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Now Playing on Your iPhone: The Olympics

Elemental Technologies, a 6-year-old video start-up, is set to stream 27 channels of live Olympic events directly to mobile devices.
Want to watch the Games on your phone? Meet the young, Portland-based start-up making that happen.

If you plan to watch the Olympics this summer on a phone, tablet, or PC, you’ll be able to do so because of Sam Blackman.

Blackman is the founder and CEO of Elemental Technologies, a technology start-up that has pioneered the use of graphics processors to power adaptive video streaming over IP networks. Simply put, this company makes it possible for you to watch a baseball game in real time on your iPhone or stream a soccer match onto an iPad. The company’s list of clients include HBO, ESPN, and Comcast, among many other household names.

In 2010, Blackman set his sights on the Olympics. His goal was to land a contract with the BBC to provide the live video streaming technology for the 2012 Olympic Games. Not only did BBC sign up, seven other broadcasters signed up, too.

Founded in 2006 and headquartered in Portland, Oregon, the company has raised nearly $30 million in venture capital and employs 75 people. Last year, the company made $10.2 million in revenue and expects to double that figure by the end of 2012. Here, Blackman, the company’s co-founder and CEO, chats with Inc.’s senior reporter Eric Markowitz.

Was it always your goal to work with the Olympics?

Absolutely. We set it as a goal because the Olympics are really a gold-standard event for a lot of our customers, who are the big broadcasters that pay billions of dollars for rights to broadcast games. If you can win their business for an event as seminal as the Olympics, then it’s a very nice foundational credibility for your business to win other accounts for all the other important events. 

As a six-year-old start-up, how do you persuade these big companies to work with you?

In video processing, there are a lot of good technology companies that have been around for quite some time. Most of our customers had competitive products in-house and had used them for prior Games. We had to show these customers why it made sense for them to transition from their existing suppliers to Elemental. We have to show them quantitatively why our tools are better. It’s a multimonth process.

When did you start the bidding process for the Olympics?

It was probably two years ago. We started thinking about it at a trade show when we were working with European customers who were thinking of using it for the Olympics. They had our equipment in their lab for almost nine months before making the decision to go with us at the end of last year. Now, this year, we’ve been helping them as they get the equipment into production, tested, and ready for the full onslaught of the Games.

How exactly does it work?

They’re using Elemental Live, which is the live streaming system. Basically, it’s taking live feeds from the game and redistributing those feeds into what’s called adaptive bitrate streaming, which is how you stream to mobile devices, PCs, and tablets over the Internet. During the Olympics, this service will be used, for example, by the BBC to show all events that are happening in real time. There will be 27 channels of live events, so you’ll be able to watch any event, as it’s happening.

They are also using Elemental Server to take highlights of those events and show them in near real time on the site. So, for example, if Usain Bolt wins the 100-meter dash, you can watch the replay almost instantly.

So how many broadcasters have signed up?

We’ve got eight signed up. We can’t mention them all publicly, but just a few include BBC of U.K., Terra networks for all of Latin America, CTV in Canada, and Eurosport throughout Europe.

We won BBC first. It’s definitely known as a technology innovator. We figured if we won BBC, we could go to the other broadcasters and convince them to have them use us as well.

What does it take to go after a big bid like the Olympics?

Each part of the company needed to execute flawlessly to make the BBC--this 100-year-old media organization--to make a bet on Elemental, this six-year-old start-up company, for the Olympic Games. It’s still kind of stunning to all of us, I think.

Are you guys nervous?

Our customer support team and engineers are relatively calm right now. I should know; I sit right next to them. It doesn’t feel like there’s a tremendous amount of worry at the moment. We’ve been testing for months and months and months. We’ve got redundancy and high availability baked into the system, and we have backup systems in place. We have all sorts of contingency plans. We’re prepared.

How are you planning to market the fact that you’ve worked with the Olympics to future clients?

We are very careful, because the IOC [International Olympic Committee] is extremely focused on maintaining their Olympic brand. We have to be thoughtful about how we use the fact that we’re powering the Olympic Games. We’ll be creating all sorts of case studies, technical briefs about how the infrastructure was set up, about how customers used it, Webinars, press, etc. We’ll make it very clear to the world that Elemental was the key vendor for IP video delivery of the 2012 London Games.

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