First Sports Tech Cloud Platform & Incubator Announced by Zone5 Ventures

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Today’s post is gonna be a bit more on the geeky/industry side of things, though, I suspect most of you can see how this will ultimately carry itself through to more choice in consumer products down the road. Or, just simply better consumer products. Plus, the backstory and cast of characters here is surprisingly deep for a new company that’s theoretically instantiated from mid-air.

As of today, an entity known as Zone5 Ventures has instantiated itself as both a cloud platform for companies to store sports-tech data on (and they already have a long client list), as well as an incubator style investment firm. But the real kicker? They now own Today’s Plan, one of the larger online endurance sports online training platforms out there.

Today’s Plan is now a subsidiary of this newly instantiated entity, in roughly the same way that Google proper is technically a subsidiary of Alphabet, Inc. Some of this is merely moving sand into different buckets – but a lot of it with Zone5 is very much new buckets of new sand. Real humans will be getting real employment contracts that move them out of Today’s Plan and into new job roles doing new things in a new company with a different name.

Ultimately, the goal of Zone5 Ventures is to act a bit like Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, or Microsoft Azure, but for sports-specific data. They’re aiming to handle all the file-formatting and storage mess out of it, and keeping startups and big companies alike focused on all the other features of their app or platform.

(Random Note: There’s no connection of any sort between Zone5 Ventures that this post is about, and Zone Five Software, makers of Sports Track and Sports Track Mobi.)

The Cloud Platform:

Zone5Diagram

(Every good tech company needs a single head-tilting slide with numerous arrows and bubbles that tries to explain it all. Zone5 Ventures entrant into that competition is above.)

One of the things that almost every sports technology company underestimates initially is the challenge of the actual sports data files themselves. Sure, there are standards like .FIT files and .TCX files, but that doesn’t mean the companies follow those standards. Nor does it mean those files, companies, or standards don’t change. It can and is a nightmare for smaller platforms to try and keep up with all these tweaks, especially if their platform is looking to integrate with 3rd party services or data.

To give a very specific ‘me’ example, we have the DCR Analyzer. That’s the thing I use in my reviews to compare data sets, and thousands of you use as well. One of the biggest challenges we have is other companies doing ‘special’ things to data structures without bothering to tell anyone. Sure, you have plenty of smaller companies that just don’t understand .FIT files correctly and need help to navigate that. But, we also run into the frequency challenges of big players introducing breakages for their own internal reasons. For example last spring Garmin quietly changed how they store elevation and speed data within a .FIT file, they went from 16-bit integers to 32-bit integers. Not all units use this method, only the newer ones. Or, Suunto leaving zero and null-values in the distance accumulation data sets in their .FIT files. In our cases, these were relatively easy fixes. But these sorts of things happen constantly.

Now imagine you’re an up and coming app trying to figure it out. That’s a nightmare. I’m lucky in that the lead developer for the DCR Analyzer is also behind the FitFileTools site, and also works with Final Surge to assist them too in navigating these waters. So we tend to catch most of these quirks quickly. But if you’re trying to create the next Strava, dealing with all these nuances is impossible from a fresh start.

And that’s ultimately what Zone5 Ventures is trying to address. They’re leveraging the same backend experience we have, but in their case via Today’s Plan. They see all the same daily file formatting wonk we do, but actually have even more complicated systems to have to handle it.  Which is why over the last few years Today’s Plan has actually been running more sites than just Today’s Plan. Some of them have been pretty visible – such as Stage’s site, which is back ended on Today’s Plan. While others are less obvious, such as the Zwift Academy, or Stryd.

All of these 3rd party entities partnerships now fall under the Zone5 Ventures bit. In fact, here’s a partial (public) list of them below. Zone5 Ventures says that there are numerous other companies for which the relationship isn’t yet public (and may never be).

Zone5-TodaysPlan-Partners

So what are they actually doing? Well, it’s essentially a collection of API (Application Programming Interfaces) endpoints into what are cloud storage pools for sports-tech specific data. They want to take any sort of fitness data and fitness sensor data and act as that normalized pool, with then further connections to 3rd party platforms and services. The idea being that if you want to create a new running app, or a cycling app, you can simply offload all of the data storage and processing bits to them. So rather than figuring out how to properly format files or anything else, you just leverage their API and you’re done.  In talking with Chris Yu (one of Zone5’s founders) about it, he noted that “Just getting the basics, being able to feed data in at the top of the funnel and have that processed through to give them basic ride metrics is a huge task in and of itself”.

They’re (very specific) goal for onboarding is that a person who’s just read Coding Swift for Dummies can turn around and use their fitness cloud platform without any additional knowledge.

But it’s not just limited to app developers, in fact, they see a blank canvas when talking to other groups as well, Ben Bowley (founder of Today’s Plan) said that “The volume of inquiry we get from that kind of stuff is really quite significant, and is something that Today’s Plan is already doing. We think there’s this incredible opportunity whether it be entrepreneur or scientists.”

Which is true. The same issues that apply to a fitness startup also apply to someone trying to do research on fitness data. I see that constantly with sport-specific studies that screw up understanding sport-specific data.

Now as of right now the platform requires a bit of manual onboarding with a dedicated team. That team is currently based in Canberra, and are technically Today’s Plan employees. However, they’ll shortly be given new employment contracts and transitioned to be legit Zone5 Ventures employees where their complete time will be focused on 3rd party customers. Ultimately though, they want the entire provisioning to be completely self-service, so that a startup never has to talk to a human if they don’t want to (just like AWS or Azure).

The main blocker of that right now isn’t actually so much technology, but rather just working through the pricing pieces – which at the moment is custom from customer to customer. But their goal is that within 6-months to have super clear on-website pricing similar to what Amazon or Microsoft has for cloud services (which is largely usage driven).

They also talked about down the road offering a user-consented and opt-in anonymized sports-specific data set that would be offered to researches, some of it via grants. We see a bit of this today within the Golden Cheetah OpenData set, but looking at the scale of companies involved above, this would undoubtedly dwarf it – again, assuming users consented to their data being used for that.

Also, just like AWS or Azure, the primary goal here is a platform for other companies to build their own apps and services on – not as a data set to monetize. Zone5 says that ultimately those platforms and systems will be coordinated off from a security standpoint in the same manner as Amazon/Google/Microsoft cloud services, though, they didn’t have any specific details on how exactly that’s being achieved from a security standpoint.

They did note though that they have no issues with competitors to Today’s Plan wanting to leverage their platform (just like Apple’s iTunes leveraged Microsoft Azure and Amazon AWS platforms for years).

The Incubator Arm:

So what if you don’t have money but still need cloud platform access? Well, you can sell your soul.

Or, more alternatively – you can offload a small bit of equity.

There’s effectively two major components of Zone5 (aside from Today’s Plan), and the second piece is the venture arm, though, they noted that they are not a venture capital company “at all”. They see themselves as a bit more like an incubator arm, akin to Y-Combinator, but without giving physical space away. Instead, the Boulder-based division will give access to the cloud platform (and expertise in the sports tech realm) in exchange for equity. Technically though in addition to the cloud pillar, there’s the Incubator group, Research Group, and Portfolio group. But practically speaking Incubator and Portfolio groups are more or less the same today. And the Research group I covered under the cloud platform section.

In discussing the venture with them, one of the realities that came up is that typical Silicon Valley VC groups are generally bad at figuring out sports tech. They are easily distracted by things that have been done and died before (or are poorly though-out because they lack the knowledge of sports tech), but also inversely they’ll skip over ideas that have legit good merits because they don’t see the potential. There are surprisingly very few sports-tech specific funding groups in the space.

Interestingly though – the investment arm is open to not just entrepreneurs, but also other investors that may want to join in. However, they cautioned that they aren’t just opening the door to people with money. Today’s Plan’s Ben Bowley noted that “It’s frustrating trying to talk to people to who don’t understand this space, and it’s super hard. You end up with some in the VC space that have a personal interest in cycling, but that doesn’t always carry over to how they invest their money.”

He went onto say that the type of investors they would be interested in bringing onboard are people that have actual industry experience, rather than just an enjoyment of cycling or yoga.

And this may be as good a time as any to talk about some of the players involved here.  As you’ve surmised by now, one of the founders is Ben Bowley of Today’s Plan. With him is Chris Yu of Specialized Wind Tunnel & related tech projects fame (he’s remaining at Specialized, though is splitting his time). In fact, there’s a number of Specialized-linked folks here throwing in their personal time or money. For example, Specialized’s own founder – Mike Sinyard, is personally investing funds into it. As is John Rangle, the current CFO of Specialized. There are other major investors, people I’d actually categorize as massively larger figures in the sports tech space, though, those individuals aren’t quite ready to be listed yet due to pending projects they haven’t yet announced.

It’ll be super interesting to see how this evolves. I’m often asked by startups if they know of investment that’s specific to this industry, and as I noted above – the number of investors I know that actually know what they’re doing in this industry is relatively thin. And concurrently, the number of sports-tech specific services companies are also relatively thin. I could see Zone5 potentially expanding their offerings around the services side of things – potentially to include hardware/sensor consulting/advisement as well (similar to what NPE does behind the scenes for a number of major customers and gear you’ve very likely got in your pain cave today and don’t even realize it). All areas that new (and old) companies struggle with.

And of course, I’m interested to see how quickly Zone5 can shift from manual onboard of customers into the cloud to a fully automated and self-service platform, which is key to getting 1-3 person startups onboard that don’t really want to deal with lots of administrative or contractual overhead. If they can hit their 6-month timeframe, that’d be pretty impressive.

In any case, hope ya found this interesting, and thanks for reading!