Tech entrepreneurs go the distance with new triathlon company

25 Aug 2011

Think of the Electric Picnic music festival and then apply it to TriGrandPrix, a new triathlon movement that is aiming to cater for every type of athlete and fitness level, be it the elite runner or the person who is hitting the running track or starting to cycle or swim for the first time, making triathlons weekend, festival-type, family-friendly ‘experiences’.

Co-founded by Irish tech entrepreneur Jim Breen and Venezuelan professor and engineer José Torres, TriGrandPrix is a fusion of their IT experience applied to the sporting arena.

TriGrandPrix’s aim is to make triathlons accessible to all, with the company’s trans-European events covering varying distances. There’s even a kids triathlon at each event.

The duo started out in 2010 by organising two triathlons in London and Spain. They’ve held four triathlons so far this year, including one in Kilkenny on 23 July when over 900 people took part in the TriGrandPrix event series. Owen Cummins and Natalie Barnard were the champions at Kilkenny Castle.

The company’s triathlon series for 2011 will round up with the next triathlon happening in Valencia, Spain on 11 September at the F1 circuit and then in Ciboure Itsas-Mendi, near Biarritz in France on 2 October.

Chief operations officer Torres, an engineer and lecturer who originally hails from Venezuela but who has been based in San Sebastian in northern Spain for the past few years, says it was a chance meeting with Breen – founder of the e-learning company PulseLearning and Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2007 finalist – in Biarritz in 2009 that ignited the idea to set up TriGrandPrix.

“Jim was training for a triathlon and I was seeking entrepreneurial advice at the time and was also training for Ironman. We saw a really good opportunity in the triathlon business,” explains Torres.

While Ironman itself is a brand of its own, Breen and Torres set out to make TriGrandPrix the ‘grand prix of triathlons’.

Aspiring to make TriGrandPrix an international affair from the outset, Breen and Torres have high targets, aiming to hold between 10 and 12 triathlon ‘experiences’ across Europe next year, with the possibility of extending beyond the continent, perhaps even to the US, down the line.

So what’s so unique about TriGrandPrix? In August, for instance, Gael Force West took place in Ireland. This event is known as a gruelling multi-sport one that includes kayaking, running and swimming in Connemara and stretches athletes to their mental and physical limits.

“In Ireland we created a triathlon experience,” explains Torres, referring to TriGrandPrix. “It’s a weekend festival and there’s a social aspect. We have created a movement that reaches out to elite athletes, beginners, companies for teambuilding, as well as families with kids.

“We identified an opportunity and have gone from the tech and information systems world, applying our acumen to the sporting world.”

The interesting part – and challenge – maintains Torres, is to transport triathlons out of the triathlon bubble and to get non-sport companies to see the value and opportunity TriGrandPrix is creating in this industry.

“It is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world and it is not the ‘new golf’.”

He says that the average salary of a triathlon athlete up to now has been in the region of €160,000, as company directors are generally likely competitors, often using triathlons as a medium to communicate both their own and their company’s values, as well as keeping their stress levels in check through all the training that’s involved.

However, Torres notes that the recession has ironically created a paradigm shift in the type of people now being enticed to compete in triathlons. While many people don’t have the disposable income to spend on luxuries such as holidays to far-flung destinations anymore, they can justify putting some money – as well as sweat and effort – into improving their fitness levels by training and competing in a triathlon.

“We’re seeing more and more people starting to run 5km. Elite athletes have a role, while we also have mid-sized triathlons and beginner triathlons. Our competitors create the triathlon. There’s an Olympic distance, a sprint and a super sprint so there’s something for everybody.”

The upcoming TriGrandPrix in Valencia is a particularly enticing one as it takes place on the Formula 1 circuit there.

Finally, on an economic and social level, Torres says a triathlon also brings value to the local communities where they are held.

“It engages the community, as you need marshals to help on the day. Also, each athlete generally travels with between one and three people and stay three days – so it’s a good cash injection for the local economy.”

Image: Dr Jose Torres, co-founder, TriGrandPrix (TGP); TGP Spain champions; and Jim Breen, co-founder, TGP

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic