Inside the NBA’s ‘Launchpad’ incubator for tech start-ups


LAS VEGAS — Boston Celtics forward Matt Ryan dashed up the court during an NBA Summer League game, dribbling behind his back before awkwardly launching a game-winning three-pointer. As his teammates celebrated and the crowd erupted, Ryan fell to the court, writhing in pain with a left ankle sprain.

Later that night, Richard Jefferson, the 17-year NBA veteran turned ESPN analyst, made his officiating debut in a made-for-television spectacle. Moments into his quarter-long shift, Jefferson was overruled by one of his fellow referees on an out-of-bounds call. Hearty jeers rained down as they huddled to hash out a compromise.

The Las Vegas Summer League was an 11-day marathon where prized rookies and journeymen alike competed in a low-stakes environment that can take on a carnival feel. But this year, in a pavilion just steps removed from the action, Commissioner Adam Silver and key members of the NBA’s brain trust met with representatives of companies selected to participate in the league’s new “Launchpad” program, which is intended to be an incubator for technological advancements in basketball.

As it happened, ankle sprain prevention and referee development were two of this year’s key initiatives, with the goals of making life less painful for the next generation of Ryans and Jeffersons. Healthier players and more accurate officiating, the NBA reasons, will lead to a better, more profitable product.

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“We’re trying to grow and improve the game, and we think the league playing a stronger role will benefit the global basketball community,” said Tom Ryan, the NBA’s vice president of basketball technology and innovation. “We have learned that if we don’t drive it, it’s not going to happen. When they’re working in health care or the military, getting engineers to work on basketball-specific problems is hard. Launchpad gives you a really clear pathway.”

The Launchpad concept was originally conceived in 2019 but was shelved during the first two years of the pandemic, as the NBA scrambled to get back on the court and cope with the coronavirus. After hearing pitches from start-up companies on an ad hoc basis for years, league executives wanted to formalize the process to target areas of interest like injury prevention, referee training, mental health and exercise tracking. With a rush of engineering work taking place during the pandemic, the NBA put out a call for applications and formed a selection committee composed of league executives, team executives and external experts to sort through hundreds of prospective companies.

Ultimately, five were selected: Betterguards, a German ankle brace manufacturer; Rezzil, an English virtual reality sports training service; Uplift, a Palo Alto-based 3D performance tracking program; Breathwrk, a Los Angeles-based mental health app; and Nextiles, a Brooklyn-based company that sews movement trackers into clothing.

“There’s a direct financial benefit if we invest in these companies and they appreciate,” Tom Ryan said. “There’s also our core business of keeping our stars on the court and selling tickets. Every game lost for LeBron [James], Stephen [Curry] and these guys that could have been prevented is huge financially.”

Betterguards pitches itself as a seatbelt-like preventive product that can be installed in braces or sneakers to protect the outside of each ankle. When athletes walk, run or cut at a normal speed, the technology allows normal freedom of movement, just like when a passenger slowly unfurls a seat belt to fasten it. But when there is a sharp turn of the ankle, the product’s hydraulic walls close tightly in less than a millisecond to prevent the ankle from rolling over, just as a seat belt restricts a passenger from falling forward during a crash.

The product could be especially useful on plays when a defensive player slides under a jump shooter while he is descending. Detroit Pistons rookie Jaden Ivey, the No. 5 pick in June’s draft, landed on a defender’s foot on such a play, ending his highly-anticipated Summer League after just two games.

“Ankle injuries are inevitable,” said former Cleveland Cavaliers guard Daniel Gibson, who is partnering with Betterguards. “My career ended due to ankle injuries over and over and over again. I went through a lot, depression. All I knew was basketball. If this could really prevent one of my brothers having to go through what I went through, let’s see what it’s all about.”

The product, which Betterguards chairman Martin Vetterlein said has been utilized by soccer, handball and minor league basketball players in Germany, was product-tested at an NBA youth academy in Africa and put through a trial at the University of Michigan to ensure that it wouldn’t inadvertently cause knee or hip injuries. The company’s executives aim to partner with major footwear designers so that the product will become “nonnegotiable equipment” for athletes, and they hope that NBA players will begin wearing their braces as soon as next season. League executives would first like to conduct a test in the G League.

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“There’s tens of millions of dollars and millions of disappointed fans at stake with each injury,” Vetterlein said. “It’s not only the money, it’s the people sitting at home.”

While Betterguards tries to keep players on the court, Rezzil’s virtual reality system could help referees improve their positioning.

Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s vice president of referee development, said that officials watch calls from nine different camera angles during their extensive postgame review sessions. According to Rezzil executives, their software provides access to “infinite perspectives,” allowing referees to review plays from their precise vantage point or to reposition the camera to determine where they should have been to get the best angle.

Take Jefferson, who was convinced that he had made the right call, even though his colleague had overturned his decision. Television angles showed a loose ball being tipped by fingers in a crowd, but Rezzil’s software would enable Jefferson — and referee evaluators like McCutchen — to relive the sequence from any viewpoint they wanted on a laptop or a VR-enabled headset.

“You could move yourself into different positions,” McCutchen said. “If I’d been in this position two steps over, I wouldn’t have had the doubt or needed help from another official. I would have seen it clearly, signaled more confidently and we wouldn’t have come together. Whenever referees meet, it breeds doubt and seeds confusion in the game participants.”

Rezzil touted partnerships with high-level soccer teams like Manchester United and Manchester City, and its software can help train football quarterbacks to read defenses and aid basketball players with their hand-eye coordination.

While Major League Baseball has said it could use “robot umpires” to automate ball and strike calls as soon as 2024, NBA executives insisted their continued forays into video review are about making life easier for their referees, not replacing them. The league’s brass believes that certain calls — goaltending, out-of-bounds decisions and whether a shooter’s foot was on the three-point line — will soon be automated with video systems that can relay 29 points of skeletal data in real time to ensure accuracy.

“We are committed to humans,” Tom Ryan said. “We think human referees are incredible, but we think there’s an opportunity to take certain things off their plate. Did the ball reach its apex? When you’re looking at 10 different things on the court and now you’re judging a parabola, the computer is better at doing that.”

With Silver bracing for upcoming negotiations with the National Basketball Players Association and media rights partners, it’s no surprise that the league’s focus is on issues like health and the integrity of the officiating, as both directly contribute to the quality of the television product. Indeed, Silver noted that “player availability” is the Launchpad’s top priority for next season, with special focus given to soft-tissue injuries.

Looking ahead to a media landscape that will be dominated by streaming platforms and unbundled services, Silver said that viewers will be more discerning, forcing the NBA to put “more teams in position to compete and more players on the floor in position to compete on a nightly basis.” The commissioner even floated the possibility that players could receive new “additional incentives,” on top of their contracts, based on the number of “games played and the results of those games.”

That philosophy sounds a bit Darwinian and the embrace of virtual reality and tracking wearables can give “Big Brother” vibes. Still, the NBA is convinced that its fortunes rely on maintaining its position on the cutting edge.

“Technological innovation that can be good business and make a difference in our business is precisely the sweet spot,” Silver said. “The [Launchpad’s] funnel will grow and create even more opportunities. There’s nothing more frustrating than having [playoff] series decided by players not being on the floor.”

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