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Twins using accelerator program as ‘mission to redefine’ franchise

By Erik Bacharach
Carl Starkey’s AWSM sauce will be featured at Target Field in April.Sarah Fisco

Carl Starkey got the phone call he’d been waiting for and began processing the implications for his budding startup. This call meant additional funding for his zero-waste condiments company, new industry contacts and a long-term relationship with the Minnesota Twins, not to mention the ability to leverage Target Field to gain short-term exposure for his brand of sauces — at the expense of some better-established condiment brands.

 

“After they told us we’d been selected, I stopped everybody on the phone and I was like, ‘Guys, guys, guys — I’d like to take a moment of silence,’” Starkey said, “‘for Heinz.’”

Starkey’s West Chester, Pa.-based company, AWSM Sauce, will be featured in the Delta Sky360 Legends Club at Target Field in April, with potential for the partnership to extend further. AWSM Sauce was one of 10 companies selected in November to participate in the inaugural Twins Accelerator by Techstars, a three-month program designed to provide funding and exclusive mentorship opportunities for tech startups. It’s just the second tech accelerator to be operated and funded by a Major League Baseball club, the other being the Los Angeles Dodgers, who launched a similar program in 2015. The Twins retain an equity stake in each of the participating startups, the majority of which are being integrated into the team’s 2022 plans.

“The Twins are on a mission to redefine what a baseball brand can be and do,” Chris Iles, the team’s senior director of brand experience and innovation, told an audience of more than 250 during the program’s demo day at The Fillmore in Minneapolis on Feb. 15. “We believe a future-proof baseball brand needs to be about more than just balls and strikes and what happens on the field.”

That mindset was prompted in large part by the pandemic. In July 2020, the Twins hired Zeus Jones, a Minneapolis-based strategy and creative agency, to take them through a 10-week, design-thinking workshop that was centered around the question, “How can the Twins best innovate?” Iles estimated 40 members of the Twins, including staffers from every department, weighed in on several ideas, in addition to market research in which fans were polled. The idea for a sports tech accelerator rose to the top.

The Twins pinpointed Techstars, an investment company that assists early stage entrepreneurs, as having “the broadest global network and most experience in this space,” Iles said.

The Twins and Techstars have a three-year partnership deal, meaning 20 more startups will be chosen to participate in the accelerator program, 10 in each of the next two years.

“These startups and their founders are now a part of the Twins organization,” Iles told Sports Business Journal, “and I’d like to think we’ve absorbed through osmosis some type of entrepreneurial spirit from them.”

Each of the startups had the opportunity to learn from Twins mentors, including members of the club’s senior leadership team. For AWSM Sauce, the Twins’ concessionaire provided valuable perspective.

“Working with Pete [Spike, Delaware North Sportservice general manager at Target Field] has been great,” Starkey said. “Because he’s been able to tell us on their end, what’s annoying, what works, what sucks. And so then we can take it back and fine-tune our approach.”

The 34-year-old Starkey, who is one of only two people working full-time at AWSM Sauce — the other being co-founder Paul Lehmann — is designing a condiment dispenser specific for stadiums. The company’s end game, though, is direct-to-consumer.

“But this is a great marketing play for us,” Starkey said.

Edge Sound Research, another startup selected from a pool of 120 applicants to participate in the Twins accelerator, also is poised to maximize its opportunity with the organization. The Riverside, Calif.-based company’s efforts were initially geared toward gamers, allowing them to not only hear but also feel sound while they played.

Now Edge is building a mobile sound lounge that fans will be able to experience in various locations at Target Field throughout the 2022 season, a feature that the Twins expect to be ready by Opening Day on April 7.

“Their technology, it’s a mind-bender,” Iles said. “You ever felt the shape of a sound wave as it travels through your body?”

Valtteri Salomaki, who co-founded Edge, provided an example: The crack of a bat.

“That is an experience that the batter has, but nobody else has because it’s a vibration of the bat,” the 25-year-old said. “So how do we transport that and allow an individual in the audience to actually feel that sensation? Our company actually turns the seat itself into the speaker. ... Our technology takes existing sound signal — the game broadcast is already taking the bat crack — and that gets processed through our patent-pending software and we vibrate material that actually allows you to both hear and feel the sound.”

During his experience in the accelerator, Salomaki had the chance to glean insight from the people who bring the Twins’ game-day experience and broadcast to life, including John Avenson, vice president of technology, and Andrew Halverson, director of broadcast.

“I got an understanding of where mics are and what audio can actually be picked up and what is being portrayed during games,” Salomaki said. “All that insight was impossible for me to obtain prior to joining this program. It’s helped me to understand, ‘what is a scalable approach for stadiums? What can I do in the short term?’”

Other startups in the program’s inaugural class included Knoow, a real-time, location-based search and service engine that connects users to others at specific locations they want to visit; Node, a marketplace that lets influencers receive gifts for creating branded posts; and SoleSafe, a sneaker insurance tech company.

SoleSafe founder Phil Terrill, a 31-year-old entrepreneur who was born and raised in Minneapolis, cited three people — Iles; Dustin Morse, vice president of communications and content; and Meka Morris, executive vice president and chief revenue officer — as helping to guide him during his time in the accelerator.

“These relationships will continue,” he said. “There were a lot of ways, big and small, that they all helped me so much.”

Iles says the feeling is mutual.

“We’re trying to infuse innovation across all levels and facets of our organization,” he said, “and what better way to do that than to expose everyone in our organization to the innovative thinking and entrepreneurial spirit of the startup founder?”

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