KC Tech Startup XReps Is Poised to Change How Football Teams Train
Leading a football team is no small feat. That’s why Tom Brady retiring or Patrick Mahomes being Patrick Mahomes are such big deals: Being a quarterback is hard, and it’s a major investment for every program. And you often don’t know how a player will perform until they’re in the game.
That’s why KC startup XReps is looking to revolutionize the training and assessment of quarterbacks. Self-described “huge football fans” Brandon Fuhr and Joel Stephens had the idea of a throwable smart football. Now, they’re turning it into a cutting-edge game changer.
Transforming personal interest into a problem-solving business
Brandon and Joel had careers in tech, marketing and virtual reality, along with some side businesses along the way. But a pandemic-related layoff made them take their concept of extended reality (XR) football (virtual reality that uses some real-world objects) and, like a skilled quarterback, run with it.
Joel jumped into creating a prototype, working to make his dream of throwing to then Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins a reality. But Brandon and Joel weren’t innovating in a vacuum. They’d already done their homework, researching cognitive science and the classic cone of learning. Learners retain 50% of what they see and hear (like traditional film review), but 90% of what they do. So by making reps interactive and gamified, a tool like XR football could increase player skills.
They had the science. Then, Brandon and Joel went to the people. They engaged the Kansas City tech and startup communities. And they went to the specialists.
“We brought in a couple of advisers from the football world,” Brandon says. These included a former NFL quarterback and the owner of a Dallas-based quarterback camp. The feedback was invaluable and further introductions helped the entrepreneurs see how their platform could be repurposed to serve other positions on the football field, too.
“The coaches saw our vision and provided great validation that we’re on the right track,” Brandon says. “Those different perspectives are going to make the platform even better.”
That feedback also influenced the founders to change their game plan.
Agility is important on the gridiron—and in business
While they’d originally set out to create and market a smart, throwable football, feedback from advisers made the XReps team realize they could deliver value to players and get to market faster with a headset-only, off-the-shelf product that would run on Oculus Quest 2, a popular all-in-one virtual reality system.
“Quest 2 is wildly successful,” Brandon says. “It’s sold over 10 million units since its launch in October 2020. We’re still going to introduce the smart football version down the road, but the software-only version is our focus first.”
Other opportunities and feedback have changed XReps’s route. But like any good football player, Brandon and Joel knew when to take an opening.
“Some people might say you’re not focused,” Brandon says. “But we had to seize these opportunities.”
XReps entered a competition last summer to build the first NFL-branded mobile esports game. The team adapted the virtual reality game mode to a mobile device, and XReps was selected as a semifinalist. Although the company didn’t win the competition, it was a six-month engagement with the NFL. And it was a huge validation that what they are creating is speaking to athletes at all levels.
The team also participated in the KC Digital Drive Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality (AR/VR) Developer Challenge. XReps placed first in this hackathon sponsored by T-Mobile. And it was through this program that they connected with Jim Starcev from KC Digital Drive—who approached Brandon and Joel about joining Comeback KC Ventures.
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Becoming a Comeback KC Ventures Fellow
Comeback KC Ventures is an effort from KC Digital Drive.
“Comeback is focused on ventures driven by needs created or amplified by COVID,” Brandon says. “When you look at the football world, it’s faced a lot of challenges: shortened or canceled seasons, depending on location, and fewer reps, depending on the infection rate or regulatory environment. XR can help players develop and hone skills in their own homes.”
These challenges also regularly impact players who have geographic or financial concerns. If a player lives in the right city and has parents with the time and money to get them to private coaching sessions, their outlook is significantly different than athletes without those opportunities. Bridging these gaps is a key part of the XReps mission.
“Having a method to train at home via extended reality can open doors for so many people,” Brandon says. And Comeback KC Ventures is helping make it happen.
“As part of the Comeback KC Fellowship, we have a counselor from the SBDC,” Brandon says. “We’re working with Jannae Gammage—she’s amazing! She really gave me the confidence that we are in that top 1% of startups. She gave us advice on our pitch deck and our plan to raise funds. She’s been there, done that and looking to give back.
“It takes a village, especially when it comes to startups. We’re so grateful that people in the KC community have been there for us.”
Additional help for KC startups
Eventually, these founders can see XReps available in homes, at all levels of football and at social spots like Dave & Busters. And the football technology director from a Power Five, Division I school recently validated Joel and Brandon’s work.
“He compared it to Madden, but for training and evaluation,” Brandon says. “His comment was that every team will eventually need it if they want to win.”
But no matter where XReps goes, its success is due in no small part to local support.
The XReps team has worked with a number of Resource Partners in Kansas City. The Enterprise Center in Johnson County and its Fountain Innovation Fund provided feedback and support. Digital Sandbox KC provided coaching and the opportunity to pitch. Brandon and Joel recently found out they received a Sandbox grant that will accelerate the XReps enterprise dashboard for teams and camps.
These founders don’t overlook the feedback they’ve received from their fellow KC-based sports founders. Matt Sellers of Rack Performance, Mike Foster of Lazser Down and Davyeon Ross of ShotTracker have all provided guidance.
“I don’t know that KC is a hotbed of sports ventures yet, but we’re making our place among the hotbeds, thanks to the success of some of these early founders,” Brandon says.
No matter the industry or location, Brandon has advice for entrepreneurs.
“Run that idea off as many people as possible, get as many perspectives as you can, especially within the target market that you visualize,” he says. “Your initial assumptions, while you think they’re 100% perfect? Odds are that your initial idea is going to evolve quite a bit through the journey.”
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