The Aussie company about to make its riskiest move yet

AFL: Second preliminary final, Richmond v GWS MCG Melbourne 23/09/2017 Dustin Martin kicks forward 2nd term Picture:Wayne Ludbey

AFL: Second preliminary final, Richmond v GWS MCG Melbourne 23/09/2017 Dustin Martin kicks forward 2nd term Picture:Wayne Ludbey

When Dustin Martin and Eddie Betts stride on to the MCG on Saturday afternoon, the football stars will have more than decades of expectation from fans on their shoulders.

In a small pouch between the shoulder blades of their guernseys a GPS tracking device will be placed. About the size of a tic tac box, it will measure their every move.

The device can compute 1000 data points a second, and measures things like how far a player has run, how many sprints the player has made and the intensity of collisions.

Known as the S5, this device will be worn by all players in the AFL grand final, as it has throughout the season. It will be used by coaches and broadcasters to track player performance.

Both teams participating in the NRL grand final, the North Queensland Cowboys and the Melbourne Storm, use a version of it too.

Yet the S5's significance goes beyond this weekend's big games: it has underpinned one of the more interesting stories in Australian business for a while now. And the company behind it, Catapult Group, offers a glimpse at what the future of commerce in this country could look like.

Catapult Group listed on the ASX in 2014. It is currently valued at about $200 million, and employs over 300 people. It has come along way in a relatively short time, but has even bigger ambitions. It has publicly stated a goal to eventually become a multibillion-dollar tech giant.

"We are a high-growth company," chief executive Joe Powell tells Fairfax Media.

"If we execute our strategy, we believe that we will continue to grow, and that will result in a significantly higher market capitalisation than what we have today."

To realise that goal, Catapult will need to make a risky leap from being a provider of technology to elite athletes to selling things to mere mortals in the mass market.

It will also need to restore faith with investors badly burned by some of its recent decisions.

Adelaide Crows star Eddie Betts will have his every move measured.

Adelaide Crows star Eddie Betts will have his every move measured.

And it will need to convince them that its plan to pursue growth before short-term profit (a strategy Australian investors are often uncomfortable with) is the right one.

The new economy

If you wanted to draw up a vision of an Australian company designed for the new global economy it would probably resemble Catapult, or at least share some of its traits.

Spawned out of two government agencies, it's a relatively rare example of a business successfully commercialising the world-class research this country is known to churn out. CSL is another.

Crucially, it's also a lifestyle business that harnesses some of Australia's defining attributes - our obsession with fitness, and our relatively high levels of participation in sport.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is an export success story. Some of the world's best known athletes are users, and some of the world's best known sporting teams are paying customers.

The Dallas Cowboys use Catapult's technology.

The Dallas Cowboys use Catapult's technology. Photo: AP

Across the Pacific in the US, NFL teams such as the Dallas Cowboys, the Green Bay Packers and the Atlanta Falcons are also clients. So too are European soccer giants like Chelsea FC and Borussia Dortmund. All up it has 1500 elite teams on its books.

Catapult Group's flagship product is the S5. Canaccord Genuity analyst Owen Humphries estimates they cost about $195 per month under the company's subscription model, and are used by about 900 teams to measure performance and reduce the risk of injuries.

The company has cheaper tracking devices, and has also developed an indoor tracking system that has been installed in 16 stadiums around the world, including the Etihad in Melbourne.

Through recent acquisitions it is expanding into video analytics for teams, and selling data to media companies. Look out for a player tracker sponsored by Telstra during the AFL grand final. (It powered a similar feature during this year's State of Origin series.)

But Catapult's imminent push into cheaper devices for more mainstream consumers could be its riskiest and most ambitious move yet.

A brief history

Catapult was founded in 2006 by Shaun Holthouse and Igor van de Griendt, two engineers who had worked on a federal government research grant program with the Australian Institute of Sport on early micro-technologies.

Catapult Sports founders Adir Shiffman (left) and Shaun Holthouse worked together at the Australian Institute of Sport.

Catapult Sports exec chairman Adir Shiffman (left) and founder Shaun Holthouse. Photo: Josh Robenstone

Barely a year in they'd signed up their first AFL team (Hawthorn). In 2011, they opened a US office, and had signed up their first NFL team (the Jacksonville Jaguars) and their first US top division college football team.

By 2013 they were supplying most of Australia's sports teams and many offshore teams with GPS tracking devices. But growth was slowing. So Adir Shiffman, a qualified medical doctor and serial tech start-up founder, was installed as executive chairman.

Shiffman swiftly set about trying to raise funds to launch a deeper assault on the lucrative and much bigger US market. Yet, even though this was only a few years ago, the climate for fundraising by small tech firms with scant revenue, let alone profit, was vastly different.

"We tried to raise $10 million. Forget about that," recounts Shiffman.

"No one would give us a cent. We took the whole of 2013, couldn't raise any money. I'm friends with all of the VC people. They all passed. You name them."

The funding freeze for early-stage tech companies in Australia has thawed since then. But the reasons Catapult failed to secure backing remain telling.

"It was the times, it was a businesss people didn't really understand, it was a market size Australian investors couldn't really get their heads around," says Shiffman.

In early 2014 the company managed to scrounge together $3.5 million from family and friends.

Soon after, Shiffman's relentless networking and overtures in America paid off. Mark Cuban, the billionaire internet entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks (who'd been using Catapult's technology), came on board as an adviser and investor. "That transformed our credibility in the US," says Shiffman.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's investment in Catapult was a game-changer.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's investment in Catapult was a game changer. Photo: Evan Vucci

With Cuban's support, Catapult gathered momentum in the world's biggest economy. By the end of 2014, 14 NFL teams, 10 NBA teams and the reigning college football champions (Florida State) were customers.

That gave the company confidence to proceed with an IPO on the ASX. The float was a success, but to say that it has been a tumultuous ride since then would be an understatement.

Less than a year into the company's listed existence, the AFL awarded a contract for GPS tracking and player data to Champion Data, a company the league holds a 49 per cent interest in.

The damage to Catapult was relatively shortlived - individual AFL teams revolted, and an agreement was struck for them to be able to remain customers.

The share price subsequently recovered, and went on a tear. In mid 2016 it hit a peak at $4, valuing the business at more than $500 million.

Since then the descent has been steady.

In July last year, the company raised $100 million in fresh capital to shore up its balance sheet and fund two acquisitions designed to diversify its business. These were XOS, a Boston-based video analytics provider for many sports teams, and PlayerTek, an Irish firm that makes cheaper GPS tracking devices designed for amateur, but still serious, athletes.

This year, it has posted a loss of $13.5 million, launched another equity raising, and pledged to invest for growth.

These moves caught the market off guard, and investors hit the stock price.

All up it has fallen 70 per cent since its mid 2016 peak. And anyone who tipped money into either of the last two capital raisings is deep underwater.

The problem with wearables

Layered above these challenges is another significant problem: wearable device makers have been a graveyard for investors. That could pose issues for Catapult as it attempts to become a more consumer-facing company.

Fitbit has almost gone out of business.

Fitbit has struggled since its float. Photo: Supplied

Fitbit, one of the early market leaders in wearables, made it on to the US sharemarket through an IPO in 2015 but has struggled since then. Revenue has been shrinking, losses have deepened, and the share price has sunk.

Jawbone, a heavily hyped maker of wearable fitness-tracking bracelets, has all but gone out of business. The company, which raised nearly $US600 million from venture capital investors, and which was at one point valued at $US3.3 billion, started liquidating assets in July.

The reason why no one seems to be able to make the wearable device business work? In a word - Apple.

People seem either content to use their phone for the types of things cheaper fitness trackers can do, or if they are prepared to spend a bit more money, they buy an Apple Watch.

Apple unveiled a new model watch and is pushing hard into wearable tech.

Apple unveiled a new model watch and is pushing hard into wearable tech. Photo: Timothy Fadek

"The wearables sector is being dominated globally by Apple," says Foad Fadaghi, managing director of tech analysis firm Telsyte. Repeat purchases of devices made by the likes of Jawbone and Fitbit are extremely low, he says.

"One reason we believe is that many were given as unwanted gifts. There is also design concerns and lack of features and integration."

These are not problems Catapult faces with its elite products. They have features aplenty, and are not being abandoned by customers.

About 60 per cent of the company's products are now sold on a subscription basis to elite teams. The "churn rate" (the proportion of users who quit after their contract expires) is less than 2 per cent, a level described by Canaccord's Humphries as "exceptionally low".

Catapult also has a strategy more considered than those of other wearables companies. For its consumer expansion, which is scheduled to ramp up in 2018, it is targeting sub-elite or "prosumer" athletes: people who take their sport pretty seriously but aren't paid professionals.

Catapult is targetting high level amateurs in competitions such as the VFL.

Catapult is targeting high-level amateurs in competitions such as the VFL. Photo: Chris Hopkins

In an Australian context, this basically means the highest levels of amateur sport in each code (think VFL, or club rugby in Sydney).

In the US, it would mean smaller college teams, and high school teams, of which there are many. The company estimates there are 440,000 high school athletes in the US playing soccer seriously, and over 1 million high school athletes playing American football, who could be drawn to its prosumer offerings.

"We think it's an attractive market to go after," says Powell.

Previously a senior executive at Seek who joined as chief executive in April, Powell says Catapult's links to pro teams give it advantages over rival wearables makers.

"If you look at some of the offerings in the market, they don't have that authentic connection to elite teams," he says.

He likens the company's intended offerings to Garmin's Edge cycling products which have been successful with serious, but not professional, cyclists.

In the US, a fierce debate is raging about the safety of American football, amid evidence concussions prevalent in the sport lead to lasting brain damage. Participation in the most popular sport in the US at youth levels has been falling. More broadly, there are concerns kids are turning away from sport to play video games.

Debate is raging in America about the effects of concussion.

Debate is raging in America about the effects of concussion. Photo: AP

But Powell is not concerned.

"Fundamentally these sports are ingrained in these countries," he says. "And there is a whole generation of kids coming through who want to know how they are going, to compare themselves to other teams and kids and track their progresss."

The way forward

The analyst community remains upbeat about Catapult's prospects, despite its recent share price slump.

Canaccord's Humphries says "prosumer" is a huge opportunity for Catapult that could "add another layer of growth to the business".

He estimates it's a market 10 to 20 times the size of the elite sports market, with the potential for as many as 2 million devices to be sold. (For comparison, Catapult currently has fewer than 14,000 units under subscription.)

"Catapult competes in a large and fast growing sports analytics industry with significant barriers to entry and a technological advantage over its competitors, in our view, that is likely to drive revenue growth over the medium term," he wrote in a research note.

Ivor Ries, an analyst at Morgans, claims Catapult is "back on track" after a year of disruption caused by heavy investment and acquisitions.

"The company is a world leader in elite athletics devices and analytics and continues to invest aggressively in growing its global user base," he recently told clients. "The market opportunity ahead of Catapult remains large and the company has shown a strong ability to execute."

For his part, Shiffman is philosophical about the share price volatility.

"It's so weird, there is no way a company that was worth $10 million at the start of 2014 was worth $60 at the end [of 2014], and worth $500 million a year and a half later. It just shows the inefficiency of markets' ability to price the value of an asset," he says.

Shiffman points out there is still room for the company to grow its elite offering. Only about 10 per cent of the world's elite teams are using GPS tracking systems. Yet prosumer could be an even bigger opportunity.

"This is an offering whose time has come," says Shiffman of the company's prosumer push. "And Catapult is positioned in ways that no other company in the world is to make this [work]."

It won't be on the minds of Dustin Martin, Eddie Betts or anyone tuning into this weekend's grand finals. But Australians should keep an eye on Catapult's progress.

At a time when anxiety over our post-mining boom, post-property boom future is building, its story suggests we can still produce innovative products. The question is whether we can still produce great, sustainable companies.

This story The Aussie company about to make its riskiest move yet first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.