Inside the NBA’s “Launchpad” incubator for tech startups

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LAS VEGAS — Boston Celtics forward Matt Ryan charged across the court Monday and dribbled behind his back before awkwardly launching a game-winning three-pointer. As his teammates celebrated and the crowd erupted, Ryan fell onto the pitch, writhing in pain with a sprained left ankle.

Later that night, Richard Jefferson, the 17-year NBA veteran-turned-ESPN analyst, made his official television spectacle debut. Shortly into his quarter-length shift, Jefferson was overruled by one of his fellow referees on an out-of-bounds call. Hearty hoots rained down as they huddled together to negotiate a compromise.

The Las Vegas Summer League is an 11-day marathon that pits award-winning newcomers and journeymen alike in a low-stakes environment that can take on a carnival feel. But this year, in a pavilion just steps from the action, Commissioner Adam Silver and key members of the NBA’s Brain Trust met with representatives from companies selected to participate in the league’s new “launchpad” program, intended to serve as an incubator Technological advances in basketball.

Coincidentally, preventing ankle sprains and developing umpires were two of this year’s key initiatives aimed at making life less painful for the next generation of Ryans and Jeffersons. Healthier players and more accurate functioning, the NBA justifies, leads to a better, more profitable product.

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“We’re trying to grow and improve the game, and we believe that as the league plays a stronger role, the global basketball community will benefit,” said Tom Ryan, NBA vice president of basketball technology and innovation. “We learned that if we don’t drive it, it’s not going to happen. When they work in healthcare or the military, it’s difficult to get engineers to work on basketball-specific problems. Launchpad gives you a really clear path.”

The Launchpad concept was originally conceived in 2019 but was shelved during the first two years of the pandemic as the NBA struggled to get back on the court and deal with the coronavirus. After years of hearing pitches from start-up companies on an ad hoc basis, league executives wanted to formalize the process to target areas of interest such as injury prevention, referee training, mental health and training tracking. With a lot of technical work happening during the pandemic, the NBA issued a call for applications and formed a selection committee made up of league executives, team leaders and outside experts to sort through hundreds of potential companies.

Ultimately, five were chosen: Betterguards, a German manufacturer of ankle braces; Rezzil, an English virtual reality sports training service; Uplift, a Palo Alto based 3D performance tracking program; Breathwrk, a Los Angeles-based mental health app; and Nextiles, a Brooklyn-based company that sews motion trackers into clothing.

“There is a direct financial benefit when we invest in these companies and they appreciate it,” said Tom Ryan. “Beyond that, our core business is keeping our stars on the pitch and selling tickets. Lost every game for LeBron [James]Stefan [Curry] and these guys who could have been prevented are huge financially.”

Betterguards bills itself as a seatbelt-like preventative product that can be installed in braces or sneakers to protect the outside of each ankle. When athletes walk, run, or cut at a normal pace, the technology allows for normal range of motion, just like when a passenger slowly unbuckles a seat belt to fasten it. But when there is a sharp twist of the ankle, the product’s hydraulic walls tighten in less than a millisecond to prevent the ankle from rolling over, much like a seat belt prevents a passenger from falling forward in a crash.

The product could be particularly useful in games where a defensive player slides under a jump shooter while descending. Detroit Pistons rookie Jaden Ivey, No. 5 draft in June, landed on the foot of a defender in one such game, ending his much-anticipated Summer League after just two games.

“Ankle injuries are inevitable,” said former Cleveland Cavaliers guard Daniel Gibson, who works with Betterguards. “My career kept ending due to ankle injuries. I’ve been through a lot, depression. All I knew was basketball. If that could really prevent one of my brothers from having to go through what I went through, then let’s see what the fuss is about.”

The product, which Betterguards chairman Martin Vetterlein said was used by soccer, handball and minor league basketball players in Germany, has been tested at an NBA youth academy in Africa and tested at the University of Michigan to make sure it works not accidentally cause knee or hip injuries. Company executives are seeking to partner with major footwear designers to make the product “non-negotiable gear” for athletes, and they hope NBA players will start wearing their braces as early as next season. League executives want to do a test in the G-League first.

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“With every injury, tens of millions of dollars and millions of disappointed fans are at stake,” Vetterlein said. “It’s not just the money, it’s the people sitting at home.”

As Betterguards try to keep players on the pitch, Rezzil’s virtual reality system could help referees improve their positioning.

Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s vice president of umpire development, said officials track calls from nine different camera angles during their in-depth post-game review sessions. According to Rezzil executives, their software offers access to “infinite perspectives,” allowing umpires to review plays from their precise vantage point or reposition the camera to determine where they should have been to get the best angle.

Take Jefferson, who believed he made the right decision even though his colleague reversed his decision. TV perspectives showed a loose ball being finger-tipped in a crowd, but Rezzil’s software would allow Jefferson — and referee evaluators like McCutchen — to view the sequence from any desired angle on a laptop or VR-enabled headset to experience once.

“You could move into different positions,” McCutchen said. “If I had been two steps further in that position, I would not have doubted or needed help from another officer. I would have seen it more clearly, signaled it more confidently and we wouldn’t have gotten together. Every meeting of referees raises doubts and confusion among the game participants.”

Rezzil announced partnerships with top-flight football teams like Manchester United and Manchester City, and its software can help coach football quarterbacks, read defenses, and help basketball players with their hand-eye coordination.

While Major League Baseball has announced it will be able to use “robot umpires” to automate ball and strike calls starting in 2024, NBA executives have insisted their continued forays into video review are aimed at making their umpires’ lives easier and them not to be replaced. League leaders believe certain calls — goalies, out-of-bounds decisions and whether a shooter’s foot was on the three-point line — will soon be automated with video systems capable of transmitting 29 points of real-time skeletal data to ensure accuracy .

“We’re committed to people,” said Tom Ryan. “We think human referees are incredible, but we believe there is a way to take certain things off their plate. Has the ball peaked? If you look at 10 different things on the pitch and now judge a parabola, the computer can do it better.”

As Silver prepares for upcoming negotiations with the National Basketball Players Association and media rights partners, it’s no surprise that the league’s focus is on issues such as the health and integrity of officials, both of which directly contribute to the quality of television product. Indeed, Silver noted that “player availability” is the top priority of launchpad for next season, with a particular focus on soft tissue injuries.

Facing a media landscape dominated by streaming platforms and unbundled services, Silver said viewers are becoming more sophisticated, forcing the NBA to “enable more teams to compete and more players on the floor, to compete on a nightly basis.” The commissioner even mentioned the possibility that players could receive new “additional incentives” on top of their contracts based on the number of “games played and the results of those games.”

That philosophy sounds a bit Darwinian, and the embrace of virtual reality and tracking wearables can create “Big Brother” vibes. Still, the NBA believes its fortunes depend on maintaining its position at the top.

“Technological innovation that can be good business and make a difference in our business is exactly the sweet spot,” said Silver. “That [Launchpad’s] Funnel will grow and create even more opportunities. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to [playoff] Series decided by players who are off the ground.

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