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Lucky start-ups win Comcast funding – 7 in sports, most in AI

Watching where Comcast puts its money is logically a handy guideline to which emerging technologies are seen by the cable industry as hot property. But Comcast isn’t the company it used to be and as a new parent to Sky, its investments are increasingly geared towards OTT and other more miscellaneous initiatives, as is evident in the company’s second LIFT Labs Accelerator start-up program.

Comcast NBCUniversal’s LIFT Labs Accelerator initiative (not to be confused with the Lift Labs acquired by Google a few years back which developed the auto-balancing spoon) has selected 11 start-up companies in connectivity, media and entertainment – spanning interactive sports technology, facial recognition and of course plenty of artificial intelligence.

With 7 out of 11 start-ups offering sports-focused technologies in some shape or another, it’s clear where NBCUniversal’s vested interests lie. But to one of our favorites first and foremost, voice technology, starting with a start-up called Respeecher which has developed proprietary deep learning techniques to produce high quality synthetic speech. It says these techniques are related to those used in the latest text-to-speech systems but warns that speech-to-speech can be more dynamic and emotional than even the best text-to-speech. And speech-to-speech makes the most sense when the content is being generated by a human.

Respeecher essentially allows you to take on an entirely different voice. At a time when ethically dubious DeepFake videos impersonating celebrities are rife, Respeecher is operating in an antagonistic market which could go either way. Dubbing and automated dialog replacement look like the technology’s best bet rather than becoming a gimmick for imitating celebs.

Similarly, Diana AI is tapping into the voice market but from the angle of data analysis. Its conversational AI for analytics technology, currently in Beta, connects to any data source and provides business analytics results in minutes without ever leaving the desktop by using on-device machine learning.

One of the most intriguing vendors selected as part of the Comcast project is sports technology start-up Pivan Interactive, which is offering an AI-based tool called Uncanny designed to train budding esports players. Users (or athletes as the company calls them) can upload content of them gaming, citing global phenomenon Fortnite as the title where training commences, which Uncanny analyzes and churns out stats and analysis – claiming to not only establish why a user is playing a certain way but can identify areas for improvement compared to the best players in the game. Pivan has certainly carved itself a niche in a market of hundreds of millions of users – with Fortnite alone recently exceeding 250 million registered users.

Like Fortnite, podcasts have soared in popularity and research out this week from eMarketer forecasts podcast advertising revenues to surpass $1 billion by 2021, more than doubling from the $479.1 million spent by marketers on podcast ads during 2018. It was therefore an obvious choice for Comcast NBCUniversal’s LIFT Labs Accelerator to include a podcast start-up, selecting Messy.FM, a supplier of free software for recording, editing and publishing podcasts. It makes money through packages which include access to analytics, ad removal and the ability to embed podcasts in another website.

Edisn.ai also serves the growing esports scene and combines this with targeting the sports broadcast sector with its facial recognition technology, already working with two high-profile anonymous teams in the NBA and IPL on behind-the-scenes content. Edisn.ai’s AI can identify players on screen in real-time and deliver contextual content on these players, while enabling users to share videos and interact on social networks without leaving the action. It caters for monetization opportunities such as offering match tickets and merchandise.

With the USA women’s national soccer team recently crowned world champions, data shows women’s sports are on the rise in terms of viewership. A vendor called The Gist wants to jump on the hype – providing sports news and experiences specifically about women’s sports. The Gist therefore isn’t so much a technology start-up as a news and information outlet, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t suited to NBCUniversal’s goals.

In a world where subscription-based services are increasingly easy to jump in and out of, with a market increasingly shunning long-term contracts, juggling multiple subscriptions is seen as a growing problem by Nickl, citing Deloitte data which shows by 2020 over 20% of consumers will have 10 or more subscription products. Nickl has therefore gone about bundling subscriptions under a single user account, helping publishers provide audiences with a better paid product and adding complimentary features like discounts for purchasing multiple subscription. It claims to incentivize the 97% of non-paying visitors to click subscribe on personalized subscription products with tag-based entitlement technology which works with existing content management systems (CMS) to create subscriptions by topic, author or other unique content tag.

Less glamorous but more critical for backend development is a start-up called TakeShape, providing a Headless CMS, GraphQL API and Static Site Generator to streamline the completion and delivery of content projects. TakeShape provides a suite of tools for launching websites to take the stress out of traditional content management, with three tiers priced at $12, $50 and $100 a month depending on usage and requirements.

StructClub is another less typical choice for the LIFT Labs Accelerator. The start-up has built a smartphone app to help fitness instructors choreograph and navigate classes without missing a beat-drop. It syncs directly with Spotify for annotating playlists with intervals, intensity levels, technical cues, or quotes, and running and managing classes is a piece of cake. One obvious downside is perhaps that it currently only supports Spotify.

GameOn is another hopeful sports disruptor, a sports betting app aiming to dislodge the longstanding monopoly of fantasy sports team outlets.

Last but not least, SportTrade is peddling a trading marketplace based on the premise that current sports betting products aren’t fair, charging less than 1% on volume compared with most sportsbooks which it claims keep up to 10% of users’ money. SportTrade has patent-pending technology which it says can handle thousands of bets every second. A platform pertaining to replace the bookie is about as disruptive as it gets but many have tried before.

So, the full list of lucky start-ups selected is Diana AI, Edisn.ai, GameOn, Messy.FM, Nickl, Pivan Interactive, Respeecher, SportTrade, StructClub, TakeShape and The Gist.

Sam Schwartz, Chief Business Development Officer at Comcast, said, “The program will provide them with support and access to Comcast NBCUniversal leadership, and help them push their boundaries in new ways to produce more competitive and successful businesses. At the same time, we will learn from some of the best new entrepreneurs in technology.”

The 11 lucky candidates get access to seed funding and facilities at the Comcast Technology Center over 13 weeks. Although only the 2nd LIFT Labs Accelerator, the success rate is high with Comcast reporting that 8 out last year’s 10 start-ups have successfully inked partnerships or pilot programs with NBCUniversal businesses.

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