Meet the Irish Mr Moneyball on a mission to transform sports forever

4 Sep 2015553 Shares

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Dr Brian Moore with Irish athlete Sonia O'Sullivan

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Brian Moore’s Orreco, a Sligo start-up, is on a mission to transform sports performance around the world through data analytics, and has secured vital deals with Premier League football clubs in the UK and Major League Baseball teams in the US. Analytics can reduce the US$500m lost annually to sports teams through injuries.

In the Michael Lewis book Moneyball (and the movie of the same name), Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane employed analytics techniques to scout new players and identify the best performers, a strategy that changed the game entirely for the club.

Across the world, sports clubs and athletes are constantly trying to get the best out of themselves. They have an abundance of data but no clear insight from that data.

This is where a fast growing Sligo-headquartered start-up is about to transform sports forever. Orreco has developed unique biomarker technology that analyses blood and other data in an elite athlete’s body to devise ways of ensuring the athlete achieves peak performance.

‘Information is key, but information without the proper analysis is detrimental’
– KEITH WOOD

Headed by Brian Moore, Orreco is working with some of the world’s biggest names in sport, as well as top clubs like Newcastle United, and has appointed major sports stars including Keith Wood as directors. Investors in the company include golfers Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington.

In a recent funding round, the company raised US$1m, which will be invested in further building its software infrastructure and increasingly targeting the huge US market where clients include Nike Running, New Balance, an NBA team and Major League Baseball franchises.

The company has appointed Niall Bruton from Nike, where he was global club business manager for Premier League club Manchester United.

‘It has been a passion of mine from the start to get this capability into the hands of athletes and sports professionals’
– BRIAN MOORE

Orreco has also added new board members, including former VP of technology at Amazon.com Tom Killalea – who worked on the creation of AWS and Kindle –and the former managing director of Glanbia, John Maloney, who will also chair the board.

“It has been a passion of mine from the start to get this capability into the hands of athletes and sports professionals,” says Moore, a sports scientist who originally wanted to be a PE teacher.

His interest in physiology and science came from his parents, Anne and Joe, who are both biomedical scientists. “When I was growing up all I wanted to do was play sports.”

He went to Strawberry Hill in London to pursue a path in PE teaching, and it was on his first day there that Kenyan athlete Moses Kiptanui, one of the fastest runners in the world and the man who set the world record at the time for running 3km in eight minutes, went striding past him.

“I went running after him and it was only then that I realised I stumbled into the hotbed of world endurance running. Sonia O’Sullivan lived just around the corner and most of the top Kenyan athletes lived in the area too. I thought, ‘What an amazing opportunity’. I was obsessed with the factors that caused the East African dominance of running.”

Within six years of that encounter with Kiptanui, Moore was in Kiptanui’s livingroom analysing the athlete’s blood. “I was trying to understand, ‘What’s the essence of performance? How do you break barriers and push the known limits of performance?’”

His interest in haematology of athletes evolved and Moore worked with other Kenyan athletes, and O’Sullivan, to analyse numbers and spot potential iron deficiencies – a big deal for endurance athletes – weeks before the deficiencies took effect.

Moore decided he wanted to go to work at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, which had announced EPO testing to clean up sports. He sold everything he had, travelled to Australia and convinced them to take him on.

“This set me on a course of travelling around the world, inspecting the high altitude training camps used by Kenyan athletes, and I built a network of contacts that underpins everything we do today.”

‘Great athletes want to know that on game day they’re ready to perform. It’s a big opportunity, one in which the data-driven approach will take the prize’
– TOM KILLALEA

After Australia, Moore did a PhD under the tutelage of Professor Craig Sharp, who is renowned for creating modern sports science and who held the record for the fastest ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro.

“He encouraged me to better understand biomarker technology, and I wanted to fuse this with analytics on the full picture – blood volume, nutrition, sleep and more. All of this has an impact on an athlete. When you start using this data and getting predictive analytics, you can build models of performance and spot opportunities to scale that in professional sports. But not only professional sports, I see the opportunity to also create solutions to help amateur athletes prepare for the next 10k.”

Before founding Orreco, Moore worked with the British Olympics track and field, triathlon and rowing teams during the Sydney, Athens and Beijing Olympics.

He returned to Ireland and founded the company with Dr Andrew Hodgson, a consultant haematologist. He then went to Dr John Newell at NUI Galway to build the data mining and analytics platform.

“My motivation was to get objective analysis to enhance decision-making in all fields of sport.

“This, to me, was bigger than any one individual athlete or team. This needed to be done on a larger scale, and I wanted to found a company and do this in a way that I could direct and drive it myself.”

Scale is the focus right now, and the company’s addition of Tom Killalea to the board reflects that. “Great athletes want to know that, on game day, they’re ready to perform,” Killalea explained. “Orreco analyses the array of variables that collectively indicate whether an athlete is in that zone of peak performance, rather than being either underprepared or overdone. It’s a big opportunity, one in which the data-driven approach will take the prize.”

The company has also appointed Irish rugby star Keith Wood to the board. “Sports analytics has grown aggressively in the last number of years,” Wood told Siliconrepublic.com. “Thoughts and traits that were the preserve of anecdotal evidence are now been scrutinised to a far higher and scientific degree. Information is key, but information without the proper analysis is detrimental. Orreco’s view on analytics is transparent and comprehensive and, in my view, offers the best route for players and teams to achieve their goals while maximising players’ health and safety.”

Changing the game

“It is really about optimising, training and preventing athletes from damaging their bodies, undereating or not getting enough rest,” Moore points out.

“We have grounded this in biomarker technologies, and the next level is adding a layer of what that means for the athlete through data mining, analytics and aggregating all of these outputs into a model of performance and range to perform. If you don’t add value, you are not going to be around for very long.”

It’s a testament to Moore’s vision that Orreco’s technology has been used by Premier League clubs like Newcastle United for the last four years, and the company is making inroads into the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball.

Niall_Bruton_Orreco-man-united

‘In the US, hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted on athletes being put on the bench. If we can keep an athlete on the pitch or course, all the better’
– NIALL BRUTON

In the US, he says, Orreco has seen sales grow 120pc. This is because it is recognised there that as much as US$500m a year is lost by professional sports teams from athletes being put on the bench through injuries or by dint of being unfit. A New York Times article from 2013, ‘Money on the Bench’, showed that the New York Yankees lost 34pc of its payroll – or US$77.5m – in one year as a result of eight players being benched.

“Players are under a lot of pressure. There is a huge cost to being injured. The Olympics come around once every four years and you don’t want to be injured at the wrong time. A Premier League player runs the gauntlet from week to week.

“Using our technology, Newcastle United has reduced their soft tissue injuries. A huge amount of work happens pre-season to protect the athletes.”

Orreco’s commercial director Niall Bruton, a former Olympic athlete and Nike brand manager at Manchester United, told Siliconrepublic.com that all kinds of sports teams and organisations are wrestling with a deluge of data from blood to GPS and wearables. “They are not sure how to leverage that fully and maximise that data, and that’s where Orreco really adds value to pro teams.

“We enhance decision-making, provide solutions for athletes to make better decisions and, ultimately, we limit injuries. In the US, hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted on athletes being put on the bench. If we can keep an athlete on the pitch or course, all the better.”

Irish heart, global pulse

Moore’s vision could one day propel Orreco to become a household name in sports, on both professional and amateur levels.

“We’re not on a mission to become a household name,” Moore says. “ It’s our ambition to deliver at the highest level and, as a result, be recognised as experts in the field.

“We want to be the go-to resource for people and athletes to make the right decisions and be at the top of their game.”

Orreco is currently at 15 people, and the company will be recruiting in the data analytics space in the coming months. It maintains its HQ in Sligo, a physiology and nutrition centre in London, a sales office in Boston and an analytics/data mining hub in Galway.

“We are very committed to Ireland and we see a long-term future here. Our plan is to increase our presence in the US where sales have grown 120pc in the last year.

“We’re a company with an Irish heartbeat, but a global pulse.”

Video interview with Niall Bruton, Orreco

Data Science Week, with special coverage of this rapidly-growing field, will take place on Siliconrepublic.com from 28 September to 2 October 2015. Get updates by subscribing to our news alerts or following @siliconrepublic and the hashtag #DataScienceWeek on Twitter.

 

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com