She did her best to pivot, shifting to a business-to-business model and taking advantage of a Paycheck Protection Program loan just to keep the startup alive. Amid historically turbulent economic waters, she finally found a life raft: nVenue beat out more than 1,000 applicants to secure one of 10 coveted slots in the inaugural Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech Accelerator program, which finished May 26.
“We didn’t know that we could stay alive,” Pracht said. “Seeing that our product was so highly wanted at the highest levels, that just means the world to us. They invested in us personally and as a business.”
As the sports world paused and then slowly welcomed fans back into venues, some prominent sports technology accelerator programs never pumped the brakes. They forged ahead, turning to virtual programs to provide startups with mentorship as well as access to industry leaders, which proved invaluable amid fierce industry headwinds. While in-person meetings were nixed, those involved cite success and unexpected benefits.
“The whole world was, in a very unique way, going through something all together at the same time, and there was a real energy behind reaching out to people virtually, which was very different than we all would have entertained in normal times,” said Joe Pimmel, managing partner of the St. Louis-based Stadia Ventures, which conducted a virtual accelerator program in fall 2020 and finished its spring program last week. “In many ways, the founders themselves found ways to not only survive but thrive.”
Bruce Sears (left) and Kelly Pracht are co-founders of nVenue, which offers next-play analytics and predictions.
While companies like nVenue, which relied heavily on live events, faced formidable challenges, other sectors — namely esports, e-commerce, wearables, sports betting and NFTs — “went bazooka,” as Pimmel called it. As an illustration of that explosive growth, the Indiana-based Techstars Sports Accelerator’s 2020 class included 10 startups globally that it specifically deemed relatively insulated from the impact of a lengthy pandemic; the focus was on esports, fitness and nutrition, artificial intelligence and robotics.
What’s more, by operating an entire accelerator virtually, the program opened doors more to international startups — half of Stadia’s applicants were outside the United States. Regardless of their location, the usual traits startup founders need to possess — resiliency, nimbleness, poise — proved even more essential during the pandemic.
“What was required was a level of coachability,” said Ashley DeWalt, a Texas-based adviser and lead mentor for Stadia Ventures the last five years. “Founders needed to be even more disciplined. They needed grit to be able to push through. If you didn’t have those things, you probably would have tapped out.”
That is why the Stadia Ventures startups that comprised its fall 2020 class claim a special place in DeWalt’s heart. Gone were the pre-pandemic days of company founders flying twice a month into Stadia’s suburban Frisco, Texas, office for half-day meetings with mentors about everything from go-to-market strategy to finances. Instead, Zoom calls at odd hours became the norm, including with his mentee around the world, Soham Thacker, the India-based founder of esports tournament platform GamerJi.
Stadia Ventures, which typically makes an initial $100,000 capital investment in a company in exchange for an equity stake, never considered postponing its fall cohort. While the Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech program, powered by Boomtown, pushed back the start of its program from last August to January, it chose to press on virtually when life had not yet returned to normal by then. Seeing how the founders persevered, Jenna Kurath, vice president, startup partner development and head of SportsTech, called it inspiring.
SportsTech, which makes an initial $50,000 capital investment in each company, organized regular CEO roundtable discussions to address breakthroughs and challenges. Founders said an emphasis was placed on mental health. And to break the stress, they held a March Madness college basketball bracket challenge. By the end of the program last month, the startups secured 16 pilot programs or partnerships.
XiQ CEO and co-founder Karlos Walkes, who participated in the SportsTech program, said the ability to adapt depended on perspective, saying that “it’s about having the attitude, ‘Let’s make this happen no matter what,’ but also working with an accelerator that has that similar attitude.” His company, which develops smart devices that replace the conventional key ignition on most non-automotive vehicles, recently completed a pilot with NASCAR.
As beneficial as in-person meetings would have been, Walkes said seemingly endless days of virtual meetings enabled supreme efficiency. “I was able to move faster and could move from one meeting to the next in a matter of seconds, one platform to the next at the push of a button,” he said. “I felt like I got way more done.”
Pracht, whose company has been working with NBC Sports on on-air talent using data during broadcasts, echoed that sentiment, saying she doesn’t believe her team could have had the face-time with so many high-level executives had the program not been virtual.
Brennon D’Souza, founder and CEO of Dibz, which provides in-venue fans with a text messaging solution to instantly upgrade their seats, said his company is closing pilot agreements with the Atlanta Braves, Orlando Magic and NASCAR. With the virtual program deemed successful, he is eager to revisit a gesture of a bygone era: physical contact.
“Of course now,” D’Souza said, “I definitely want to get out of this [virtual lifestyle] cage and get into the real world and actually shake some hands and talk to people. That is definitely coming up.”