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NBA's Sixers open incubator to give its startups a home court

As the Philadelphia 76ers officially christen its innovation lab, the team desperately wants to win on the court and in the tech space.

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Can the Sixers make a splash into tech as they finally hope to do on the hardwood?

Philadelphia 76ers

The Philadelphia 76ers have a game plan to hopefully make the team winners in the startup space.

The NBA team on Tuesday will officially open its Innovation Lab in suburban Camden, New Jersey. It'll be home to four startups, including one that provides tips to daily fantasy sports fans and one that helps esports players learn from the best. 

But unlike traditional tech accelerators, lab manager Seth Berger said there are three things that will make the Sixers' strategies different from the rest.

First, participating startups have ample room to grow. Second, startups won't be confined to a months-long residency, then show off a make-or-break product demo to determine their fate. Third, the NBA team will invest in startup for as long as it exists. 

"With our model, we have total flexibility in terms of guidelines. We want to have long-term relationships with our companies," he said Monday. "There is no traditional deal here. This is a total partnership where the goal is to make it work. There is no end date."

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A glimpse inside the Sixers' new Innovation Lab. 

Philadelphia 76ers

The opening of the 8,000-square-foot innovation lab located inside the 76ers' headquarters is just the team's latest investment. It was among the first US pro sports teams to invest heavily in tech startups. Other sports-related tech incubators include the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers, the NFL's Dallas Cowboys and the NFL players union. Even the NFL is turning to startups to help improve player health and safety. 

Last year, Sixers' CEO Scott O' Neil said co-owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer were "ready to shake things up" in the tech world. Construction on the lab began last spring. 

Pro sports teams venturing into the tech arena are trying to leverage their brand to their fan base and beyond, said Michael Lewis, a marketing professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

"Let's be honest here, sports fans are probably the most loyal fans and they live and die with these brands, so ownership groups branching off into other areas is a intuitively appealing idea," said Lewis, who also writes a sport analytics blog. "However, I think those owners venturing out better be winning because fans aren't going to see it that way if they're teams are losing. Everything is fair play." 

Interesting, because the Sixers have put fans through years of losing while uttering the catchphrase, "Trust the process." Berger also believes "the process" could be applied with startups at the innovation lab. He's best known as the founder and CEO of AND 1, whose basketball apparel and shoes and "Streetball Mix Tape" summer tour in the early 2000s once posed a serious challenge to Nike.

Berger is taking a hands-on approach overseeing four startups selected out of 300 applicants. If a startup needs to raise funding or find investors, the Sixers will have right of first refusal, along with the right to invest further. Plus, the team provides free food and corporate housing to its startup CEOs.

It's an opportunity Dylan Elder said he couldn't pass up. Last August, the 20-year-old left Georgetown University after one year to develop Monster Roster, which helps pick daily fantasy lineups on sites FanDuel and DraftKings. Using a unique algorithm, Elder boasts his site generates roughly 50,000 unique lineups daily and performs 40 percent better than the average user. 

Elder caught Berger's attention because his site was originally named And 1 Analytics, after the apparel company. It was rebranded as Monster Roster and currently has a promotional partnership deal with FanDuel. Elder is also excited there won't be a merger between FanDuel and DraftKings, the top two daily fantasy rivals.

"I'm learning more in the last 11 months than any class or teacher has taught me," he said.

Shinggo Lu, 26, co-founded the startup "U GIT GUD," an online training platform for esports players ranging from beginners to pros. He's appreciated "bouncing tons of ideas" off Elder and owners from two other participating startups: Doc & Phoebe's Cat. Co., a unique cat feeding system, and Live Life Nice, a digital media company focusing on positive news stories. 

Berger said the Innovation Lab isn't entirely looking for startups that could help one of its own teams. Yet it's hard to imagine a startup like U GIT GUD not helping ventures like the Sixers' esports Team Dignitas.

The Sixers said they're still looking for one more startup. Companies can apply here.

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