Craig Buntin turns to technology to advance sport

What’s a pair skater to do when he hangs up his skates at age 29, and contemplates the future?

If he’s Craig Buntin, he takes care of business.

In five years, Buntin, now 34, has taken a fascinating journey – in the world of business – from tea connoisseur to skating software company executive. And he just might have the perfect tool to revolutionize figure skating – perhaps even to curb subjectivity in the sport.

Buntin is a principal in a Montreal start-up company that uses computer vision software to analyze the movements of figure skaters: how high they jump or throw, the distance the move travels, the speed at which it travels, the flow, the ice coverage. It’s called VeriSkate for good reason. “Veri” is a root word that means truth.

“It’s super cutting edge,” said Buntin of the action recognition software that was actually developed for security concerns, with the ability to recognize and then pinpoint movement that is unusual. Buntin and his software development buddies from McGill University are using it to recognize figure skating movements and define them analytically.

“In sport, there is very little action-recognition happening right now,” Buntin said. But there is definitely a move toward using analytics to gauge performance quality in athletes. After all, the Oakland Athletics baseball team has a budget that pales in comparison to that of the New York Yankees and has to find promising young prospects by using the analytical evidence-based approach to assembling a competitive team. It worked for the club.

“I think figure skating has something that no other sport has – we’re judging specific movements,” Buntin said.

This software that keeps Buntin awake with excitement at nights when he should be sleeping can be used for evaluating kids at a summer competition. He intends to build an app that will give skaters all sorts of data about their skating. “In the future you will know if you have the fastest Axel in Canada,” Buntin said. And a young male skater, for example, can take this information and compare it to Patrick Chan’s. They can scientifically see what they have to do to improve. The software is a step beyond Dartfish, Buntin says.

“We’re measuring the speed overall in a program, how fast skaters are accelerating, the power output,” he said. “We know how much time skaters are spinning in their programs versus how much time they are accelerating versus how much time they are standing there, doing artistic things in a stationery spot.

“We can measure the actual ice coverage for a footwork sequence. Inch by inch, we can tell much ice skaters are covering. So we know, more or less, how difficult a program is.”

Needless to say, the software would be an excellent tool for media and broadcasters and it could also be one more valuable aid to judging officials.

The software has been on Buntin’s table for only the past few months. The idea caught Buntin’s imagination while he was at the Skate Canada Grand Prix in Saint John, N.B., last October. He’d attended the event as a delegate for Skate Canada’s major game-changing strategy session. After the session he spoke with Skate Canada’s Chief Sport Officer Patricia Chafe, put a proposal together on the Sunday night and pitched it to Chief Executive Officer Dan Thompson on Monday. Two days later, he was on a flight to the United Kingdom to a sports analytics conference. He’s been running at top speed ever since.

Buntin had started a tea company about the time he was wrapping up his career, having missed a shot at the Vancouver Olympics in his home province. He knew he needed a break from the sport. After a while, he realized that he knew absolutely nothing about business and decided to get some education. He’d been out of school for 12 years.

Buntin, who had finished skating at age 29, approached a couple of universities to find out his options in education. McGill University in Montreal made an exception for Buntin, allowing him into their MBA program without an undergraduate degree if he passed the GMAT exam. As it turns out, McGill had never made such an exception for any student.

Buntin graduated from university, sold his tea company to his distributor, and then thought: “Now what?”

In the meantime, he felt the pull of figure skating again. During his MBA studies, he’d taken part in a business plan competition. One of the judges had been the chief executive officer of a venture capital firm in Montreal that deals in technology company start-ups, getting university research to market.

The company, investing in a new computer vision, was looking for people to start high-tech companies. During a meeting with Helge Seetzen, the CEO of TandamLaunch, the executive asked Buntin to look through all of the company’s technologies and see if anything excited him.

Now Buntin is the co-founder of VeriSkate, and has raised $500,000 for the start-up. (Who knew?) He’s working with a student who has just finished his PhD in computer vision at McGill and he’s also brought in a project software developer.  The company is developing an app, and it’s hiring. It’s an industry that is “exploding,” Buntin said.

Buntin had never foreseen himself getting involved in anything high-tech. This opportunity fell into his lap. “I walk into a skating competition now and I feel like I’m home,” he said. “The smell of the rink, the people, the lights. Yeah.”

What gives Buntin goosebumps is the thought, that if he’d had this software when he was a skater, it would totally have changed the way he trained. His goal is to introduce it at some summer competitions and if all goes well, have it in place for Junior Grand Prix events this coming season.

He’d love to see it used at Skate Canada in Kelowna, B.C., his home town. He dreams big. And he dreams fast.

Beverley Smith

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