Harpswell entrepreneur and Omnic Data co-founder Shaun Meredith works in Omnic’s new office space on Station Avenue in Brunswick. (SALLY MEREDITH PHOTO)
The origin story of many tech startups includes a tale of intrepid founders in a cluttered garage, working all hours on a world-changing idea. The Harpswell equivalent of the garage in California where Steve Jobs started Apple might be Shaun Meredith’s home office on Harpswell Neck.
Meredith and his business partner, Chuck Goldman, founded Omnic Data in that Harpswell house, which also happens to be the former location of the town’s tax collector. Omnic is a young company with big plans to revolutionize the esports industry. In this brave new online world, players and teams compete against each other playing popular video games such as League of Legends, Overwatch and Fortnite. There are teams at all levels, from high school through college to pro leagues. Many of the 350 colleges now fielding esports teams offer scholarships to their players, and top pros can earn seven-figure salaries. Fans watch esports contests on streaming platforms such as Twitch and YouTube Gaming, or live, in the same arenas where they’d see a concert or a basketball game.
(For a look at a local esports team, read about the Harpswell Coastal Academy team on our website: tinyurl.com/76puby57.)
For non-gamers, esports is like the planet Jupiter: huge, but easy to overlook if you’re not paying attention. In 2020, almost 100 million unique viewers tuned in to watch the League of Legends world championship finals from South Korea — more than the number of viewers who watched the Super Bowl that year, according to Business Telegraph. In the U.S., esports attracts more regular viewers than baseball, basketball and hockey — more, in fact, than any traditional sports league except the National Football League.
Steven Koltai, an investor in Omnic and a former senior advisor for entrepreneurship to President Barack Obama, believes that participating in esports provides a wide variety of benefits to its players, including improved health, better hand-eye coordination, increased critical thinking and problem-solving abilities, and improved memory. Being part of a team enhances social and communication skills. According to Koltai, a significant number of esports players self-identify as physically disabled, and the esports arena gives them a space where they can flourish and “a sense of freedom not available in the physical world.”
Omnic uses artificial intelligence technology to help esports athletes improve their gameplay. The company’s goal is to provide performance data for the top 10 esports video games, which Meredith estimates would give the company a potential global audience of 1.8 billion players.
The idea for Omnic came from a traditional sports practice. Every year, the NFL holds a combine to measure the relative skills and strengths of players — everything from their vertical leap to times in the 40-yard dash. The Overwatch esports league wanted to start a combine for its players, but had no idea what to measure or how to measure it. Meredith realized that a lot of the information the league needed already existed in Overwatch and other video games. If you built a neural network to interact with this data, you could then sort it into a form that helped players learn from and improve their play.
A neural network is a set of computer algorithms that can suss out patterns in a pile of data and organize that data into useful information. Google’s search engine is a well-known example of a neural network. You type in a query, and the search engine crawls all over the web, extracting and sorting the relevant information and delivering it to your computer in seconds. The more searches the program does, the “smarter” and more precise it gets.
Omnic collects data from thousands of hours of video gameplay and turns it into performance feedback and strategy tips for players and coaches. Its computer vision technology can pick up tendencies that are hard to spot in real time. Improved performance can make the difference in getting a college scholarship, or getting selected to play on a pro team.
An esports player needs the same skills as an elite athlete in any sport — reflexes, stamina, mental toughness, intelligence, and a tactical and strategic grasp of the game. Players will be able to create an account on Omnic’s site, upload videos of their gameplay and instantly receive customized coaching recommendations. They’ll get feedback on twitch (the reaction time between seeing and doing) and eye tracking, as well as actionable insights on playing specific video games. Athletes can compare their game stats against other players and develop highlight reels to share with other players, coaches and teams.
This isn’t Shaun Meredith’s first tech rodeo. He grew up “all over the Midwest” and started college at the Air Force Academy before transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received his Bachelor of Science degree in nuclear engineering. After a stint with the Navy’s nuclear submarine program, he returned to MIT for his Master of Science in applied plasma physics, then worked on a doctorate in mechanical engineering with a focus on product design.
After spending time with a couple of startups in Boston, he and his wife, Sally, decided to relocate to Maine, where she grew up. They picked Harpswell because it was off the main tourist track and close to the water. Avid sailors, the Merediths keep their Beneteau sailboat in Stover’s Cove. Before settling in Harpswell in 2001, Shaun had never lived anywhere for more than three consecutive years.
During his two decades in Harpswell, Meredith started other software companies. One did custom programming for web and mobile applications, another built apps for the National Park Service. He also spent 6 1/2 years heading up the Maine Learning Technology Initiative for Apple. With then-Gov. Angus King’s active support, the initiative installed computers and wireless networks in the state’s middle schools and provided tech training to Maine teachers. Ever since his time with Apple, one of Meredith’s long-term goals has been “to help Maine grow a technology economy.”
That’s one reason Meredith wanted to connect with the Roux Institute in Portland, which selected Omnic as one of 10 companies to participate in a program for startups run by TechStars. The Roux Institute trains graduate students in the digital and life sciences. The institute’s goal is to create a technology workforce based in Maine that can support Maine companies with leading-edge technical skills. According to Meredith, “It’s training the type of talent in data visualization and machine learning that we need.” The initial donation to fund the institute came from David and Barbara Roux. David Roux is an entrepreneur and investor with deep roots in Maine who grew up in Lewiston and currently owns a house in Harpswell.
Even though Meredith and Goldman are experienced entrepreneurs, they were happy to participate in the TechStars incubator, which helps new tech businesses move past infancy into a healthy childhood. They used their TechStars connections to raise $750,000 in early stage funding from a handful of high-profile investors. On April 1, Omnic moved out of Meredith’s house into its first set of offices, a modern space on Station Avenue next to the Brunswick train station. The company currently has five employees, with additional marketing and development hires planned for the fall.
While there are no guarantees of success, the prospects are bright for Omnic. The founders are experienced company builders. The company is taking advantage of the new surge of energy in Maine’s tech sector, and aiming its product at a large and growing market. Just as the town of Los Altos turned the garage where Apple was founded into a historic site, the old tax collector’s office in Harpswell may one day merit a historic plaque as the place where Omnic Data originated.
Greg Bestick lives in Harpswell and serves as president of the Harpswell News Board of Directors. He formerly worked as an executive in entertainment and technology companies.