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Meet Jeff Kunowski, Global Sport Institute’s Associate Director of Innovation Programs
Tell us about yourself.
I’m an Arizona native who grew up in Glendale, AZ, went to high school in the West Valley, and graduated from Arizona State University in 2011 with an Integrated Studies degree. While at ASU I started a business and was fortunate enough to receive an Edson grant to pursue my idea. I’ve spent the last 10 years working in the sports business and technology space, and currently serve in a collaborative role between the Global Sport Institute and ASU Entrepreneurship + Innovation.
Tell more about this business you started.
The business was called Illumin8 Outdoor Media and was based off an idea I had for a signage product. I was driving down the road one night and saw these guys on the corner of the street spinning signs. It was around 8pm and was getting dark so you couldn't really see what their sign was promoting. I wondered if there was a better way to build portable signs so that they could be visible both day and night.
I went home and did some research to see if there were any portable illuminated signage platforms on the market and couldn't find anything. So I started playing around with some electroluminescent cable light and used that to build a proof of concept prototype. A couple of weeks later, I found out about ASU’s Edson program and decided to apply. Over the next few weeks, I put together a business plan and built an improved prototype. After a few rounds of presenting, I was awarded $10,000 to start my business and used that money to develop a commercially viable product.
Around that same time, I was finishing up an internship with the Phoenix Mercury/Suns. When meeting with my boss for my exit interview, I happened to bring along a pitch deck and a sample of my product with me. I pitched my idea to her and shortly after, the Phoenix Suns became my first customer. It was an incredible experience and provided my company with a great deal of market validation.
What brought you into the world of sport entrepreneurship?
Signage is a product that is used in just about every industry - it just so happened that my first sales opportunity came about from my experience as an intern for the Suns. I knew that signage was a key element in the sports experience in terms of sponsorship, fan engagement, directional, ingress/egress. I decided to leverage my success with the Suns and approach other organizations in the sports and entertainment space. I began selling static LED products to organizations including: the Arizona Diamondbacks, Livenation, CBS, Anheuser Busch, MGM Resorts International, Panasonic, Fedex and many others. I then went on to partner with the former President of the Phoenix Coyotes, Douglas Moss. He became a partner and investor in my company which led to new product development, new customers, and ultimately led to he and I working with Panasonic on a national scale. My path in sports entrepreneurship really took off from that initial sale to the Phoenix Suns.
Is there a specific group you have enjoyed working with during your time at GSI?
I have really enjoyed our partnership with Sun Devil Athletics and working with ASU’s student-athletes. I have been working with SDA to provide student-athletes with access to ASU’s entrepreneurial resources. It's really inspiring to witness these individuals taking the attributes of leadership, determination, and passion that they’re used to applying on the field, court, track, etc and utilizing those same skills to develop and pursue their ideas. I love witnessing the crossover between athletics and entrepreneurship.
Tell us more about the work you do with Sun Devil Athletics.
Our programming with Sun Devil Athletics is designed to empower student-athletes to explore entrepreneurship, innovation, and creative problem-solving. The main purpose is to educate student athletes on the resources that are available to them. Sun Devil Athletics has a program within their department called Champ Life that teaches athletes about traditional career opportunities and how to approach them through mock interviews, networking, resume building, etc. Historically there hasn't been a lot of focus on innovation and entrepreneurship as a career path, so this program is designed to first create awareness of these resources, capture interest, and then work with those students who have expressed interest.
For those student athletes that are interested in launching a venture, I work with them on a 1:1 basis to help develop a business plan, develop a pitch deck, and encourage them to apply for grant funding through one of the Venture Devils funding tracks.
If someone wanted to get involved with the innovation and entrepreneurship programs of GSI, what resources are available?
The Global Sport Institute has a close partnership with ASU’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation group. We channel most interest through E+I’s Venture Devils program which includes mentorship, 1-on-1 coaching, in-person and online workshops, and opportunities to apply for grant funding.
What do you look for when deciding which ventures to fund?
We typically focus on two areas. First, we look at problem that an individual or group is attempting to solve, and how viable their solution is.
Second, we look at the individual founder or founding team to determine whether or not we feel they can pull it off.
Go more into detail about the tracks that are available.
The Global Sport Institute currently offers three funding tracks. Each of these includes access to grant funding, mentorship, workshops, and introductions to strategic advisors.
We just announced a new funding track this week in partnership with Phoenix Rising FC. The Phoenix Rising Venture Challenge will provide resources to ventures that are developing ideas specifically around the topics of sports venue technology, fan engagement, and player performance.
The Global Sport Social Impact Challenge provides resources to ventures who are looking to change the world through sport. This could be through a program, application, product, or service that is looking to make a positive social impact.
The Global Sport Venture Challenge focuses on innovation in the areas of wearables, mobile-apps, apparel, nutrition and health, and other products and services.
All of our programs focus primarily on early stage ventures with the goal in mind of helping them develop their product/program/service, provide foundational support, and ultimately help them connect with relevant contacts in their respective industry.
What's your favorite memory associated with sport?
I have been very fortunate in the past few years when it comes to attending high profile sporting events. One of my best memories came through Panasonic’s partnership with Churchill Downs. I was able to attend the Kentucky Derby on two occasions and was able to bring my wife along to enjoy the event. We were able to experience the races from the Jockey Club Suites and Millionaire’s Row which were both unforgettable experiences.
I have also had the incredible opportunity to attend the last three Super Bowls. My best friend is an Athletic Trainer for the New England Patriots and he has brought me along to share in his success within the NFL. We often talk about how great it is that we are both pursuing our dreams of working in sports but in very different ways.
Favorite athlete of all-time?
That’s a great question... I’m gonna have to go with Tom Brady from the New England Patriots.
I have had the opportunity to see Brady play in person many times and he never ceases to amaze me. I was at Super Bowl LI when the Patriots came back from a 28-3 deficit and ended up beating the Falcons. It was an incredible sight to witness and he continues to perform at a high level even at his age.