Barcelona: Costa del sport

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Twenty-five years after hosting the Olympic Games, the capital of Catalonia has become a technology hub with a vibrant start-up environment. A celebrated football team’s innovation hub was the catalyst.

Lionel Messi

It was 21 September 2016, and FC Barcelona was up 1-0 against Atlético Madrid. The Spanish football championship had begun only a few weeks earlier, but for fans this was a crucial game. At the 59th minute, after sprinting to the ball, Argentinian striker Lionel Messi ruptured his right adductor. Sheer panic ensued on the Barça sidelines, and half of Catalonia held its breath. Messi left the field, and the rest is history: Madrid’s Angel Correa came on and evened the score. The three points to victory disappeared – the very same three points that Barça is missing at the end of the season in its race against eternal rival Real Madrid.

At this level of play, success hinges on every detail. It is with this approach that FC Barcelona launched its Barça Innovation Hub (BIHub). The first start-up that came out of the incubator was SM Genomics, which aims to prevent player injuries. Over the past few months, Barça’s medical staff have constructed a genetic map of all 22 players, helping determine individual nutritional needs, prepare bespoke training sessions and even define personalised rest periods. Conducted by researchers from the University of Barcelona, the project was brought to life by Barça physician Ricard Pruna.

Recruiting start-ups

Hoping to launch other, similar start-ups, FC Barcelona has employed “project hunter” Juan Alvarez de Lara, director of Seed&Click, an agency specialising in the tech sector. His job is to help the club identify and recruit promising start-ups. “Like all multinationals, Barça realised it had to outsource a part of its R&D activities to be more flexible in a quickly changing world,” explains Alvarez de Lara.

BIHub’s innovative projects are easily marketed. Élite clubs like Manchester United and FC Sevilla, as well as second- and third-division teams have already made use of SM Genomics services. Even amateur athletes can create their genetic profile for a mere €260 to €355. “The strategy is to create value through these start-ups,” says Alvarez de Lara. “Barça is known as a top football team, but we go far beyond that. It’s also a basketball club and a foundation.” Indeed, Barça launched a foundation to encourage football’s “positive” values and serve as an insight into Catalonia.

Increasing turnover

Trade missions for sport

Founded in 2010, private association Indescat brings together various members of the Catalan sports industry, including event organisers, facility construction groups and producers of goods and services used by athletes. “Catalonia is a very favourable region for sport,” says Alex Rivera Molins, director of Indescat. “There are at least four different Masters programmes in sports management.” The association also developed several training programmes for entrepreneurs: sports technologies, retail sales and energy efficiency for sports facilities.

Indescat, which collaborates with 22 other Catalan clusters, coordinated a September trade mission to the US that brought together sports associations from France, the Netherlands and Belgium as the “EU 4 Sports Cluster Alliance”, co-financed by the European Commission. Its mission is to develop new value chains and take advantage of opportunities for small companies outside Europe. In February, Indescat’s trade mission brought 17 companies and associations to Beijing and organised 130 bilateral discussions. For the Catalan sports industry, the new frontier is beyond Europe.

For FC Barcelona, it’s as much a matter of economics as of sports. “We need to win and aim for the very best all the time,” BIHub director Jordi Monés explained in the Swiss newspaper Le Temps. “This means our players must perform very well, and avoid injuring themselves as much as possible… and remain competitive against the Premier League [UK football championship] and its financial manna. We must also figure out how to earn more revenues without raising the price for members.” In Catalonia, FC Barcelona benefits from a dense network of small companies and start-ups in the sports industry. The Indescat association (see box) includes more than 500 companies throughout Catalonia, which together generate €4 billion a year, or 2.1% of the region’s GDP. Some 70% of Spain’s economic activity associated with sport is concentrated in Barcelona. Director Alex Rivera Molins attributes this to the 1992 Olympics. “With the three élite football clubs, the Formula 1 races, basketball, sailing and ultra-trails, half the region’s residents are out doing something every weekend. When a company wants to open up shop in Spain, Barcelona immediately comes to mind. It’s no fantasy: Barcelona could become the Silicon Valley of sport.”

Turf and nanotechnologies

One of Catalonia’s success stories is turf and synthetic-surface specialist Royal Verd, based in the north-eastern province of Girona. After selling agricultural products in the 1950s, Royal Verd diversified and invested in professional sporting grounds. For the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Royal Verd was awarded the contract to install and maintain the difficult grass in Manaus and six other stadiums. Using a system of sensors, it manages the turf for numerous élite Spanish clubs.

First Vision is just as close to the field, but in another domain. Founded in 2014, this start-up based in Hospitalet de Llobregat weaves mini-cameras, accelerometers and heart rate monitors into the fabric of sport jerseys. Several tests have been conducted during rugby, hockey and basketball matches. First Vision aims to make spectators feel the same emotions as the players by broadcasting sport matches into virtual reality headsets. The start-up used its system this year during a heated basketball game between Turkey’s Fenerbahçe and Greece’s Olympiakos.

The market is still in its infancy, but First Vision hopes to attract sponsors and the public with its new way of watching sports matches. The start-up, with FC Barcelona midfielder Andrés Iniesta as one of the first investors, hopes to raise €2.5 million through crowdfunding.

Improving the spectator experience by making it more immersive is also one of BIHub’s goals. Its teams are currently working on some 70 innovative projects to improve sports events, medicine and new technologies. Once it is renovated, Barcelona’s Camp Nou could become one of the first “smart stadiums” in which fans can follow a match through a virtual-reality headset. This will bring the fan community even closer to professional football.

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