Featured Innovator

This Houston sports tech entrepreneur wants more big wins for Houston

Stephane Smith wants his company, Integrated Bionics, and its sports tech sensor to be a big win for Houston. Courtesy of Integrated Bionics

It took Stephane Smith and his brother, Yves, a few tries to get a revolutionary sports device that the market actually wanted. Now that they have, their Houston-based company, Integrated Bionics, has its Titan Sensor device being used worldwide — from Zimbabwe and Israel to Brazil and Mexico.

The Titan, which launched in 2017, syncs GPS with video and provides athletic metrics at an attainable price. Most of the company's customers are soccer teams primarily in the collegiate space — with some professional and even youth teams. Smith says the company has a firm footing within soccer because that's where this technology really started.

"People were doing GPS and sensing with soccer before we arrived. Soccer had this orientation from the get go," Smith tells InnovationMap. "There's a lot higher of awareness in soccer — but we think that awareness is going to grow across all sports as people realize how this data can be used without breaking the bank."

Smith spoke with InnovationMap about figuring out the Titan's technology, Houston's challenging venture capital environment, and why he hopes to be one of the city's big wins.

InnovationMap: Why did you want to start a company?

Stephane Smith: My background is in engineering. I worked at Intel for five years. I worked at silicon server processors — very deep into that, down to drawing wires of ultra miniature fabrication for electronics. It was an awesome experience. My group at Intel was actually an analogue group that was purchased by Intel. Analogue groups tend to be high risk in general. The company has to have a lot of trust in those people. My boss told me I had to go do something. At the time, I was married but didn't have any kids or own a home, so he was nudging me a little bit on a personal development side to go do my thing. This was in California, so everyone had startup fever. So, I quit my great job, and decided to do a startup.

IM: What brought you to Houston?

SS: We figured the cost of living was good, and it's where we grew up. We thought it'd be a good fit. My brother, Yves, and my co-founder, was doing a research project at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

IM: What was you and your brother’s first product?

SS: I'm a solutions guy and he had problems to solve. His problem at the time was sleep apnea monitoring and making sure patients are using the device. We made this really tiny device that could fit inside the retainer and it could communicate whether or not the person was wearing the mask. That was product No. 1. But then we found out no one wanted to buy it in the real world. It was kind of a reality check.

We pivoted. Inside the sensor, is something that could detect motion. We took the appliance and stuck it on a headband. I had one of my wife's friends do a header on a soccer ball. We had this nice video of someone heading a ball and the impact or reaction of the head movement. That was a couple years ago, and everyone was concerned about concussions. That was called Heads Up. We had some success and sales at the college level, but it still wasn't there yet.

IM: What was the issue with Heads Up?

SS: Concussions were kind of a taboo topic. The device was indicating something bad that happened. Something they did like on the report was how many steps they took. They were just looking at the performance metric. So, it was back to the drawing board. At the same time, we were trying to raise money in Houston, and it was a massive struggle. Houston's a hard place to raise money in general and especially in sports. We decided to just raise money from the customers. We wanted to make sure that people actually wanted the product. We doubled the price of the device and added a GPS sensor. We sold it to three teams before we even had it built yet. That became the Titan Sensor.

IM: But you did eventually find funding, right?

SS: We sort of stumbled upon Work America Capital. We weren't looking for it. Someone in my past life told me to check out this profile of Shane Hildreth. And I was like, hey it's a sports guy. I didn't think there was any of them in Houston. So, I contacted them. I feel like they got us — not just sports, but us — and had the same values of us. It was more than the money. We found a partner in them.

IM: Do you see venture in Houston changing?

SS: I don't know. I doubt it, at the moment. I think that what's missing is big wins. The analogy I like to use is I don't think that any city can build the Texas Medical Center. It's something built over generations. Silicon Valley has the same thing. You can just say, "Oh in five years, we'll make a task force and shabam, we're the next Silicon Valley." Every city's dream is that — that's why you hear Silicon Hill, Silicon Rock, Silicon Pond — you name it. But there's only one Silicon Valley and that's not going to change. There needs to be more wins and more leadership. We need more fish swimming in that direction to create momentum. Hopefully we become a win and can help build that momentum. Houston has all the ingredients.

IM: What’s next for Titan and other products?

SS: We're going to continue relentless innovation — doing things that no one is expecting and helping coaches with things not even on the radar. We'll going to be rolling out new capabilities and features that have traditionally been relegated to high-end systems or that haven't even existed before.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

Technology is changing America's pastime, and the Houston Astros have the lead off. Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Over the past decade or so, sports franchises have seen a boom in technology integration. The fact of the matter is that both the teams and the players need to tap into tech to have a competitive advantage on the field — and especially when it comes to the business side of things.

"Technologically advanced companies want to do business with technologically advanced companies," says Matt Brand, senior vice president of corporate partnerships and special events at the Houston Astros. "Old cats like me need to realize you have to stay current or else you're just going to get passed up."

Brand was the subject of a live recording of HXTV — the video arm of Houston Exponential — at The Cannon. He addressed several trends in sports technology, and shared how the Astros are approaching each new hot technology.

The Astros are pretty ahead of the curve when it comes to technology, Brand says, and the trick is keeping a pulse on potential game-changing technology far in advance of implementation.

"The things that we're developing now in 2019 and 2020 are the thing that are going to help us in 2024 and 2025," Brand says.

The approach to technology in sports is changing as younger players enter the scene.

"This generation of players want all the technology they can get," Brand says. "They want what's going on up to the day."

From esports to sports betting sites, here's what the hometeam has on its radar, according to brand.

The evolution of pitching technology

One aspect of the game that's been greatly affected by technology is pitching. Brand says that pitching coach, Brent Strom, is better able to do his job nowadays that there's better quality video and monitoring technologies. Brand cited the transformations of former pitcher Charlie Morton and current pitcher Ryan Pressly. Both saw impressive transformations in their pitching ability thanks to Strom and his technology.

"Brent has the ability to take technology and blend it with the craft," Brand says.

The players as industrial machines

One way the franchise thinks about its players is as machines — in the least objectifying way, surely. But Brand compares baseball players to major, expensive oil and gas machines, and in heavy industry, it's very common for a company to drop $30 million or more on a machine. Of course the company would schedule preventative maintenance and service appointments to protect their investments.

"We've got players now who are high performance machines," Brand says, citing players like Justin Verlander. "We want to make sure we have the best technology and the best care around them."

From doctors and nutritionists to the latest and greatest technologies, implementing the best practices is a good way to protect your assets.

Wearables and sleep technology

Another trend within sports is tracking sleep using technology. Wearable devices to track sleep and health are widely used, says Brand, but the Astros weren't comfortable with the constant monitoring.

"They feel like it's an invasion of privacy," Brand says. They feel like the data would be used against them when it came time to negotiate their contracts.

But prioritizing sleep is crucial in a sport where players travel across the country playing 162 games a season. Brand says investing in the players' sleep equipment is something they make sure to do.

Esports

Brand says, somewhat controversial, that esports is pretty low on the franchise's priority list, and there's one reason for that: Money.

"A lot of these sports teams aren't profitable right now," Brand says, noting that he knows that will probably change over the years.

While the teams themselves might not be making money, the number of users of video games makes for a different avenue to revenue.

"The platforms are what we see as profitable," Brand says, explaining how he's seen brands like Nike advertise in gaming apps.

"There's definitely a pathway to profitability, but esports means different things to different people," he says.

Sports marketing and betting

Looking toward the future, Brand says he sees movement coming in marketing and betting within sports.

With mobile devices in the hands of most sports event goers, brands have access to authentic, engaging content.

"Everyone with a phone is a producer of content, and a lot of brands want that content," he says.

Sports betting technologies have seen profitable success in other United States markets that allow it.

"Betting is the next biggest thing in sports," Brand says. "All the major leagues are saddled up with big money there. In Texas, it's illegal still, but it's coming."