We’re on the precipice of a golden frontier of athlete training and coaching as geographical boundaries are smashed and technologies is developed that are geared towards virtual and digital training.
We look at Uplift Labs, one of the key companies that is on that frontier.
Uplift Labs has two core products that emerged at different times: Uplift Coach is a remote, live training platform and digital coaching solution geared towards sport-specific training for coaches and athletes of all levels. Uplift Capture is their soon to be released technology that zeroes in on form and biomechanics but without the need for wearables or sensors. When combined it is an impressive solution.
Starting out in golf, expanded into baseball and softball and now they’re targeting multiple sports that require some form of rotational movement analysis. The reason being is that issues with form may well cause an athlete injury and Uplift’s technology allows consistent, live and on-demand oversight from someone to help them manage their form, improve their athletic performance yet minimise injuries. Uplift’s client base already spans MLB franchises across to youth coaches and academies.
In this interview, we spoke to the co-founders (as pictured above from L-R) of Uplift Labs Masa Kabayama, Rahul Rajan and Jonathan Wills.
How did you all come together as a team?
Masa Kabayama: So Jonathan, Rahul and I actually met at a former startup, we were early employees for a company that was, at the time, building what they call the contextual home. A smart home. But rather than dealing with point solutions of having to program your Nest thermostat, your August lock, and your Hue light bulb, the home would learn and adapt to the residents’ behaviours over time.
“Jonathan was running the engineering team as their head of engineering, Rahul joined soon thereafter from Carnegie Mellon University and the three of us spent about a year there. The company subsequently pivoted to doing something completely different so then we said to each other, ‘hey, we really enjoyed working with one another, we complement each other’s skill sets well,’ and said, ‘we’re passionate about this whole idea about contextual awareness technologies.’ We thought about where we could apply it and we’re all very passionate about sports, fitness, even health and the catch all term wellness.”
What came first Uplift Coach or Capture?
MK: “The interesting thing is that we actually started on Uplift Capture as our first product. The whole idea is to be able to allow anybody to understand their 3D biomechanics. Using iPhones, iPads, high speed cameras for the professionals, it was a simple ease of use method to get highly accurate 3D biomechanics.
“So that’s where we got started signing a multi-year contract with the world’s largest golf instruction company, multiple pilots with MLB teams and then going downstream we worked with youth academies for primarily baseball, some softball and then COVID hit.
“Everything came to a screeching halt, unfortunately our customers felt it more so because they couldn’t do in-person training with their athletes or their students, as well as having very limited access to their facilities. We surveyed them and when we asked them, ‘how are you keeping your athletes game ready?’ As a lot of them were competing at the elite level and they told us that they’re using Zoom. Zoom is a great corporate conferencing tool but wasn’t built for sports technique specific training. That’s when the three of us and our team knew if we spent some time around this we could build something that’s 10 times better than Zoom, built from the ground up, centred around the coaching and training experience. That was really how Uplift Coach was born.”
It’s a pretty quick adaptation to market needs and conditions, why were you able to move so quickly on this?
MK: “We’ve always had live, remote training on our roadmap. What we did was we paused Uplift Capture’s development for a little bit and fast tracked Uplift Coach, we reprioritised.”
Jonathan Wills: “There are a few reasons why we could move so quickly onto Coach from Capture, one of the main reasons is fundamentally is we’re all about movement first and then video. Capture is all about movement and video – live video coaching and understanding movement. So the two domains are almost the same. A lot of the technology can be applied across both of them, we just delivered it in a different medium. We already had a lot of the in-house tech and expertise to build Coach, so it was a about reformulating that.”
Rahul Rajan: “It was also helpful that we didn’t necessarily have to go and find new customers as we were already in conversation with our current ones. We could see their problems in real-time so we understood the conditions as they changed and as physical facilities started closing down. And like Jonathan was saying, we already had the experience on the computer vision side, on the video side and an iOS app.”
What I find interesting is the idea of coaches and trainers being able to build their own virtual classrooms, their own online, digital businesses with no geographical barriers.
MK: “The whole idea is to democratise the ability that anybody who would like to have access to expensive wearables, sensors or optical camera technology, instead they could just use a device that they already have in their back pocket.
“Now with Coach, we realised, and as Rahul and Jonathan had mentioned, when we engaged with our early users and really trying to dig into their pain points one thing that was uncovered was independent coaches or independent contractor personal trainers have a set clientele that they work with. Now in this virtual world to do live training they’re using multiple apps. So in the case of a coach, you’re using Venmo to be asked to get paid, you’re scheduling with Google Calendars, you’re chasing down your payments using messages or even Messenger, then you’re delivering the live experience using Zoom, that’s four different apps. So what we call this is a business in a box. It’s kind of like Shopify for sports, if you think about it, where everything is there, an end-to-end solution. Coaches and trainers get a complete and full solution, ergo like a back office that would handle payments, scheduling, membership management, class creation.”
Uplift’s co-founders at their office in Palo Alto, CA with their mantra “Never, never, never give up.” Source: Supplied
I’m intrigued by the idea of real time feedback and coaching, and the possibilities of real time feedback of your movement analytics.
RR: “When we started, at least part of our DNA was the idea of an AI coach that looks at you doing an exercise and giving you feedback in real time. So giving you that prescriptive feedback on how you can improve and not get injured. As we’ve been working through this, building these relationships with these coaches I think one of our learnings is that being an aide to the coach and augmenting their abilities is an interesting avenue as well.”
MK: “Let’s say you have a private one-to-one session with your coach, the fact that in real time, you can just do a golf swing, for example, and I can have my golf pro look at exactly what I just did. It’s fresh in my muscle memory and he or she could then instruct me right there and then in real time to course correct.
“I would say the other thing that’s really unique that we have is the ability and the modality of this bi-directional nature because it’s real time and the tools we have to not only be in the echelon of one-to-one training, we can go one to few or one to many, with that bi-directional real-time form correction or instruction. That’s powerful. Let’s say, yourself and a group of buddies, you all want to work out together or you all belong to a hitting class, six or 12 of you in one class, could sign up. So you have the community aspect. From the coach’s side, they could charge US$100 for a one-to-one lesson for one student, but with six students, they could offer a discount. So there’s better value for the student yet coaches can earn more. So that’s kind of what we mean by the power of business in a box as I touched on earlier.”
Markerless, motion capture has a lot of potential which could be a pillar of Uplift Labs I gather?
RR: “There was this revolutionary shift right as up till now, the only way to get this movement analytics was athletes wearing these markers and it takes hours to set up and tear down. Markerless motion capture is a huge shift in that sense in that it gives you these analytics in a couple of minutes.”
Looping back to the clientele, what teams, clubs and athletes are your current user base?
MK: “So it was very important for us to be validated at the professional level. Not just professional teams, but elite trainers, elite coaches and athletes, where their coaching or gameplay is so important to their livelihood. A lot of our users and engagements are what we call the proverbial ‘top of the pyramid.’ That has a twofold meaning for us. One, is that we have our technology and our products validated by the best of the best. Furthermore, we believe that we can build a bigger funnel in terms of collegiate, to high school and youth and then to your individual weekend warrior. That’s where we’re kind of focussing the majority of our engagements.”
Now, I’m just curious three of you as co-founders. Describe your relationship and working dynamic? Given your shared vision, how do you make sure you keep a harmonious and focused environment?
MK: “I’d love for one of you guys to take that!”
JW: “I think at the core it really comes down to being brutally honest and expressing how you’re feeling. It’s almost a little bit like therapy, you kind of have to get it all out otherwise if you hold something in it may lead to resentment. We go through lots of conversations on a daily and weekly basis where we express ourselves honestly. We’ve built this business together not holding back on our views. I know, Rahul and Masa don’t hold back either, that’s why I respect them and why I’m a co-founder with these guys.”
RR: “Like Jonathan said, honesty matters, and there’s a lot of mutual respect between the three of us. I’ll just speak for myself here, so for me taking the ego out of the equation really helps. I’m here to serve the company, and in a sense that has helped me take my ego out of the equation.”
Uplift Lab’s company incorporation signing ceremony on November 21, 2017. Source: Supplied
Masa, you bring a different experience and skill set as well. Please don’t take this as disrespectful, maybe it’s slightly less technical.
MK: “I thought you’re gonna comment on my grey hair!”
I wasn’t gonna comment on that but I promise I’ll edit that out! So Masa, how do you work both Jonathan and Rahul who have got the high technical skills, but you bring your own huge experience, expertise and knowledge as well?
MK: “We’re all multi-dimensional creatures. Maybe it’s easy to pigeonhole each of us like, ‘I’m the boring business and management guy and Jonathan and Rahul are both the technical guys.’ It’s completely true in the sense that we have complementary, learned, vocational skill sets.
“I think it’s also this kind of a melding, if you will, of personalities. I tend to be the forever optimist of the team, Jonathan’s a realist and I think Rahul you’re kind of in-between maybe. There’s a great counterweight in terms of how we even approach a problem, or how we approach like a red pill or blue pill, left or right side of the road issues, because we had this ability to have point to counterpoint type conversations. Someone like Jonathan as a second time founder has gone from zero to one and was able to successfully sell his company (Lumific) to GoPro. I think out of the three of us he has the most spidey sense in terms of what it takes to go from zero to one from an entrepreneurial point of view.”
To each of you, what does the next 12 months look like? Do you have ideas of how you evolve as a team, as personalities and execute your roadmap?
MK: “I would love for us 12 months from this now where anybody who’s serious about sports coaching, or training, and really wants to improve the athlete that they work with knows about us.
“For those who are really serious and have that intent, because again, that’s where we see the next few months to a year of our main user base. It has to be organic, really authentic, word of mouth driven and these first 100, 1,000, 10,000 coaches will be our evangelists and we really want them to be successful. For me, and my personal journey, I had 12 years of edtech experience and that’s really helped me realise my mission which is: I love helping people who help other people as a living. Instead of working with educators and teachers, with Uplift we work with coaches and trainers. It’s what makes my heart sing.”
Beautifully said. Jonathan, onto you, do you have a personal or professional milestone?
JW: “I think ultimately COVID will disappear or be contained, it may not disappear forever but it will kind of subside. I think in the pre-COVID days, coaching was considered as only an in-person thing. I believe where Uplift is going, especially with Coach, is that we’re going to be there for coaches as this new virtual environment unfolds and be a core part of their business. The future of sports, the athletes that we love and follow in five or ten years, they will have learned both in the real world and in the virtual world, almost 50-50. I think that’s the vision, being able to build that product for coaches to train future athletes is what excites me.”
And Rahul, bring it home now.
RR: “I echo those sentiments exactly. I’m hoping that the silver lining with COVID is people realising that there’s also this opportunity outside the physical world where you can have classes online, you can actually create a thriving virtual business that complements your real, on-location business. I also like and maybe this ties in to what I was saying with regards to AI, I think there’s a tendency for tech people thinking AI is just going to replace everything and I don’t think that’s the right vision. I think the right vision is this symbiosis of AI working with people to enable people to perform better. I hope we can prove that by working with coaches, we can augment their coaching capabilities and make the experience for both them and the athletes ten times better.”
Thank you to Ida from Nordic Sports Tech for the introduction to Masa, Rahul and Jonathan from Uplift Labs! Check them out here.