The story of how Jetson Industries came to be is one of much tinkering and perseverance.
Ben Tattersfield, the company’s CEO, had spent years testing the strength and viability of putting electronics within balls to be able to locate them and have its data delivered to users. He tested such an idea inside golf balls before making a commercial breakthrough with cricket balls.
The smart ball maker puts minute sensors into the core of a cricket ball or golf ball which captures data on speed, direction and spin. The ball can connect to other devices so players, coaches, even broadcasters can obtain this data immediately.
Bullpen had two chats with Ben; in the time between the two chats, the company had a turbulent time but recovered strongly. Rogue investors and an uphill battle to gain credibility for their technology has seen the company come through the other side with its product to be launched into market this year.
Can you describe what guides your product suite – jCore Smart Ball, jBase and jBat – in a bit more detail?
In most sports the ball is what the game is centralised around. The ball you could say is the ‘source of truth’. We’re capturing movement data using a method called inertial navigation systems. We’re measuring how much force is applied to it, the spin, the direction.
I explain it like a sniper in the army, they use a bullet trajectory algorithm, they know how much force is behind the bullet, the rotation of the bullet, the wind direction and they’re predicting where that bullet is going to go. That’s one of the algorithms we use, based off a ballistics algorithm, but there’s a whole bunch of other stuff because that ball is a source of truth in the game then we can connect the other devices. For example a wristband that the players can wear so we can associate exactly who has the ball, caught the ball, threw the ball. Same as the bat, we can recognise who hit the ball, LBW rulings and so on.
From there we can start to automate and make an umpires or referees job simpler – no more unwilling parents dragged into being umpire or scorer, no more school yard arguments over LBWs or edged catches and most importantly – that mate who kicks his golf ball out from behind the tree when he thinks no one is looking is going to get caught every time now.
Anyone could officiate themselves.
We call it the jBase but it could be something like a little cone in the middle of the field, it’s concept being the central hub that is connecting to everything, it can monitor where a player is on the field. Take baseball for example, it knows that a particular player hit the ball as their unique ID was closest to the ball at the point of impact and their bat vibrated, then we’ve seen that its recognised that they’ve run past first base and first base is recognised with the impact, it’s been stood on, and they’re now standing on second base. We can capture this data through this meshed network of connected sports equipment.
You can see how this might unfold from a broadcast point of view.
Exactly, a big part of our business model is that our system is API based. Anyone that wants access to that data can get it and they can build their own apps. In our pitch deck we’ve got all these opportunities for the use of the data. There’s a deep library of data that we can hold and we can API it out to player management software companies or talent scouts, broadcasters or sport scientists.
Where did you take inspiration from to develop IoT focused sports products?
There’s a little story behind that, I’m a really shit golfer!
Me too! I’m no good either.
Not that I was hitting balls into the water, I just lost sight of them and couldn’t find them again. Someone in the playing group said surely someone has made a golf ball finder that syncs to your phone. I did some research and there were a couple of Kickstarter’s that raised some money but nothing came of it. I contacted those guys to find out why their products had failed and that’s how it began.
How did the products and company build from there?
My background is in marketing, marketing sales and specifically around the digital space. I’ve been in a couple of other start-ups and had a start-up of my own that had failed for various reasons.
From a marketing perspective I started doing research, I had a list of things that could mean that the product wouldn’t work and asked if I could make a ball that could be found via Bluetooth. I basically came out with this model, it was validated and theoretically it said it could work, went out and did some market research and ran some Facebook ads.
My goal was to get a hundred surveys back but I ended up receiving 700 responses. The feedback was impressive but the one thing overwhelmingly that people were interested in was competing with each other and fellow players. By applying gamification with data you can measure stroke by stroke, who hit the longest tee shot, the best tee shot on each hole on that day or who has the record for the longest tee shot.
How did the idea start taking shape?
After speaking to a few other start-ups and researching problem areas of the product. One of the big problems is impact. A golf ball accelerating from zero to 300kph in 1/100th of a second is a huge amount of force. That’s the first challenge, protecting the electronics from the impact. I studied whitepapers, contacted researchers who produced whitepapers to discuss their findings, basically ended up with coming up with this silicone ceramic material that we now have a pending patent on which protects the electronics from impact.
That product is what we sell to the B2B manufacturers and because I focused on golf, I designed everything to be as small, light and flexible as possible. It’s ideal because it fits into any larger sport product. That was a little bit by accident, focusing on golf I picked the hardest application and that made rolling it out to other sports really simple.
Then how did you end up testing the physically testing the product?
The golf ball was the core focus and helped me to develop the proof of concept. For me, once it answered those problems on impact survival, size, did the Bluetooth work inside the ball. To reach that point I contacted a golf ball manufacturer who had sent me some balls that were cut in half and hollowed out.
I put in a Bluetooth key tracker, put it inside my golf ball with the protective silicone and glued it all together. From there, I took it down to a golf shop with their golfing simulator and had their in-house pro hit shots as hard as he could multiple times. That was really the first prototype unit was proving that the silicone could protect the electronics from impact.
By aiming and focusing on golf for a year and a half of research, I accidentally solved the majority of problems that were facing golf and other sports as well.
With my findings, I started contacting the big golf ball manufacturers. As a start-up you can’t go in expecting to take on the big golf companies. The idea is not something you take to market, it’s something you sell or licence to one of the existing companies. I started contacting their R&D department, putting my ideas to them, sending emails and LinkedIn messages until I finally made some headway.
I then repeated the process by putting the tech into cricket balls, looked at who were the big cricket manufacturers. This moved really quickly. I got a bite from one of the big players in the industry within two days from sending an email, had a meeting and a handshake agreement to carry on discussing the idea and in six months had a commercial agreement in place.
Amazingly swift response and a desire to engage you to make a commercial arrangement.
Without them saying it, it was pretty obvious I’d hit the nail on the head in terms of understanding a particularly pain point they, and the sport, was facing in product innovation.
A big part of it is showing the amount of work I had done and the way it was done gave them the credibility that I knew how to solve those problems. It was also them taking a gamble in me, my idea and that I could deliver. A huge reason I secured this deal was that I’d convinced them I was worth taking a gamble on, and it’s both a great honour and a huge responsibility to take on as a small startup.
Are you in a position to target international markets?
I’ve structured the business so that we utilise our partners brand, existing market share and sales channels to quickly go international. It’s much easier to ride the wave of a well-known brand than to go out and try and compete with them. This has been validated as our roll out for the cricket ball has seen us partner up with one of the world’s leading cricket ball manufacturers, so we hit the market around the world when we launch, not just in Australia.
“I’d initially designed the product for grassroots sports – your typical players like you and me. We quickly got interest from the elite side of sport and that is where the product will launch initially, but the cool part is the technology is ready to go into every layer – social, schools, universities, clubs. We’ve made sure the product is priced so everyone can get their hands on a ball with the goal of encouraging people to get active and engage in the new digital sporting community we’re building.
What has been happening since we last spoke?
It’s been a real rollercoaster ride. One of the companies that came in to help us with our capital raise basically screwed us, so we had to get rid of them and that caused one of the investors who had agreed to invest some money to back away because of uncertainty.
We basically put ourselves into a spot where we had the wrong people around us and that made the investors a bit nervous.
How did it go from there?
We got to the end of the HYPE Spin Lab, pitched at the Commonwealth Games and off the back of that we had three different offers for investment. We went in there with a 500,000 dollar ask during the event, and while we didn’t win the pitch we had the three offers and one of them was quite good in terms of their connections and savviness on top of the finance they can bring, so we locked them in.
Can you describe the investors?
They’re a group of Brisbane based investors. A lot of high net worth individuals as well as a few people who have been through the startup world and have taken startups to exits over in the United States or had them listed here in Australia.
We’ve also got people lined up to invest in the next round.
Other than the monetary investment, do the new investors have ideas on how to commercialise the product suite or extend the product reach?
A couple of the investors are from the horse racing industry and asked if they could use this to help monitor the health of horses. They could use our technology and measure if horses start to limp before anyone visually picks it up by using our sensors on the hooves of the horses.
Those applications are cool and it’s the exact same product that’s inside our golf ball.
You’re almost going into injury prevention analysis territory.
We’re a bit lucky that Joan Norton (HYPE SPIN Lab Program Manager) is actually a well-known vet in the equine industry. A phone call with her helped push that idea. It fits into that injury prevention and recognition area. As a vet Joan raised a few points because one of their trickier jobs is that horses limp for a whole lot reasons, it could be their foot, hips, back but what we’d see in the data is they’d be limping in a particular way which would make it for easier for a vet to identify why it’s limping.
We’ve had to prioritise our current customers at the moment but it’s about showing the scope of the product is growing. It also shows that the value of the company grows as well because there’s not a lot of development from our end in moving from sport to sport.
Overall it fits in perfectly with our brand, our whole motto is ‘innovation in sport through technology,’ and as horse racing is a sport it’s not a giant leap for us and we still stick to our core principle.
With the initial loss of capital what have you learnt about accepting capital from certain people and companies?
It’s a weird one because I was recently in Melbourne and met with the person who had initially pulled his investment and he’s now back on board. For him he just got nervous about the investment group that I was working with and how they were approaching things, their potential rogue conduct which forced him to step back. That is what triggered me to act and get rid of that group too. When your investors are stepping back from you because of someone else you have to intervene decisively.
When it comes to investors, The main thing is it’s important to think of is their capabilities of helping you move forward in future rounds, not just the current one. Can they invest in a future round or do they have connections or skills that will be of use during the journey?
You go to bigger investors and they say you’re too early to invest in. Then you go to ‘friends, family, fools’ to put in what they can. You get your product and business to a point where you’re ready for the big investors and they look at your cap table and say it’s full of rats and mice and they don’t want to work with you. You’ve got to have an argument as to why each person on your cap table has the right to belong there and what they’re offering the company.
Having your neighbour throw in $5000, your barber $2000 may solve the short term cashflow issue, but it causes nightmares when you’re trying to go for a seed round or further. It sounds stupid, but these larger investors don’t like the concept of ‘free-loaders’ even though those people had the right intentions in just trying to help you be successful. This would have to be the worst part of my whole startup experience, and it’s definitely something I’d suggest other startups be wary of.
The other main lesson is that initial company that I had engaged promised me that they would help handle the capital raise and I made the mistake of committing to that deal because they dangled a million dollar investment in front of me that they never had. They basically tied me down to a contract which meant I couldn’t do anything capital raising wise, I couldn’t go out and raise capital myself. I was completely reliant on them to do it and they just weren’t delivering.
With the shake-up, who has been appointed and come on board Jetson Industries?
The official board is coming together and Archie Fraser (former Head of the A-League and CEO of AFL club St Kilda) is the first one to be onboard, he’s going to be the Chairman of Jetson Industries.
Did anyone leave the company due to any of the upheaval that occurred?
Not one person. That’s the cool part is that the team believes in the product and they can see that while the clean-up of the company has been messy they can see the benefits of it.
This article first appeared on Bullpen, a site that focuses on the Australian sports business, sportstech and the sports startup ecosystem.
Image: Ben Tattersfield. Source: iLab.