Engineering and hockey passions create Seacoast sports-tech company
Published Thursday July 2, 2020
Author Paul Briand on seacoastonline.com
PORTSMOUTH – With Helios Hockey, Bill Near is able to combine two passions – ice hockey, as the name implies, and his love and study of electrical engineering.
The intersection of the two created a company that helps hockey players skate and shoot with more efficiency and effectiveness.
“It’s really been just a joy to be able to realize the opportunity to tap into that in this way that brings these two things together,” said Near, who developed Helios Hockey (www.helioshockey.com) in 2018.
The sports-technology company is a finalist among 1,100 worldwide applicants in the 2020 MassChallenge Boston accelerator program for startups. Being a finalist makes him eligible for funds from a $1 million cash prize and access to mentors and possible financers. And it gives him exposure.
“It’s like taking your message and putting it through their microphone,” Near said.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to represent New Hampshire tech near our MIT roots in the hub of Hockey,” added Near of Portsmouth, who as founder is Helios’ chief executive officer. “MassChallenge is a top-notch platform for accelerating the growth of companies and will play a key role in Helios’ next growth phase.”
Near, who grew up in New Hampton, received his undergraduate (2010) and graduate (2012) degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and played center for and captained its hockey team. It was a varsity sport when he started there, but then, because of financial considerations, its funding was cut from the school’s athletic program in 2009.
Near said he became part of an effort with alumni to raise funds to maintain the program as a club team.
“I was a senior captain of the team when they cut the program,” Near said. “And there really wasn’t going to be a team had myself and a couple other players, as well as a group of alumni, not got together. We established a 501(c)(3) nonprofit be able to raise money to support a club hockey team outside of the school. Eventually, we got enough money together that we were able to go back to the school and open up an endowment account and so today the team exists as a club sport funded theoretically in perpetuity off of the interest of that.”
That love for the game has continued post MIT as he continues to play in adult leagues. Simultaneously, his interest in electrical engineering – the development of semi-conductors in particular – also advanced post MIT. He co-founded a company, Thrombotix (2011-13), related to blood circulation and clot prevention disorders and worked for another, ClearMotion, as an electrical engineer for almost five years.
With ClearMotion, he experienced firsthand the rapid changes at a startup. “I got to be there from 23 employees to 220 employees, the company raised just shy of $300 million of capital and had some really strategic relationships within the automotive industry that allowed me to really appreciate how a technology startup scales up quite rapidly,” Near said.
Influenced by Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book “Outliers,” which examines the factors that contribute to high levels of success, Near assessed how the two areas where he had spent most of his time and talent – hockey and electrical engineering – might intersect.
“It was staring at me there,” Near said, “seeing that the mechanics of the semiconductor industry were really enabling the type of future hockey experience that I wanted to build.”
The technology he developed is based on two pieces of hardware – a smart hockey puck and a wearable device that fits on the front or back of a hockey player’s shoulder pads.
“It’s all about the real time and post-session performance insights to help a player skate and shoot better. The mechanics of doing that is the hardware side of the products we developed,” Near said.
The device attached to the shoulder pads, according to Near, uses artificial intelligence to recognize the left and right strides of the skater then analyze the mechanics of those strides.
“We’re actually able to build lots of the derivative performance analysis of that player’s skating behavior,” he said. “You have to be a good skater to be a good hockey player.”
The smart puck – a regular size and weight puck embedded with the Helios tech – measures the player’s stick handling and puck control.
The technology, according to Near, creates not only opportunities for better training and practicing but for games themselves, particularly professional hockey in terms of the possible entertainment value.
“With our hardware electronics embedded software experience, we envision how the pieces of the semiconductor industry allowed us to realize those two components that could open up this whole new dimension, not just you know for the pros for sports betting and viewership opportunities but really for every hockey player,” Near said.
Certain data related to a player’s skating speed or puck control could be shown to viewers during a televised hockey game, for instance.
Helios Hockey was one of 100 finalists in the 2020 MassChallenge Boston program.
“The MassChallenge Boston program stands on more than a decade’s worth of proven experience working with entrepreneurs and corporate organizations to help accelerate innovation and drive economic growth,” said Damon Cox, the Massachusetts assistant secretary for technology, innovation and entrepreneurship and a MassChallenge advisory board member.
So far, according to the organization, more than 2,400 MassChallenge alumni have raised more than $6.2 billion in funding, generated more than $3 billion in revenue, and created more than 157,000 total jobs.
Winners of the challenge will be determined later this summer.
Being one of the finalists, according to Near, “provides connectivity and guidance that we find tremendously valuable.”
In the meantime, Near and his team of a half dozen employees are working to get their gear in the rinks, into hockey organizations and on players as society slowly reemerges from the coronavirus pandemic. He and his team are operating together remotely from their homes.
“Our next major opportunity is to plug back into the kind of smaller training skills camp and development programs that are running this summer,” Near said. “They have the benefit of being smaller groups, so they fit the model for how hockey is reopening.”
His excitement for hockey in this region and how technology can be part of making it better is evident.
“We’re excited to dip into the Boston ecosystem; obviously Boston is the hub of college hockey and professional hockey,” Near said. “We really found just a great hockey ecosystem here on the seacoast in New Hampshire, where we plan to establish ourselves in terms of a headquarters and long-term presence.”