Dhonam Pemba of Kadho Sports: “Practice good ethics”

One, practice good ethics. People need to trust you and what you do. Gaining investors’ trust comes from being trustworthy and having a remarkable track record. Being in business, I have encountered and worked with several people I ended up cutting ties with because they values and ethics didn’t align with me. Some people believe […]

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One, practice good ethics. People need to trust you and what you do. Gaining investors’ trust comes from being trustworthy and having a remarkable track record. Being in business, I have encountered and worked with several people I ended up cutting ties with because they values and ethics didn’t align with me. Some people believe that to succeed in business its ok to lie and trick others and put their success above everyone else’s. I believe being unethical will eventually ruin your chances with your future partners and investors. Treat others the way you would want to be treated yourself.

New technologies have changed the way we engage in and watch sports. Sensors, Wearable Tech, Video Assistant Referees (VAR), and Instant Replay, are examples of new technologies that have changed the way we play and watch sports. In this interview series called, “The Future of Sports; New Emerging Technologies That Are Disrupting The World Of Sports,” we are talking to sports leaders, athletes, sports tech experts, and sports equipment companies who can talk about the new technologies that are reshaping the sports world.

As a part of this interview, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dhonam Pemba.

Dhonam Pemba built neural interfaces for his Ph.D., developed micro-propulsions systems for NASA, co-founded and sold an AI-based children language teaching company. He applies brain science with state of art technology which he did when he co-founded Kadho Sports, which developed cognitive training apps for trained NBA, NFL, NHL, NCAA, and Olympic athletes. Currently, he co-founded and is the CEO of KidX AI, a next-generation video interaction system that blends online learning with offline play.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

My name is Dhonam Pemba. I started my career as a Biomedical Engineer. I received my bachelor’s at Johns Hopkins, and then my PhD from the University of California, Irvine. It was during my PhD at Irvine that I started my entrepreneurial career of combining science and business. My PhD work was related to building neural interfaces, similar to Elon Musks’ current company, Neurallink. Building invasive technology opened my eyes to the intricacies and challenges of technology put inside the human body. At the same time, when I visited China, I found it very difficult to speak Chinese. It was fascinating to see children pick up languages so easily while adults have so much trouble doing so. This experience piqued my interest and research into understanding the critical periods of language acquisition. I think it would be great if we could plug our brain into a computer and instantly learn any skill we want. By understanding the complexities of brain-computer interfaces, I wondered if there was an easier way to improve language acquisition. This led to my first company, where we build language exposure apps. The goal was to expose children to sounds of the world’s languages during their critical period so they can learn them later on in life. During this product roll out, I met Craig Thompson, one of the founders of the Champions league of soccer in Europe, who proposed the use of neuroscience to improve athletic abilities. He introduced us to USA volleyball, and we built an interactive video platform that trains the brain to anticipate opponents and plays. We had great success helping athletes using these interactive videos, but I still cared deeply about children’s education. One thing I realized form my first startup was, children need hands on plan. My experiences with children’s education and their brain development, coupled with interactive video technology with sports, have led to what I am currently building, an education platform for kids that uses interactive videos with offline toys.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

There have been many interesting events in various countries and companies I was part of. One interesting occurrence happened while we were providing team USA (women and men) our platform for the RIO games. A few months before the Olympics, I presented at 11th China Sports Market Forum(CSMF) and won first prize at the 3rd China Sports Innovation Contest and Show. It got the interest of the Chinese volleyball team and we decided not to provide them training that year because we were busy with USA and believed they would win Gold and provide better marketing for our product. We all remember that Olympics, USA came in bronze and China pulled off an upset to win Gold. If we had worked with the Chinese team for Rio as well as the USA team, we would have trained both the Gold and Bronze winning teams, and it would have been an amazing underdog story.

Can you please give us your favorite Life Lesson Quote and how it has been relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote will be, “Chance favors the prepared mind”. This quote has influenced many of my life decisions and my outlook on life generally. It originally came from Louis pasture who said, “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” This quote has been the foundation and genesis of some of the most phenomenal discoveries such as penicillin, vaccines, x-rays, radioactivity, microwave ovens and Velcro. We all have the potential to succeed if given the opportunity, provided we are well prepared for it. I try to learn and experience as much as I can. Without proper preparation, we’ll not be able to take charge and maximize great opportunities when they arise.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are a ton of people who helped me along the way, but my mom tops the list. She’s been there for me from day one, from birth till now. And everything she did had no underlying motivation; it was all in my best interest. There was that meme going around which says, “Children miss their moms as kids, get annoyed by their moms as teenagers, realize their moms were right as adults, miss their moms after 50, then at 70 they would give anything to have their moms with them.” I think I am in that category. I realize I should have listened to my mom more. I would have been healthier and my overall lifestyle would have been much better. Making wrong decisions can have long-term impacts on your health, finances, and relationship. There isn’t a single story that helped me get where I am. My dad was in medical school while my mom was taking care of the house, raising me and my brother, and working multiple jobs to provide for us. Our family’s success and ultimately my education and success were all seeded from her efforts raising us.

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The books that resonate with me so much also align with the quote I previously mentioned. Of all these books, Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers tops the list. It aligns perfectly with my previous comment about life lesson quotes, and the importance of the serendipity of the world. It takes hard work, talent, and the right circumstances to become an outlier. Again, chance favors the prepared mind. Although you can’t predict what’s going to happen to you tomorrow or the next minute but you still have to continue to do your best and be prepared. Kadho sport is a perfect example of how serendipity created a company that has positively impacted the lives of many athletes. Originally I was making children’s apps, and one of my friends said he knows a guy who sold an app. So I approached that person for advice, and from that meeting, he introduced me to his former colleague, Yasuto Suga. I met with Yasuto hoping he would help our children app development. He loved the idea of helping kids but was more fascinated when I showed him what we were working on with the USA volleyball, and he thought it was a game-changer. He became CEO of Kadho Sports and that very meeting birthed Kadho sports. A year before this, I was working in a lab. I was working on micro-implantable chips for the human brain, with no experience in game development. All these events had to align in space and time for Kadho sports to become a company.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

One, practice good ethics. People need to trust you and what you do. Gaining investors’ trust comes from being trustworthy and having a remarkable track record. Being in business, I have encountered and worked with several people I ended up cutting ties with because they values and ethics didn’t align with me. Some people believe that to succeed in business its ok to lie and trick others and put their success above everyone else’s. I believe being unethical will eventually ruin your chances with your future partners and investors. Treat others the way you would want to be treated yourself.

Two, be open-minded. Always be willing to learn. I am not a programmer or AI scientist by degree, I had only undergraduate courses in programming, but to make our products I had to learn implementation as an entrepreneur. Don’t cultivate the poor mindset that something is too difficult. You can learn anything if you put your mind to it, then it will eventually become your passion. Around 2016, the field of AI was very new and it wasn’t plug-and-play as it is now. My previous company needed AI services in our language teaching apps for kids such as speech recognition. We needed to train speech recognition for children’s voices and work offline without the internet. No one had ever done that at the time, so I had to become a pioneer in a new competitive field.

Last trait is, move on and don’t give u. As an entrepreneur and in business, you will make many mistakes and have many experiences, you’ll need to not be attached or let previous errors affect future judgment. There will be higher highs and lower lows. Ups and downs come a lot and you just need to have a short memory. When we first had the idea for our kids language teaching app, we were introduced to the CEO of Leapfrog, and he really liked it as well, and wanted his team to check us out and see how we can work together. At that time, we were still only an idea, and when we met with the team to go into more detail, they had a lot of push-backs. It was a painful experience but we had to move on. Eventually we didn’t partner with anyone, we launched our first app ourselves and it reached top 5 on Itunes, in the kids category.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My success has brought goodness to people of all religions and races, especially in the health and education sectors. My inventions, products and research have helped improve the learning curve of many children, boosting their language acquisition skills. Interestingly the technology we created at Kadho Sports has been licensed by another company that is training the police for de-escalation, with current situations going on in the world, I hope that their work can save some lives.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the sports technologies that most excite you at the moment? Can you explain why you are passionate about it?

I am a little biased because I helped build the technology, but the sports technology that excites me the most is cognitive assessment/training in sports. The mind is a fascinating instrument. If we look at elite athletes like Kobe, Jordan, Brady physically there are many people who can out-jump, outrun, and are stronger than them, but why do they excel? It’s something in their mind unlocked through years of experience and environmental conditions. I feel the science and nutrition for improving physical performance has grown a lot but mental performance and health are just starting to be looked at. It isn’t just improving cognitive performance anymore, I think what Simone Biles did was excellent to raise awareness of the mental health issues related to high performance as well. Since the beginning of time with sports and competitions, we have been measuring and assessing below the neck, it is an exciting time that now we are shifting focus to include what’s above as well.

How do you think this might change the world of sports?

The world of sports will pay more attention to improve and protect the head and mind. I think the world will accept both physical and mental measurements of fitness. It would improve training and efficiency and allow athletes to gain experience without needing their bodies hurt. For example, volleyball players wouldn’t need to get on the court as much to experience different serves and play. They could focus their physical training to be more effective and train their minds and experience training without damaging their bodies. Of course we need on the field practice, but immersive technology could reduce wear and tear on the body while still preparing the mind.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

Cognitive assessment may be a true potential to find hidden talent, but it isn’t a perfect test. Similar to how the NFL Combine couldn’t predict Tom Brady, there are underlying cognitive and performance factors that can’t be measured accurately or not shown during tests. If a team passes on a draft pick because of an AI performance measurement or virtual immersion experience, they might potentially miss on a generation-defining player and the athlete might miss out on a life-changing opportunity. Another issue that could occur if immersion and virtual worlds became so good that Michael Jordan could play Lebron James both in their prime virtual bodies but with their current minds. This could lead to a a world where our best athletes are getting fat and overweight sitting in a virtual booth and users actually watch their avatars play. But it could be cool as a fan, then you could go against Michael Jordan one on one with both the same physical attributes and see how you do.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the sports industry today? Can you explain? What can be done to address or correct those concerns?

Firstly, mental health issues caused by social media. Athletes now need to constantly engage with fans and receive feedbacks, both good and bad. Athletes can see every hateful comment or praise; they are feeding their brains with too many feedbacks that they would have never seen in the past.

Furthermore, instant gratification on the consumer side highlight reels. Less people are watching sports live anymore; they now wait for the highlights. I think this leads to less viewership and less enjoyment of the game.

Finally, increased need for entertainment. This relates to the instant gratification caused by highlight reels and digital access to content anywhere anytime as well as decreased attention span. Consumers want highlights, thus the game favors offense and scoring. We see this in the evolution of basketball where defense is less valued and has become a lot softer. If more sports focus on the flash of getting on highlight reels and high view counts, then core fundamentals of the game might be lost.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Your partner and team are very important. If you don’t align attitude or ethical views, it’s better not to move forward.
  2. Exit is not so easy. Acquisition and IPO are a long way. Be prepared for a long journey.
  3. There are easier ways to make money. If money is your driving force, just get into the finance world.
  4. You are headed down an unconventional career path. If you work in a normal job, you’ll build your experience and have a roadmap to follow. As an entrepreneur, you’ll end up wearing many hats and learn different skills. If it doesn’t work out, your experiences might not translate to a normal industry career path.
  5. You can’t buy your way into a product-market fit. Research, test, and identify it before you start. A great idea in your head and a few friends doesn’t mean it’s a business.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would want to create a karma movement, have people believe that positive actions towards others will cause positive effects on oneself, and likewise with negative. It is religion agnostic, but if you believe in the laws of cause and effect I think it would help society improve and make people less selfish and more altruistic.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

That will be Michael Jordan. He was my childhood idol. You just have to respect his competitive nature, killer instinct, and the ability to motivate himself and his teammates. I admire the way he finds motivation in anything to fuel his competitive nature. You hear stories of his teammates and the walking on eggshell atmosphere, and that is why his teammates and anyone associated with the bulls had the fortune to be successful. Jordan ruthlessness depicted by the media put on his team made them all celebrities and part of one of the most iconic teams in the history of the NBA. This isn’t the unethical ruthlessness that I have seen in the business world, but more of a self-induced pressure to drive excellence.

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