Why sports tech startup JockLab is making basketball robots

By Maddy Kennedy - Minne Inno
Maddy Kennedy is a reporter for Minne Inno covering all things related to innovation, technology and startups in the Twin Cities. Maddy has been with Minne Inno since its launch June 2017. She is a Twin Cities native and is passionate about covering diversity in tech as well as the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.
August 06, 2020, 12:10pm CDT

Local robotics startup JockLab may be just a over a year old, but it's already winning awards and securing partnerships with major universities across the state.

Created by a group of students from Gustavus Adolphus College, JockLab aims to enhance athletic training with the aid of robots. The company's flagship product is a robot that rolls around basketball courts trying to stop human players from scoring a basket.

Last month, JockLab won first place in the BETA Showcase, one of the Twin Cities' most popular tech events. Founder and CEO Alijah Nelson wasn't sure how the early-stage company would stack up against its competitors, but decided to sign up anyway.

"We like to be active in the community and meet with a lot of thinkers and makers, so when we heard about the showcase we were like 'Let's give it a shot,'" Nelson told Minne Inno. "We presented it and so much fun."

JockLab also won Gustavus' 2019 Gustie Cup and the 2019 Student Business Plan Competition by the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. Despite this early success, Nelson says the company's journey hasn't been easy.

"We're a hardware startup, and there's not a lot of us here in Minnesota," he said. "It's mostly SaaS, so we've had trouble finding people that can help us with hardware."

The solution to that problem has, at least for now, come in the form of university partnerships. The JockLab team has now created four prototype designs of the basketball bot, called D-Up, most recently in partnership with Minnesota State University, Mankato. JockLab is also continuing to develop its product with the help of the University of St. Thomas.

In addition to collaborating with robotics and engineering professionals, JockLab is also working closely with the athletes that will eventually use its end product. Nelson said the company is already receiving interest from potential customers through its social media channels.

"When I put videos up, a lot of coaches reach out asking to know more," Nelson said. "We've had a lot of good conversations."

He added that JockLab plans to initially target trainers, coaches and teams for its product. The company plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign at the end of the year to continue developing D-Up in Minnesota, despite a lack of hardware startups in the area.

"Minneapolis is growing," Nelson said. "If you're in entrepreneurship, it's a good time to be here."