Cal redshirt junior safety Evan Rambo (No. 21, center) is now a budding sports tech entrepreneur. (Al Sermeno/KLC Fotos)
Cal football was an early adopter of Catapult back in 2012, tracking its training with GPS devices from the leading provider of wearables for elite athletics. In a few years, perhaps, the Bears might find a similar advantage from technology developed by one of their own.
Redshirt junior safety Evan Rambo, who returned to the field this fall after missing most of the past two seasons because of an ACL tear, and two former classmates are now pursuing an idea for a new wearable that came from a course they took last spring. That class, called the Sports Tech Collider Sprint, paired student-athletes with STEM majors to pursue innovation in the athletic realm.
Rambo partnered up with friends Tushar Mittal, a chemical biology and material engineering major, and Sahil Hasan, an electrical engineering and computer science major. The trio adopted the team name Basys and developed a working prototype of a wearable that could track data on balance, forces, and approach angles. They have inserted the sensors in shoes and gloves and say the devices could also be placed elsewhere to collect even more information.
“We’re just trying to figure out what coaches and players really want,” Rambo said. “We’re trying to figure out what would be helpful for coaches to make players better and for players to make themselves better by reading the data. We don’t want to confuse people, and we don’t want to give a bunch of data that doesn’t [provide] much to anybody.”
At the end of the semester, each group within the course made a presentation to a panel of judges. Basys won that competition, advancing to the Collider Cup, pitching their idea to professors, investors, and industry leaders. The Cup featured winning teams from 12 technical classes within Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. Basys again prevailed. Now, Rambo said, the team wants to continue refining the idea and start a company to bring the technology to market.
“This was a team that was just head and shoulders, I think, above other things that were out there,” said Stephen Torres, an industry fellow and lecturer in Cal’s engineering program.
Torres is a 2007 Berkeley grad who founded and sold two companies working in solar energy. He spawned the idea for the Sports Tech Collider Sprint and led the eight-week, two-unit course that welcomed input from Bay Area mentors at firms such as Google, IBM, and FitBit. Under Armour and the Cal athletics department jointly sponsored the class. SCET program manager Danielle Vivo worked to develop and implement the course.
While an undergrad student at Cal, Torres shared classes with star running backs Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett. Both, Torres said, were good students before achieving NFL stardom. Now, each is an entrepreneur, too. Lynch launched Beast Mode, a lifestyle and athleisure brand, while Forsett started ShowerPill, a full-body cleansing wipe he pitched on ABC’s Shark Tank earlier this year.
Torres’ course sought to streamline the sports tech research and development process by infusing each engineering team with on insiders knowledge of athletics. Rambo was one of three football players—alongside backup quarterback Chase Forrest and long snapper Alonso Vera—and eight total student-athletes who participated.
“It always seems as though the bioscience or the medical or the engineers, they go and they want to create stuff for athletes or for sports programs, yet they in many cases lack the basic understanding of how those programs work,” Torres said. “In our class, by having the actual student-athletes on every single team, we shortcut all that.”
Rambo is a legal studies major but said he’s always had a strong interest in business and entrepreneurship. He’s also intrigued by the practical uses of data in sports science, regularly checking the results from his Catapult wearable or heart-rate monitor. The Bears also use force plates in the weight room.
“The coaching staff does a great job telling us what the data means and also how it applies,” Rambo said.
For this project, his head coach did a whole lot more. Justin Wilcox, in his second season leading the Bears, met several times with the Basys group, sharing his experience and insight to help the students refine their concept. Wilcox called tech a helpful “supplemental tool” in reinforcing guidance.
“If you can show somebody why you’re asking them do to something—we ask you to do this for this reason and here’s the data that proves if you do X and Y then you can do Z—that just validates what you’re asking them to do,” Wilcox said. “They’re part of it and take ownership of it as opposed to just telling them, ‘Do this because I said so.’”
Rambo admitted that he was pleasantly surprised at the strong interest his coach took in the project. (Wilcox also made a presentation to this fall’s version of the course, which includes projects on live sports betting tech and computer vision for team weight training.) Rambo intends to take a data science course this spring, saying the Basys project “really sparked a lot of interest to see different avenues that I could pursue with this.”
Torres called the input of Wilcox and the class mentors as a helpful guide, describing teamwork as “Silicon Valley’s secret sauce that no one really talks about.” Basys’ device needed several iterations of refinement to reach its current state.
“They had a couple different ideas, none of which worked,” Torres said. “And this is the thing, we’re lucky we’re here in the Valley and we get a chance to see entrepreneurs who want to solve problems. We knew we didn’t need the actual answer right away. What we wanted was the particular skill of who can build, who can actually sell this, and who can get the feedback and bring the team together.”
Torres reserves most of the credit for success, however, to Rambo, Mittal, and Hasan. “They put in the work,” he said. And now, Cal football has a budding entrepreneur on its roster.
“Coming here, it’s not the least bit surprising,” Wilcox said, before adding of Rambo: “He’s a good football player, too. He’s a talented guy. And he’s a great teammate.”