This week we had the honor to interview Sukemasa “Masa” Kabayama, CEO of Uplift Labs, an AI powered technology company that provides real time tracking and 3D analysis of movement performance and movement health.
Of note, Uplift was founded by 3 technology veterans. Masa served as President of Tesla Japan and held leadership roles at innovative global companies such as Apple and LEGO. CTO Jonathan Wills is a serial entrepreneur who sold his image recognition firm that he founded to GoPro in 2015. Uplift's Chief AI Officer, Rahul Rajan, earned his Ph.D. in considerate systems at Carnegie Mellon University.
In January, Uplift joined the NBA Launchpad, a new incubator program for tech that advance the league’s top basketball priorities. Uplift is also backed by NBA star Seth Curry and his wife Callie Rivers Curry, a former professional volleyball player, as well as retired basketball players such as former NBA All-Star Marc Gasol and Atlanta Dream co-owner Renee Montgomery. Other notable investors include former National Football League (NFL) player David DeCastro, RCVC, Softbank subsidiary DEEPCORE, Atma Capital, Stadia Ventures, Oregon Sports Angels, Black Lab Sports and Gaingels.
Here is a picture of Uplift Capture’s Cloud Visualizer:
Picture: Uplift Labs
While other motion capture systems rely on pricey wearables and require complex calibration, Uplift’s solution called Uplift Capture only requires a pair of iPhones and tripods. Footage of the athlete is recreated in accurate 3D. Uplift's AI then generates key biomechancial metrics of the movements.
“It’s two phones, no markers, no calibration, just walk in and go to work (..) That saves probably like 70% of the time”, explains Keke Lyles, Uplift’s Director of Performance, and Golden State Warriors’ former Performance Director.
Picture: Uplift Labs
Here is a video illustrating Uplift Capture in action:
Video: Uplift Labs
📝Show Notes: Through this interview, we touched on his background, his company, product, the benefits for the teams, and his business model. Then we discussed his plans for the next 12 months.
Best Quotes: Here’s some of the key discussion points and best quotes from our conversation with Masa:
On his background:
“I've been very fortunate to be part of extremely innovative companies that were able to launch category-defining products in existing markets. For seven years, I was Country Manager for LEGO's education company in Japan, where I had the privilege of launching the (LEGO Mindstorms) robotics platform in the education sector. After that, I was the Director of Education at Apple in Japan with a focus on launching the iPad in the education sector as well”.
“So I have had 12 years of Ed-tech experience. And then, for my last gig before moving back to the US, I was the first President of Tesla in Japan, where my remit was to launch the Model S, quickly scale the organization, and build out the infrastructure to help support sustainable transport”.
“So you can say that my passion and my professional career have been very much about trying to find the coolest and latest emerging technology that has the propensity to scale and has a net positive effect on society”.
On why he decided to build his own startup:
“Within their own categories, especially with Apple and Tesla, all those business trips to the Bay area, meeting up with friends, and fellow folks I really thought, man, you know, I've always had the entrepreneurial bug, in fact earlier in my career, I've been with some early stage startups, but I never did it from zero to one”.
‘So I thought if I am going to launch a startup, I want to do it in Silicon valley. And the key reason is that many of the companies that came out of here went global. And their products are those that people cannot live without”.
On why he decided to focus on biomechanics:
"I really believe biomechanics for everybody is going to be the biggest wave of a new unlock and not just myself but also my two co-founders, Jonathan and Rahul, that I was fortunate to meet at a prior company where we worked together. We were like hey, this is going to be the biggest wave of disruption and how do we truly democratize this with everyday devices like our smartphones to be able to accurately track and measure our performance to improve athletic abilities and even your health”.
On how he and his co-founders got the idea to build Uplift Labs and what makes their smartphone camera based solution so unique:
“So many of us get injured, including myself, whether through playing sports or doing fitness and it was actually the impetus of the company founding. I used to do CrossFit quite a bit and unfortunately, I also injured myself quite a bit. I had a rotary cuff-related injury or a lower or upper back issue”.
“And I kept thinking: What's wrong with my form? So at Uplift we believe that we have the most accurate smartphone camera-based solution out there to track your movements. And this is why I believe we have been able to win the trust of professional athletes, elite athletes and professional teams and leagues”.
On their partnership with GOLFTEC:
“Movement really matters. And that extra degree or those few extra inches, have a huge impact on performance. So for example, we honed our tech through our partnership with GOLFTEC, the world's largest golf instruction company”.
“If you go to any one of GOLFTEC’s over 230 locations worldwide, the motion capture technology they use is running Uplift's algorithms. And if we look to professional sports, over half a dozen MLB teams are now utilizing us for pitching and hitting data analytics. We also recently entered a partnership with the NBA through the Launchpad initiative that just concluded a month ago”.
On the core technology behind Uplift:
“Uplift's core technology is video based. And I think this is where it's really exciting because it's movement agnostic. We have built our own proprietary computer vision and machine learning algorithms to understand at high accuracy how people are moving”.
“And we certainly have patented our technology which is granted in the US and is patent pending in Europe and Asia. What the patent is for is what we call our movement intelligence platform (utilizing one, two or multiple cameras for video-based skeletal tracking). So today we have a dual camera system that is just using two iPhones or two iPads, where we can track an athlete's movement, and then we apply that specifically for sports training or strength and conditioning. We are also focusing on digital health such as physiotherapy”.
On their focus on rotational based movements for sports like golf or baseball as well as their agnostic approach:
“We first started out focusing on rotational based movements such as a golf swing or a baseball swing and then we moved onto pitching. That let us to develop and fine tune our models because these MLB players are pitching at a hundred miles per hour”.
“So we've enhanced our technology to capture 240 frames per second. We're just talking using iPhones and iPads here. To capture a golf or a baseball swing for example, we do that at 120 frames per second. So again, our tech is agnostic in the sense that it can really capture any type of movement”.
“But I think for the end user, whether it's a coach, trainer or an athlete, the type of metrics that are important to them differs probably from sport to sport and for different use cases. On the front end, so to speak, we provide different type of metrics for reporting. I do think it's immensely exciting because we're collecting data which is anonymized, but such datasets are collected from the highest level of players and performers in sports”.
On their focus on collegial sports (NCAA) as well:
“Yesterday was a big moment for Uplift’s history where the last two years has been focused at the professional level and now we just announced our first collegiate partnership (Missouri State University and their baseball program). This is part of our democratization roadmap which enables us to move downstream so to speak, as we cascade into colleges, private sports academies and high schools to reach the everyday athlete. The college level (NCAA) is a huge market”.
“Strategically we are working at the highest level with those professional teams because we want validation from them. We want to ensure that our level of motion capture accuracy meets their needs. And we believe that it creates a brand halo opportunity and trust from the collegiate teams to the independent academies. So we're excited about building upon that trust”.
On their focus on digital health in the next 12 months:
“We will also be focusing on the digital health space in the next 12 months. That's part of our roadmap because you need to be accurate there. When you're diagnosing somebody's injuries you need to be accurate such as in a teletherapy situation observing someone's musculoskeletal movements for rehab. And we believe that having worked at the highest level with elite athletes gives us the opportunity to start talking to healthcare providers as well. It's a $166B market. That’s a huge opportunity”.
On how to contact them and the best way to use their technology:
“We are a B2B company and have a SaaS business model. The best thing is to contact our Director of Sales."
"During the early days of the pandemic, we had to innovate a bit since we used to do onboarding onsite at our clients' location which was no longer possible. But now we do everything virtually. And part of that is the innovation that the product team and engineering/AI teams put into it. We basically are able to do that because we've automated a lot of the capture technology such as the uploading of captured videos into the cloud for processing.
"So the best way is really to just contact us. We'd love to have a conversation, and understand what our prospective clients' objectives are and if we could be of help, we would love to assist”.
“And just to be clear, you currently cannot go to the AppStore and download an app so the best way is to reach out to us to get started”.
On their recent found raise of $5.5M with the backing of NBA player Seth Curry and many other athletes:
“Last week we just announced our Series Seed Round and we're very, very fortunate, especially in this macroeconomic climate to have had an oversubscribed round of $5.5M. We're really excited with a lot of the strategic investors that came on board, including professional athletes such as Seth and Callie Rivers Curry, Marc Gasol, Renee Montgomery, on the NFL side David DeCastro, and a number of Japanese Olympian gold medalists. They always share their stories that they wished they had this kind of tech for injury prevention or player development when they were young. That was so incredible to hear and these stories make our hearts sing because they want to give back to the younger generation”.
“They love the fact that our technology provides that accessibility, which has really been to this day only available for elite athletes or sports scientists. We are not just about having a coach in your pocket. Instead you have an entire sports lab in your pocket”.
On their plan for the next 12 months to focus on understanding how their users’ bodies move and some new announcements scheduled for Q4:
“To date at Uplift, we've been working on the performance optimization and enhancement side. That's like, how do I hit better, pitch better, swing better or shoot better. And we're tracking and understanding how you move. But the other missing piece is really, 'how does my body naturally move?' For example, I have a really constricted range of motion at the top of my golf swing. So there's no way I can swing like Tiger Woods or much less anybody at the PGA pro level”.
“But there are certain things that I can do sometimes well. So that ability to really understand your biomechanics and how you naturally move is key. So how do we intervene there so you're injury free, and you can actually translate that energy over to your performance to maximize your athletic outcome”.
“I don't think there's a startup that's out there that's solving for both sides of the equation. And this is what I'm really passionate about what we are doing. And you're going to see some major announcements coming in Q4 that will relate to what I just mentioned”.
On their transition into prescriptive analytics:
“We're starting to move down the track of what we call prescriptive analytics. What are the general movement patterns that we're seeing? How does this athlete compare to how they're moving today versus three months ago? We are trying to see their longitudinal improvements. So these are things that we're also working on. You'll see some announcements coming in the next 12 to 18 months“.
On when we had his haha moment:
“I had this kind of aha moment where I had Matt Kilgariff, one of the nation’s top golf swing coaches, along with Keke Lyles, who is now our Director of Performance take a look at my swing. (Keke's claim to fame is when he was Performance Director for the Warriors, he helped Steph Curry cure his angle injuries back in 2013). So I had both of them on in a remote session looking at my golf swing”.
“And it was amazing because I always used to suffer from lower back injuries while playing golf. Keke would look at the way I naturally move and correct my posture. And then I would have Matt look at my new posture, and he would say, okay, let's change up your swing this way. And man, this was a magical moment. From there we knew we had something and I really wanted to have our tech pushed out to the world where everybody can have this type of aha moment”.
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