How do you harness new technology to deliver a commercial outcome?

In 2012, Chelsea FC won the Champion’s League for the first time in their history. Nearly 70,000 fans sat and watched the dramatic conclusion inside the gigantic Allianz Arena, as the English team won on penalties to consign Germany’s Bayern Munich to defeat on their home turf. Chelsea’s fans celebrated wildly and took photos as their team paraded the trophy around the pitch. In among the celebrations one of those fans, Professor Ian Wakeman, was struggling to upload his selfie. No matter what he tried, his phone couldn’t get a signal. 

This is a problem common to many modern sports stadia, or anywhere with a large enough gathering of people. Anyone who’s tried to email or make a call on a smartphone in such a situation will know how difficult it is to get connected when there are thousands of other phones in use all around. What most sports fans won’t know is that there is a potential solution – but as a computer scientist and Professor of Software Systems at the University of Sussex, Ian did. By pooling resources and connecting multiple phones together to create a network, every phone could end up with an improved signal, without the need for installing new WiFi or 3G infrastructure. Thinking that the solution might present a business opportunity, he brought the idea to Sussex Innovation.

Based on initial market research, our advice was that there was a clear commercial opportunity, but both the live sports and communication technology markets were changing fast. It was vital to move quickly and gain market share while Ian’s solution was at its most relevant. The obvious place to demonstrate the technology was at Brighton and Hove Albion’s American Express Community Stadium, built just two years earlier across the road from the University’s campus. As a season ticket holder, Ian was delighted with the chance to work with his local team.

Building a digital stadium

Representatives from the club were invited to meet Ian at the Sussex Innovation Centre and find out how a software solution could help them develop better contact with their fans during matches – without the massive expense of equipping their stadium with new infrastructure. As an added benefit, behavioural research showed that a club mobile app could help increase the time and money that fans would spend inside the ground. A trial of the ‘Digital Stadium’ app was arranged, and Ian and his team set to work building it in time for the last few matches of the 2012-13 season. The trial was a huge success with fans and club alike.

Securing the necessary finance

Sussex Innovation recommended a chairman and investors with experience in the mobile communication sector to help oversee and advise the newly formed spinout company, which was named TribeHive. The project received R&D funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and TribeHive rolled out products for six Football League clubs during the 2013-14 season. The league gave its backing, including access to official data partner Opta, and the innovation was covered on the BBC, in the Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian.

As they grew, TribeHive encountered a very common problem – how to expand their team sustainably in line with revenues. The recently launched Catalyst scheme at Sussex Innovation offered the solution. One of our group of mentored students, Charlie, worked initially for two mornings a week looking after their existing clients, enabling the founders to focus on business development. The additional time that Catalyst afforded them led to the company securing new investment from experienced sports business professionals who helped to grow the company further. When his placement year was over, Charlie became a full time employee at TribeHive, joining along with the three new developers that the business could now afford.

What the future holds

In 2016, the TribeHive technology team merged with sports data experts from Opta, and executives from sports marketing firm IMG to form InCrowd. The company now employs more than 30 people delivering a range of products to football, rugby and cricket clubs, as well as many of the country's league organisations. And with any luck, next time Ian’s team lifts a trophy he’ll be able to get a signal.