Quantum Leap

A new telemetric system developed in Michigan could revolutionize how athletes are trained.
ON YOUR MARK: The Avidasports data sensors are stored in a charger. The charge lasts about four hours.

A driven executive, Bruce Burton got a lesson in opportunity watching his daughter swim laps at Cranbrook Kingswood in Bloomfield Hills. A mechanical engineer, inventor, and multi-patent holder, Burton noted that his daughter needed assistance pacing herself during practice. He realized that it would also help her performance if she knew her position relative to the other competitive swimmers.

“When I was watching the swimmers practice, I noticed the coaches would take hundreds of stopwatch readings,” says Burton, president of Avidasports in Harper Woods. “They also were yelling out instructions to the swimmers. It occurred to me that there must be a more efficient way to train and communicate with the students.”

At first, Burton thought of a way to illuminate the swimmers’ lanes. But he quickly abandoned the idea in favor of four small electronic data sensors that could be strapped to an athlete’s wrists and ankles. A fifth device, equipped with an earpiece, would fit inside a bathing cap.

Burton’s athletic telemetry system, which is now reaching the marketplace, is targeted at professional, college, and high school athletes in a variety of sports.

During a swim practice, for example, the sensors record an athlete’s time, pace, stroke rate, tempo, and turn rate. With the data instantly transmitted into computer graphs and tablets, a coach can monitor, review, and provide immediate feedback to one — or multiple — athletes.

“The computer will relay the time to the student at every turn,” Burton says. “Or if a coach notices that a swimmer is slower than normal, he or she can communicate directly with the student through the earpiece. Perhaps their arms aren’t extended high enough during a freestyle set. The coach can say: ‘Lift your arms higher.’ ”

In addition, each unit of data is color-coded red, yellow, or green. Red means a swimmer is performing below average, yellow is on pace, and green equates to better-than-average times or strokes. With this information, a coach immediately knows how an athlete is performing.

Josh White, assistant men’s swimming coach at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says he’s been experimenting with Burton’s system since July, and will introduce the technology to his team during the fall semester.

“The best-case scenario is that there are 10 students for every coach,” White says. “It’s a great luxury, but even then the communication and data recording can be challenging. With Avida, you can have a large amount of data from every athlete.”

The system — up to 100 athletes can be monitored at one time — works best with team sports such as football, soccer, track, cycling, rowing, or lacrosse. During football practice, the Avida system can record whether a wide receiver has run the correct route. Or if an offensive lineman misses an assignment, the coach has the option of criticizing him in front of his teammates or not.

“Getting chewed out in front of everybody is a waste of time,” Burton says. “With our system, a coach can let the player who messed up know about it, but no one else will hear it. What’s great is that all of the data can be shared with the athlete, so they can review it at home, in a dorm room, or after practice.”

It took three years of R&D and a year of engineering before Burton unveiled Avida late last year.

In the near future, Avidasports expects to offer a video system to complement the data sensors. And in the not-too-distant future, plans call for social networking and virtual competitions to be made available. “You may see where an aunt and uncle living in Michigan could watch their niece compete at a swim meet at the University of Texas,” says Scott Hedges, Avida’s vice president of operations.

As it stands, Avida has approached 150 schools, and eight deals are pending. The base price is $15,000 for a team installation. Each package of five data sensors plus a charger is $400, and there’s an annual $72 subscription fee for each user. The batteries powering the sensors last about four hours.

Burton says he expects revenue of between $5 million and $10 million next year. Within five years, he projects the company will generate up to $100 million in sales.

That’s a better track record than that of his first company, Burtek, a defense supplier he started with $3,000 in 1987. When he sold it 20 years later, Burtek had 425 employees and revenue of $100 million.

“I think Michigan is like the auto industry in the early 1900s,” Burton says. “We have an abundance of natural resources, great manufacturing talent, and our wages and real estate are very competitively priced. There couldn’t be a better time to start a business.”