Business in Vancouver

Canadian technology companies taking on big-league aspirations

Vancouver firms are helping to change the way we watch and play sports

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 5:43pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 5:46pm

Can investing ever be considered cool or even sexy?

Entrepreneur Dustin Sproat said it’s possible when adding technology and sports into the equation.

The CEO of Vancouver-based startup Shnarped was able to bring that combination to TV sets when CBC’s Dragons’ Den featured his mobile app that connects professional hockey players with fans.

“The fact that we’re into sports, and people love sports in general, makes it a lot easier to have conversations [with investors],” said Sproat.

Sproat is quick to praise advisers like BuildDirect co-founder Rob Banks, whose e-commerce company has become one of Vancouver’s largest home-grown tech players over the past 15 years.

He said sports fans/tech gurus like Banks helped push him and his co-founders to pivot the company to a new platform in 2015 that offers an app with video-editing tools.

This change to the business model now allows young athletes to share their own sports highlights. More than 500,000 videos have been uploaded to the new app and the company is gaining more audience traction than with the original version, Sproat said.

“Market-wise and  investor-wise, it’s a very sexy topic. In general, any kind of sports product, investors are very willing to [consider] with these types of technologies,” said Daniel Abram, chief technology officer at Shield-X Technology Inc.

His Simon Fraser University spinoff has developed decals, known as BrainShields, which are placed on sports helmets to help absorb shocks and reduce the risk of concussions.

Abram said he likes being headquartered in Vancouver since the city’s active lifestyle means more potential partners are already enthusiastic about sports products.

Shield-X does not sell directly to consumers. Instead, it has been striking partnerships with manufacturers in the U.S. and Asia  that wish to incorporate the BrainShields into their own equipment.

“You can develop technology [in Vancouver] but for mass-producing, it’s really hard to do it here,” said Abram.

It’s a sentiment shared by the team at Wiivv Wearables, a start-up specialising in form-fitting body wear created through a combination of body-scanning software and 3D printers.

Instead of setting up manufacturing in Vancouver, where shipping outside of Canada can be prohibitively expensive, co-founders Shamil Hargovan and Louis-Victor Jadavji invested C$1 million (US$741,537) in a San Diego manufacturing facility.

“Vancouver’s still a great place to have a business,” said Hargovan. “It’s not a great place to do business.”

He said Wiivv has benefited greatly from the close proximity to major Seattle brands like Nordstrom, which recently invested an undisclosed amount in the company’s body-scanning tech.

Hargovan said it’s been hard to ignore the interest coming from larger brands that are now catching on to the market potential for sports tech.

Even Major League Baseball teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers are getting into the sports tech landscape, launching a tech accelerator in 2015.  The pro sports team has been investing directly in tech startups developing technology to analyse players’ movements or better engage its fans.

“Having a mentor-adviser group like the L.A. Dodgers offers you a massive competitive advantage as a tech company,” said Ray Walia, managing partner at Victory Square Ventures. “That’s what we do at Victory Square. We come in and we provide you with expertise in sports entertainment and growing your customer base.”

Victory Square took a “significant” stake in fantasy sports company Pro Draft League two years ago and, in 2015, began transforming it into what Walia called a “fan engagement company.”

The company has since rebranded as Fantasy 6 Sports Inc. It’s offering season-long contests, with both point-based and prized-based contests as opposed to the typical cash prizes. It’s also pursuing partnerships with venues to get fans more involved with games in real time. Fantasy 6 has also expanded its reach into mobile gaming with the July acquisition of NFC Game Studio.