A Queensland start-up supplying first-of-its-kind equipment measuring performance and injury risk to elite athletes and special forces military units is turning its attention to the much larger market of allied health and rehabilitation.
A company that already numbers among its customers all 20 English Premier League teams and scores of elite sporting organisations – including Major League Baseball, the NBA and NFL the United States, and Australia’s NRL and AFL – might feel tempted to rest on its laurels.
Not so VALD, a Brisbane-based start-up founded in 2015 by Queensland University of Technology (QUT) graduates Sam James and Laurie Malone, which produces equipment measuring human strength, performance, mobility, function, balance and injury risk.
Not content with their products being sought after by the world’s top athletes, sporting clubs and research institutes, the company is introducing them into physiotherapy clinics, hospitals and other healthcare settings to improve musculoskeletal evaluation and monitoring.
At the same time, VALD, which already sells into more than 80 countries, is poised to enter new markets. It plans to recruit 100 new staff over the next year – enlarging its 200-strong workforce – and expand its current 10 product lines.
It’s a growth trajectory that James and Malone never envisaged when they licensed a piece of equipment – the ‘NordBord’, which measures hamstring strength – developed by two QUT sports scientists, Dr Anthony Shield and Dr David Opar, and spun it out into a company.
The pair were assisted by an Accelerating Commercialisation grant as part of the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme. The $539,429 grant enabled VALD, named after an Old Norse word meaning strength and power, to translate the early NordBords from the prototype stage (Technology Readiness Level 4) into a polished commercial product in the marketplace (TRL 8).
“Without that grant, we would have been at risk of not making it to market, and we certainly wouldn’t have done so as quickly and safely and efficiently,” says James. “The whole process would have been a lot tougher and riskier.”
The grant also meant they could hire technical consultants, recruit some early staff, and travel to Europe and the US to set up partnerships and establish manufacturing supply chains.
More than just money
The QUT scientists invented the NordBord solely for research purposes. However, their published studies, showing that AFL footballers with lower hamstring strength were significantly more prone to injury, elicited widespread interest in the sporting world. No such product existed on the market.
James, who had completed an industrial design degree at QUT, assisted with some of the prototype work. The Accelerating Commercialisation grant doubled the seed money that he and Malone, a lawyer, raised upon founding VALD in 2015.
Their sole aim, he says, was to secure additional funds to “de-risk the project”. But they ended up receiving invaluable help and guidance from their Accelerating Commercialisation Facilitator, Chris Burnett from i4 Connect. “We’d run a very small business beforehand, but we weren’t experienced in writing grant applications or business plans, or putting together financial models or project plans,” says James.
“Chris was really great at getting to know us, and the product and the project, and what we were trying to achieve. He has real-world, practical business experience and acumen, and we saw him as someone we wanted to learn from in a business sense.”
Burnett, who has founded numerous companies and served on many boards, says he “really identified with where Sam and Laurie were at … I was a bit of a sounding-board, and I helped them with practical advice when they needed it. I guess I understand from first-hand experience the struggle that founders have in growing businesses and the things they face along the way.”
VALD was an ideal candidate for the Accelerating Commercialisation program that includes guidance as well as the grant money, according to Burnett, who even helped James and Malone pack up the first shipment of NordBords.
“They had something brand new to the market, there was a lot of interest in it, and the team had a mix of sales and technical skills,” he says. “They both had the drive and the right risk profile – they were entrepreneurs. It was clear from day one that they were really committed.”
World-first products to address unsolved problems
VALD’s initial goal was to sell 500 NordBords in five years. It reached that target in less than three years and now boasts a range of 10 products that test and report using advanced sensors, real-time data visualisation and cloud analytics.
About half of these have come from internal development – products they have built from scratch – and the other half from external acquisitions.
Over the past two years, with a reputation built in elite sports and products backed by scientific research, the company has begun penetrating the health and military/tactical markets.
VALD now has over 50 contracts with US military divisions, from special forces to general infantry. But future expansion lies in the mass market of allied health, says James, noting there are a million physiotherapy clinics around the world, not counting India and China.
He and Malone want to “democratise” access to their products – for instance, by helping a physiotherapist to “measure, monitor and rehabilitate a grandparent that’s recovering from hip surgery back to the point of being able to pick their grandkids up”.
The DynaMo, a handheld device launched in April, enables physiotherapists to perform more than 300 strength and motion tests on patients, rather than simply using their hand or eye for assessment.
Health is now a bigger market than sport for VALD in Australia and Oceania, and “should end up dwarfing the sports market for us, just by the sheer number of potential users and the breadth of the application”, says James.
The company, he believes, has benefited from health clinicians’ growing use of technology, as well as the advent of apps such as Apple Health, sparking interest in personal health data.
VALD’s products all break new ground. “We’ve never been that interested in taking a concept that’s been done before and making it slightly better,” says James. “Our ethos has always been to try to solve problems that haven’t been solved before.”