Innovation awards: Orreco aims to bring elite sports science to the masses

Biomarker analytics firm wants to extend elite athlete solutions to everyone

Orreco is a company that merges biology and advanced computer technology as a way to help elite athletes train longer, recover faster and reduce the risk of injury.

It profiles an athlete based on “biomarkers” in the blood and feeds this information into self-learning computer programmes that over time optimise training conditions for an athlete. This includes identifying the best sleep patterns for the individual, the best diet, training intensity and duration and other factors that affect performance.

Chief executive Dr Brian Moore set up Orreco with co-founder and consultant haematologist Andy Hodgson in 2009, although the research work related to Orreco goes back 15 years. Moore did a PhD on what made a world-class athlete and he began running a service for athletes including Sonia O'Sullivan at the time of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

“I realised what a fine line there is between getting better after training and over-reaching and getting sick or injured as a result,” he says.


Enterprise Ireland

The two founders decided to set up a formal business, with early financial support coming from Enterprise Ireland. It was a sharp learning curve, says Moore. "I did a crash course in entrepreneurship."

It must have worked, because the company now employs 18 people, 12 of them PhDs, with offices in Ireland, the US and the UK.

The unusual name bolts together Or, the Irish world for gold, and reco for recovery, which pretty well describes the company’s goal: to help elite athletes get the most out of training to help them deliver gold-medal performances.

Orreco set up and remains in the Innovation Centre at the Institute of Technology Sligo, where they began developing the systems they believed could help champion athletes get the most out of their training and conditioning.

“It is sports science and data science for world-class athletes, to help them make decisions around training, about sleep and nutrition and to optimise performance, accelerate recovery and prolong their careers,” says Moore.

Early clients included golfers Pádraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell. By 2013 customers included UK Premier League teams and US basketball teams.

Personalised biomarkers

Moore’s starting hypothesis was that elite athletes are different from the rest of us and he wanted to know whether these differences could be detected in their blood. So far he and the research team have found more than 40 biomarker differences.

Once identified for an individual, these personalised biomarkers are then run through a computer model developed at Orreco. The programme tracks these biomarkers over time so the system can assess what is “under the hood” as Moore describes it. The athlete also provides “external” details that match up with the biomarkers. This might include the progress of an injury or training recovery and periods of peak and low performance.

Orreco runs its computer programmes on the IBM Watson, a system that responds to simple, human-like questioning in natural language as a way to mine large amounts of structured and unstructured data. The computer algorithm developed by Orreco and run on Watson is called the TrackOR Platform.

“We have developed machine-learning techniques,” says Moore, so the computer learns about the athlete as more data comes in over time. This allows for fine tuning of the exercise programme.

It can also be predictive in that the blood biomarkers and Watson deliver a “readiness to perform” index that shows how ready the person is for competition, says Moore.

Evidence-based system

The company's research team partnered with others working in various aspects of human physiology including Harvard Medical School, Slone Kettering Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital. Moore and Hodgson wanted to develop a system that was evidence-based, with data to back up any claims being made.

The company also set up a dedicated research programme looking at top female athletes. There has been a “dearth of research” looking at female athlete fitness and performance. “It is a special area of research with two PhDs working on it. One of them has been a qualifier for the marathon at the Olympics,” Moore says.

The focus has always been on elite athletes and the company over the past 15 years has worked with more than 2,000 top performers including 30 Olympic medallists in 16 different sports, Moore says.

He believes, however, that it is time to open the company’s services to 150 million potential customers worldwide. “We want to scale our solution to make it available to us all,” he says. “What we learn from the elites we can make available to the amateurs.”

A version suited to the huge health and fitness market should be available by 2017, he says.