Orreco flow: Fiona Slevin on start-ups and product development

21 Nov 2016

Orreco's chief operations officer Fiona Slevin. Image: Orreco

Fiona Slevin is at the spearhead of a revolution led by an Irish start-up called Orreco to transform sports performance using data.

Every year some $500m is lost to professional sports teams through injuries.

According to Slevin, chief operations officer with Galway-based Orreco, most of these injuries could be avoided by analysing athletes’ performance.

Slevin will be speaking at this week’s Startup Grind at Google’s Foundry in Dublin, supported by Bank of Ireland.

‘When it comes to product development you may be five years ahead in terms of what is possible, but the customers just want today’

Prior to Orreco, Slevin was founder and CEO of an AR simulation business which she sold in 2012. Before that, she held a range of international roles at Diageo plc and Goldman Sachs.

Orreco is a company started initially in Sligo by the Irish Mr Moneyball Dr Brian Moore but which is now based at the Innovation Centre at NUI Galway and employs at least 17 PhDs out of its 23-strong workforce.

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.

The company focuses on professional sports teams in the US and Europe spanning the gamut of sports from soccer to American football, basketball, track and more.

Redefining the business of sport

“We do sports data analytics and it is all about optimising performance,” said Slevin. “We study their multiple data sets and give them guidance on nutrition, sleep and a lot more in a way that is designed to ensure they are at peak performance and avoid injury.”

Slevin points out that sport is a business like any other. “Athletes are strategic assets. If you put a $30m asset on the field of play, for one thing it prolongs their career because they are available. But if they are injured and on the bench there is a cost because you are paying for an asset that you are not utilising.”

After graduating from University of Limerick, Slevin worked initially with a start-up in the interactive learning space and moved to London to work on a similar start-up.

She got her first big break in London working for a change management business established by a group of ex-Andersen Consulting (Accenture) executives called Via. This led her to working with oil exploration companies implementing new IT systems and she lived in Aberdeen for a year or two.

Back in London she joined Goldman Sachs and then United Distillers & Vintners where she worked on the merger of Grand Metropolitan and Guinness.

“Around this time the dot-com bubble was booming and there was a raft of new thinking around the experience economy. After leading a series of strategic workshops with the top 300 people at Diageo, where they were coming up with new ideas for start-ups and other ventures, it got me interested in start-ups.

“I had come from start-ups and had my fill of the corporate world and was ready to go back to the start-up world.”

Slevin returned to Dublin where she bumped into Trinity College Dublin computer science professor Gerry Lacey who was starting a medtech business called Haptica which provided simulation technology for surgical and medical procedures.

“It was quite exciting at the time because we were building something no one else was building. Our market was in the US. We built the business from zero to a point where it was acquired in 2012.”

After selling Haptica, Slevin took time out, went back to college and provided mentoring services for Enterprise Ireland clients.

“The more I stayed around start-ups the more I loved it.”

Data is fuel

It was not long before Slevin found herself working with Dr Brian Moore and two other sports scientists to build a business around sports data.

“We had to figure out how to model this data and make it scalable. We built a cloud-based platform that we linked up with IBM’s Watson to create the world’s first AI coach.

“The key to our technology is keeping athletes at the pinnacle of their fitness, avoiding injury and, if injured, recovering as quickly as possible.

“The key to it is being well. For example, entire NBA teams spent a lot of time flying about the place and they just aren’t well because they are suffering jetlag, not eating right; so at a human level it is about wellness.”

At Orreco, Slevin’s role is to build the business model. “My job is to think in financial terms. Even if you won every team in pro sport, it is a finite market. Even if you won half the US football teams, it is still a good business. But it is the consumer market where we will bring our science [and] where we will really win.”

She said the opportunity is there to take learnings from pro athletes and relate that to the pro-sumer or the health conscious consumer.

Orreco has also forged partnerships with academic bodies such as the University of Houston, which has close ties to NASA, and she says there is a strong correlation between athletes’ and astronauts’ wellness.

“There is a huge value to what we do but a serious cost to getting it wrong so we work very hard, using proven approaches.”

In terms of key learnings from her career, Slevin draws on two core principles. The first barometer of knowing whether a start-up founder will succeed or not is understanding just what they are prepared to risk.

“Know what you want and what you are prepared to risk to achieve it. Are you prepared to risk the house or move to the US? What are you willing to risk to pursue your ambitions and dreams?”

The next key metric is around product development. “How do you redefine perfect? I’ve made mistakes but every single person in academia, business and elsewhere has too. But the biggest one of all is delaying a product by trying to get it totally perfect and loading it with too many features.

“The customer is the ultimate arbiter of what is needed. A customer will prefer one feature that has value for them over 100 features that mean nothing to them. Too many features and you are just confusing them. Don’t sit in the office or lab waiting until it is perfect – if it works now it is good enough.”

She channels Reed Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, who said: “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

Slevin concluded: “The key thing is to be ready with products consumers will love, just don’t confuse them or delay your launch adding in new features.

“It is not a question of quality, but just who decides what is needed and what is right. It is the customers who decide.

“When it comes to product development you may be five years ahead in terms of what is possible, but the customers just want today.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years