Cathy Craig, Turning Academic Research Into Sports Technology

WiST talks to women and men in sports and sports technology who are embodying a more diverse and inclusive workforce and who set the benchmark for their peers and future generations.

The Reluctant CEO

Cathy Craig describes herself as a “reluctant CEO.” The majority of her career has been spent in research academia, earning a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, doing research as a Post Doc in Movement and Perception at the Sports Science Facility in Marseilles, securing a Senior Lectureship at Queens University, then becoming Dean of Post Graduates in Science and Engineering and now Professor of Experimental Psychology at Ulster University. She understood the world of academia, but she also understood her research was applicable outside of the world of academia. Hence, the academic becomes the CEO.

No longer reluctant, Cathy has launched INCISIV, a technology company that takes Decision Science out of the lab and into the world of sports.

Decision Science in Life and in Sports

As a PhD candidate, Cathy studied how preterm infants control the flow of milk from the bottle when feeding, a very complex series of orchestrated movements. This research led her to probe how our brains make decisions in real time.

As a psychologist, Cathy is fascinated by decision making behavior, specifically what we do and why we do it. “The actions we take in real time are determined by the decisions we make in real time”. This is Decision Science. Cathy’s goal is to apply Decision Science to enhance sports performance.

In order to understand how the brain makes action-based decisions in sports, Cathy needed a technology to allow her to identify and replicate what the brain can see and hear, and then measure what the brain ultimately decides to do. She turned to Virtual Reality (VR technology), unlocking its immersive, interactive components driven by Consumer Generated Content (CGC) and motion sensors to study decision making in sport. This is how her company, INCISIV, was born.

INCISIV transforms how real time decision-making in sports is perceived, by using its technology to quantify an athlete’s decision-making ability to improve their performance. Better decisions generate better outcomes, making the difference between a win and a loss.

Action Intelligence – Making the Intangible Tangible

There are countless reasons an athlete decides to act, or not, in real time circumstances. Some are calculated, practiced, repetitive (tangible), many are not (intangible). The intangibles often undermine an athlete’s performance. According to Cathy, intangibles are the reason “why two athletes see the same thing (input) but decide to do something different (output). A decision is made when you act, otherwise it remains a thought in your head. This decision can be tangibly measured by its specific action.”

Cathy’s core thesis, that a decision is measured by an action, is what she terms Action Intelligence (AQ). When, how and why an athlete takes a particular action are the three pillars of AQ. AQ is how INCISIV makes an intangible element of Decision Science tangible.

INCISIV was launched in May 2018 with government backed Proof of Concept funding ($100k) bringing Cathy’s 20 years of lab research to life in sports. Presently, they are focused on elite level soccer goalkeepers, deploying immersive VR and customized movement analytics to help identify their weak spots and improve performance with their first product, Clean Sheet.

Q and A with Cathy Craig

The common thread throughout Cathy’s journey is her desire to understand how the brain makes decisions and how to improve those decisions for a consistently better outcome, whether it be for a preterm infant, an athlete, or a professional navigating the workplace.

Some Q and A with Cathy helps us unbundle her journey and demystify Decision Science.

WiST: You define INCISIV as a Decision Science company. What does that entail and how do you plan to set the benchmark in this nascent space?

Cathy explains that many sports are now turning to analytics to identify patterns of behaviors, actions and outcomes to evaluate an athlete’s performance. According to Cathy, “you often hear commentators say ‘right decision, poor execution.’ This is where Decision Science is critical. “By evaluating an athlete’s past actions and programming them into INCISIV’s immersive VR technology, we identify an athlete’s weakness and improve that skill, enhancing better outcomes for future performance.”

“I studied decision making in many different sports – soccer, rugby, cricket, handball to understand what makes an athlete great. Perfecting execution is the goal to INCISIV technology, and we are setting the benchmark.”

WiST: Action Intelligence (AQ) is a cornerstone of INCISIV. How do you define AQ and what role does it play in the ecosystem of evaluating elite athletes?

Cathy cites the American educational psychologist, Howard Gardner, as her catalyst. “Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is a classification system beyond traditional IQ. Gardner included a bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, where the decision is manifested through the actions a person performs.” This is what Cathy coins Action Intelligence (AQ).

“For an athlete, AQ is the combination of what they do, when they do it and how they do it. For example, in tennis you might read the ball trajectory very well but if you do not have the skill to execute that killer backhand down the line, it is going to impact the decision you make -i.e. you might opt for a forehand drive instead.“

AQ solves this problem by giving feedback on how to improve skill level to perfect performance. INCISIV’s first product to market, Clean Sheet, is where AQ can be seen in action.

WiST: Your journey to date reads like the story of a woman who seeks opportunity, pushes for recognition, and turns that into success through intelligence, persistence and grit. Along the way you traverse countries and verticals. What drives you?  

“I suppose the thread that ties it all together is my desire to seek out new opportunities.”

Cathy grew up in Northern Ireland during a turbulent time and left when she was 18. At the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, she secured her PhD and met her husband, who is a co-founder of INCISIV. Seeking the opportunity to do something different, “I wanted to focus more on sport but also learn a new language, so I contacted a professor at the sports science faculty in Marseille, France, about a post-doc opportunity. “

She went to Marseille on an 8-month contract and ended up staying 8 years. “I then felt I had reached the proverbial glass ceiling which I must admit was quite low in France at the time, so again I was looking for new opportunity.“ Cathy had just given birth to her daughter and sought a new environment better suited to raise her child.

For Cathy, timing is everything. After the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998, Cathy saw that Northern Ireland was changing rapidly, and took a position at Queen’s University Belfast that was the “perfect opportunity to further my research in VR and decision making in sport.“

Becoming CEO of INCISIV is, perhaps her biggest opportunity yet, but the risk-reward is high. Cathy notes, “the advances in immersive, interactive VR that I generated in a very expensive lab for someone else, I could now bring to the world for myself, on a shoestring budget. This time there are things I can’t control, but the ability to build products using my know-how, is priceless.”

WiST: Your passion for the different phases of your career in academia and now sports technology is evident. How did you navigate obstacles inherent in these male-dominated fields to drive the best personal and professional outcome for you?

Human Movement Science and Sports Science are both male-dominated fields that rely heavily on technology, also male-dominated.

In Marseilles, Cathy found that promotions and equal pay for women were not based on merit, rather, on an “obscure profile of someone pre-positioned for the post.” “Instead of fighting an archaic system, a battle that I would never win, I looked to new pastures to see where there was an opportunity for me to do my best work in the right environment. That’s when Queen’s came up.”

While at Queens University in 2008, Cathy secured a prestigious European Research Council grant of over $1 million dollars to extensively research how the brain controls movement. This research led to her promotion to professor.  

“I quickly became aware of a huge disparity in pay grades between men and women. Universities in the UK were keen to promote women to professor but not pay them the same as men. It was abhorrent to see two people doing the same job but maybe the women getting paid 20k less. “

As Dean for Postgraduates in the Science and Engineering faculty, and as part of her legacy, Cathy insisted that the salary review committee approach men and women with the same salary benchmarks, regardless of gender.  

What did Cathy learn? “Some battles are worth fighting for when you know you can make a difference (e.g. the gender pay gap at Queen’s). Others, such as France, when I couldn’t fight a national pandemic, are not.”

Cathy’s advice? “As a woman in these challenging spaces it is about playing smart. I focus a lot on the outcome (not about me) and see how I can navigate the space to achieve the outcome in a flexible or agile way.” Quoting her favorite read, Getting to Yes, “This is the art of principled negotiation without giving in.”  

WiST: As a professor, you mentor your students to advance their ability. As a CEO, you mentor your employees to advance the company. What mentoring advice does the next generation of pioneering women need to help advance themselves?   

Cathy promotes the concept of shared success, “You want everyone to do well and achieve their true potential. If they do well, it usually means your company or school will do well.“

A person’s character is very important, regardless of where they sit in the org chart. “I walk the walk. Talk these days is very cheap, it is much harder to lead by example. As a psychologist I observe people, particularly how they respond to other people and how they deal with difficult situations. I think it is very revealing about someone’s character.“

Role models are a critical piece of the puzzle as well. “I remember there was a female professor on my interview panel at Queen’s who really impressed me. It signaled there are female professors in psychology here, so you could be one, too. For the next generation of pioneering women, it is about channeling passion into what you believe in.“

“The power of one’s own internal drive and motivation should never be underestimated. Nothing is impossible as they say.”

WiST: What is your FAVORITE thing about your work?

“I love the way I don’t know what each day will bring. I know it’s cliché but it is true! Life in a start-up is a roller-coaster. I’m super excited one day because a team has contacted me to learn about what we are doing. The next day I’m in despair because the sensors didn’t calibrate properly, or a software developer missed another deadline. This new world is one that I relish. The excitement of making something happen: to have an idea, a dream and then make it a reality.”

For Cathy, “That’s what is great about being human, the power to create something out of nothing.”

A special thanks to Cathy for sharing her story with the WiST community. Cathy’s focus on taking her research out of the lab and onto the field is driving improvement in athletic performance. Inspiration comes in all forms.

To see INCISIV and AQ in action, check out https://incisiv.tech/