditioning. It is starting to embrace the support of people who have that interest in sport. The recognition is that now sport is a global business.
MOR: Absolutely and I think just in the Irish context, it’s really exciting to see the new P.E curriculum coming in and the chance to actually take Leaving Cert PE as an examinable subject. It just actually gives people, beyond that experience of what I had of playing sport and getting the chance to talk to my coaches about what’s going on here and that sort of thing, to actually get some really solid education at a young age to help kind of say, “is this part of the direction that I want to go down”. I absolutely agree that all of those diverse experiences you have of playing sport, meeting people, and your education all kind of help formulate where you go and the better experience you can create for something, the better the results, I’m sure!
GD: Yes, and it’s a different world we live in as well. The actual organised sports are going to become way more important because the days of letting children just run outside and come back for dinner is a thing of the past. Keeping people playing sport is very important. I was very involved in the 20x 20 campaign and trying to continually retain female, young girls in sport is a huge challenge. Actually as you were saying, that PE curriculum will be very important because hopefully that will keep them in the system.
GD: One of the things you did mention there was about internships. Through Brightwater, we spoke to the University of Limerick and one of the things they’ve started there is an immersive software engineering programme which has five residencies across the four years with major tech companies which is just an incredible opportunity. You’ve gone the full academic route with your PhD but would this kind of internship residency have been appealing to you when you were starting out? Would the UL new immersive course in software engineering appealed to you at the start of your education?
MOR: I was looking into this course beforehand and from a starting point, I think very often that software engineers are really problem solvers and giving them a chance to work in, I think there’s companies such as SoapBox Labs, Stripe, start-ups like ManAero, giving them a chance to work there and do real world problem solving and some really exciting and interesting things, I think it’s a fantastic learning experience. The difference between sitting in lectures and taking on board information, that’s really important to know, don’t get me wrong, to actually working in a team alongside different types of experts, experts in your specific field, is just a fantastic opportunity. By the time they graduate, they’ll have experienced different cultures. From the nature of being in a company, they won’t have been siloed in with a bunch of software engineers, there’ll be all sorts of expertise around them and I think that learning experience is super. Funnily enough, although I did go the PhD route myself which is considered hyper-specialised, I think that was one of the things I loved about it. It was applied problem solving and I was surrounded by psychologists, data scientists, physios, S&Cs and it was a really unique environment in a sense. I think applied learning in a real world with the pressure of a deadline and a team around you is a fantastic opportunity.
GD: What’s interesting is that going up the education curve where you do a Masters which is a certain level, when you get to PhD level, you’re really identifying a problem and your thesis is about how to solve it. I think it’s a fantastic way that a brain works, not for everybody but I’m glad there are people like you who are doing that. One of the things you did mention there was about real world experience. I suppose I had a taste of that and had a wealth of experience but no corporate or office experience. In my first job when I went in, I all but didn’t know how to behave in an office. I don’t mean that I was walking around doing anything but what’s the social interaction and how people work, that becomes really important and I think that a real life residency would be very valuable and hopefully we’ll see that tipping through into other courses.
GD: So we talked about picking up the cadence and the office. I suppose that’s a nice little segue into how does the rest of the year look for Output, through your lens and what do you expect for the next six months of the year? Athletes coming back into it, people coming back into the offices, how do you see things from, I suppose, two main stakeholders, the athletes and the organisations, and then your own organisation? What do the next six months hold for Output Sports?
MOR: Starting with our team itself, we launched last February and we’re a team of 10 now. Most of us haven’t met in person which is really bizarre. It’s been fantastic to build something and grow it internationally. We haven’t had that benefit of just getting together and having the casual conversations side by side so I can’t wait until that becomes safely possible. With that as well, with the team over the last year or so, we’ve really spent a lot of work refining the technology, focusing on making it more and more valuable so the next six months, and actually the last couple as well, have been really about getting it out there and on-boarding these clients across pro-sports especially in the US and the UK. What we’re really excited about is, pro-sports kind of opened back up first in a sense, obviously it will be fantastic when crowds can be back in full capacity as well, but now we’re starting to see colleges coming back in September and schools getting back to sport. It’s first of all, a fundamental thing which is obviously fantastic to see but then it’s super exciting for Output to see how we can then support those athletes and coaches. It’s really about growth and continuing to iterate the product. Something else we’re doing at the moment, is fund-raising, the main being able to really grow the team next year and have feet on the ground in the US and put more and more effort behind the tech that we always want to innovate with and iterate with.
GD: Another Irish unicorn on the way! Growth is, that’s the name of the game and it’s great to have another Irish based company bringing more jobs into Ireland which is going to be really important. I suppose there’d be a certain amount of customer facing but again, the tech team is going to be needed to be supported as you grow, as the tech stack grows and more people want to use it, it will bring more requirements into it so hopefully that’s another fantastic news story in sport.
GD: One of the things I said we’d touch on again was around the data piece. Not just in sport but the world is awash with data. As you were saying, everything is tracked. I wear a Hoop Strap, that tells me, gives me too much information that I don’t really need to know. I know I had a glass of wine last night so I know I’m not going to be 100% today or whatever it is, I ate late at night or whatever. How is the world absorbing the data and the usefulness of the data? I still think that is the big thing, I don’t think we’ve reached the tipping point yet, I think there’s an awful lot of data where we don’t know the right questions to ask just yet. In a world of data, how do you find the useful pieces?
MOR: Yes, it’s such an interesting thing and I think it’s funny that you point out the parallels to sport as well. In business, if you’re using data, and of course you can always use data better and improve your processes, are you communicating with it and are you actioning on it because if not, are you collecting the wrong data or are you asking the wrong questions? And as a start-up, that’s obviously a very interesting problem in itself. What are your flagship metrics and what are the little dashboard ones that we use to tune decisions as we go? And it is a fascinating experience. I’ll be honest, we’re learning about it as we go. Then it’s balancing that with the importance of qualitative discussions and gut feeling and all of the importance of that as well. I think the world is going to continue to use data better and better but I think it’s like a complex process which doesn’t always mean more data but kind of like you alluded to, using data better or asking the right questions. Often that comes back to taking a step away from the data and just having a fundamental conversation about what’s important and then how can we use data to quantify the journey towards what’s defined as important which again, is very similar to sport in a sense.
GD: I think that data scientists are going to be the next, I wouldn’t say the next glamorous job but it’s going to be the next, as we move into the technology evolution that’s happening, the 4th wave of the technology kicking in, data scientists are going to be like hens’ teeth. They are the people making sense of what we see and how we see it and ask the right questions. The attitude of failure is really good because particularly in data science, the more failures you have, and the quicker you do them, the higher chance you have of getting to the answer that is that tipping point, that really useful nugget of information that can help a decision maker make key decisions.
MOR: Exactly and I think what’s really great about the last few years is that Machine Learning and AI, the people involved continue to get better and better but what’s also really interesting and really important is that the domain experts are also playing a massive role in communicating the importance of how you approach the problem and then making sure the right value is being extracted. When you get those different types of experts working together well, I think you can really approach that tipping point, that game changing value that you can create with data. It’s always really exciting when you see in different domains that’s starting to happen. I’ve no doubt as hopefully as years go on that will be more and more common. The data scientists themselves and data engineers will be massively beneficial but I also hope that the practitioners and the domain experts get, what’s the word, a T-shaped individual who know enough about data science and they approach the communication and what can sometimes be the blockers to the process start to be mitigated as well. I think there’s such tremendous opportunity there when you merge expertise with a data driven approach.
GD: That hybrid approach where as you say, they understand enough and don’t need to know about the technology, that’s back there, that’s somebody else’s bag but I know what information it’s giving me, I trust it, it’s valuable and now I can use that as part of my decision making tools. You’re never trying to recreate or override somebody’s gut instinct but it’s just more data points that goes in and becomes part of that decision tool and it’s going to be a phenomenal story when everybody is using Output Sports. Martin, I just want to say thanks a million for spending time with me today. Really insightful chat and you make a very difficult process sound very easy and effortless. You must have a fantastic team and as you grow, I’m sure Brightwater will be looking to support you at every step of the way as you take those steps to grow and crack that US market, the rest of Europe and the rest of the world. We wish you the very best of luck and thank you again for your time today.
MOR: Thank you very much, Gordon, it was a really enjoyable chat and as you correctly pointed out, it really is all about the great team that we have at Output that are making what we’ve done so far possible. We’re super excited about what happens next so thanks a million for the chance to speak to you today, it was really great.