Barça Innovation Hub director Marta Plana sitting in the Camp Nou stadium
Innovation on and off the pitch at FC Barcelona

Think:Act Magazine "Rethinking Growth"
Innovation on and off the pitch at FC Barcelona

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Think:Act Magazine

Munich Office, Central Europe
April 8, 2020

Barça Innovation Hub’s Marta Plana is directing a new era of sports performance and innovation.


by Benjamin Cunningham
photos by Edu Bayer

Read more about the topic "Rethinking Growth"

FC Barcelona's success on the pitch gives the club global reach. Now, the Barça Innovation Hub is leveraging that brand to develop technologies with impact beyond sports.

Looking out from the presidential box of Europe's largest stadium, it's clear FC Barcelona has some big boasts. The cavernous Camp Nou stadium is the home turf of Lionel Messi, some would say the greatest footballer of all time. The verdant pitch below offers fertile ground for the club's signature tiki-taka playing style, among the most graceful interpretations of the beautiful game. And that skill on the playing field has proven to be a draw even outside of game time. Millions of people visit the club museum each year, second only to Madrid's Prado in Spain. Equally beloved by its local Catalan fan base as by admirers in Asia and valued at more than $4 billion, Barça can afford pretty much anything – anything, that is, but a lack of vision.

When FC Barcelona takes to the pitch every three days or so during the nine-month season, sporting success feels like a short-term proposition. Progress is measured by the day's result and outlook only extends as far as the next match. But guiding a 120-year-old institution and global brand demands big-picture thinking and planning that projects months and years ahead – even decades.

A smart way of building

FC Barcelona's home ground, Camp Nou, is in the midst of a $675 million renovation. Already Europe's largest stadium, capacity will grow to 105,000 with a new 47,000-square-meter roof. Slated for completion by 2024, so-called building information modeling (BIM) helps the work to go on without disrupting match day.

Technology is used to anticipate problems and communicate any changes in real time. "There are always lots of players in construction," says Håvard Bell of Catenda, who provides BIM services on the project. "This way, any mistakes are made virtually."

To bridge the gap and look beyond the pitch into science, technology, and artificial intelligence, the club launched the Barça Innovation Hub (BIH) in 2017. Drawing together startups, researchers, universities, and corporate partners to boost performance on and off the pitch, the BIH is not so much an incubator or business accelerator but more like a networked ecosystem. It is spurring developments in some decidedly non-football arenas from biometrics and GPS devices to construction management and nutrition. "For Barça it is very important to win, but it's more about performing our very best," says Marta Plana, one-time lawyer, startup founder and now FC Barcelona board member tasked with overseeing BIH.

While it's Barça's footballers that typically garner the most headlines, the club itself – with more than 144,000 members and the motto "Més que un club" or "More than a Club" – comprises five professional and nine amateur teams, a youth academy and more. The BIH is symbolic of FC Barcelona's broader ambitions and turns its wide-ranging operation into fertile ground for experimentation. "Everybody knows Messi. We want to make sure that we are involved in meaningful projects," says Plana.

With more than 70 active research projects, including eight new startup partners, seven master's programs with universities, 10,000 online students from more than 100 countries and a regular slate of international conferences, the BIH prioritizes cooperation with startups that serve some of the club's own needs but insists partners have wider market viability, says Plana.

Co-development is key for the BIH and, in one typical example of how the hub brings together collaborators, German insurance giant Allianz, Montreal-based Hexoskin and Barcelona's own AdSalutem Institute have teamed up to study the impact of sleep on health and productivity. "If you eat fast food every day, you know you are not following a healthy diet, but most people are not conscious that sleeping five or six hours per night causes health problems," says Oscar Sans, medical director of AdSalutem. "Sleep deserves the same attention as diet."

AdSalutem is now tracking 600 young athletes, aged 6 to 23, in FC Barcelona programs. They collect data through questionnaires and Hexoskin biometric smart shirts, measuring quantity and quality of sleep and then correlating those results with performance. As these young people also complete academic studies through the club and there is a team of psychologists on staff, the data is particularly robust, accounting for behavior in the classroom and changes in mood as well. After one year, the study has already found that less sleep or low sleep quality correlates with ill temper, poor academic performance, flawed decision making and weakened aerobic capacity. "As a society, we are sleeping two hours less per night as compared with people in the 19th century," says Sans. "You have an impression that sleeping is kind of a waste of time. But this is changing."

It's a win-win situation. The partnership means Allianz is more informed when setting insurance rates. AdSalutem gains access to a study sample from a controlled environment. Meanwhile, FC Barcelona gets improved performance from its athletes and Hexoskin uses the study to improve its product. In a final twist, AdSalutem shares results with medical students and researchers at the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya (UIC), meaning future doctors and nurses can carry this information on to the wider public. "Technology is about improving people's lives," says Plana.

Plana came on team in 2018 to oversee its work from the board level. Typical of Barça's loyal following, she has long-standing ties to FC Barcelona. Her regular midfield seat on match day is familiar, as Plana's mother was one of the club's first female board members in the 1990s. "I have always been coming to the games," she says. Plana trained as a lawyer, worked for Microsoft, and now maintains close ties to Silicon Valley. She founded the fintech company Pagantis and is now a vice president and global head of the ride-hailing service Cabify.

While the BIH declined to provide specific budget figures, their education platform offering professional training and qualifications that range from certificates to master's degrees in fields of sports science, health and management – is said to account for upwards of 80% of the hub's revenue making the project self-sufficient. The BIH scouts for new partners and invites applications. Staff review the product closely and probe the company's business plan. A committee of seven people, each specializing in a different area of knowledge – team sports, sports performance, analysis and technology, health and wellness, fan engagement and big data, smart facilities and social impact – decides which companies make the grade. From there, partners agree on a product development road map. In the final phase, that product is showcased publicly. BIH does not make cash investments or operate on a centralized campus, but startups get consultancy services, a potentially lucrative future client and a branding boost. Some companies agree to pay FC Barcelona royalties on future sales. Others let the club use the finished product for free for a limited time.

Innovative as the BIH is, it's part of a much wider boom in sports tech. One recent study valued the global sports tech market at $8.9 billion and forecast it to grow to more than $31 billion by 2024. Just up the road in Madrid, Microsoft launched its own Global Sports Innovation Center (GSIC) in 2015. Born of an initial partnership that saw Microsoft consulting Barça's bitter rival Real Madrid on monetizing social media followers, they went on to "figure out there was a whole field that was being underserved," says Iris Córdoba, GSIC's general manager.

GSIC now has 240 members in 37 countries, from small startups to multinational corporations like Panasonic and LG. Their model differs from the BIH in that members pay annual membership dues proportional to company size, but the focus is similar. Among their partners Solos, an Australian company produces smart labels that combats counterfeit merchandise, and Madrid's own iAltitude makes equipment that simulates highaltitude training. Both firms are now expanding their customer base beyond sports into luxury goods and general health, respectively. "The value for members is our network," says Córdoba.

According to the non-profit European Startup Initiative, Barcelona trails only London and Berlin as an attractive spot for startups in Europe. In 2018, around $1 billion was invested in new ventures and more than half the founders of new companies came from abroad. While this fits with FC Barcelona's claim to be creating a "Silicon Valley of Sports," BIH collaborations span the globe and need not physically center on the city itself. "Being local and feeling global means it is not necessarily about being in the same place," Plana says. "We were born as a global network: It's not like you are starting it from zero here. Because of the FC Barcelona brand, you are actually everywhere all the time from day one."

Birth of the Barça brand

Founded in 1899 through a magazine ad recruiting international players, FC Barcelona won its first trophy three years later and never looked back.

During Spain's years of the Francoist dictatorship, the team emerged as a powerful symbol of Catalonia's independent spirit and resistance to fascism.

As football morphed into big business in the 20th century, legends like Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona and Gary Lineker generated Barça fans in their respective countries. Cruyff would return for an innovative stint as manager and develop the club's signature passing game.

Satellite television and digital communication spread that beautiful style around the world. As new stars like Lionel Messi emerged, FC Barcelona developed a truly global following.

Now, with offices in New York and Hong Kong and partners like Rakuten, a Japanese e-commerce giant, and Nike, the business magazine Forbes values the brand at more than $4 billion.

"I don't think there is a limit: We need to be adjusting to innovation and technology all the time."
Portrait of Marta Plana

Marta Plana

Barça Innovation Hub

The added value of the BIH to its members is indeed a mix of this "glocal" vision. Håvard Bell is the CEO of Catenda, a Norwegian firm that builds software that plans and manages construction projects (so-called building information modeling, or BIM). With users in 70 countries, their programs are deployed on more than 3,000 projects – including the ongoing renovation of FC Barcelona's 99,354-seat Camp Nou stadium. "It's the complexity of the project that drew us, it's fun to resolve these challenges," Bell says of the experience. In addition to FC Barcelona's wider business contacts, and the chance to continually tweak their product, partnership with BIH offers prestige and practical benefits like office access in New York or Hong Kong for meeting clients, he says.

Closer to home, RealTrack Systems, based in Almería, Spain, makes the Wimu Pro – a wearable tracking device that collects more than 250 data points across categories like exercise duration, distance, acceleration and heart rate. Trainers gain a detailed picture of player fitness to customize workout regimens and boost match performance. "They had a project that is working, they showed it to us, we liked it and started testing," Plana says. Like Catenda, RealTrack CEO Isabel Perez says her company uses FC Barcelona to push innovation on its own product, noting a "continuous upgrade of the system to meet their incoming needs." The BIH partnership helped bring new customers, she adds. In early October 2019, Cirque du Soleil debuted a new show called Messi10 and Wimu tracking devices were a key part of the development process. Realtrack also partners with Madrid's GSIC.

With just 15 people on staff, the two-year-old BIH can resemble an early-stage startup itself. Plana says they are looking to forge new partnerships with venture capital firms, and future projects include a focus on AI. One looks to harness FC Barcelona's already hefty collection of player-tracking data and cross-reference it with past injuries in hopes of forecasting injuries before they happen. A separate AI project looks to convert tactical expertise from coaches into algorithms that recognize those tactics on video, potentially saving analysts dozens of hours. Neither of those projects are likely to help the football club win a match this week, but both could point the way toward changes in the decade ahead. As Plana puts it: "I don't think there is a limit: We need to be adjusting to innovation and technology all the time."

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Munich Office, Central Europe