October 2, 2020
Breakdancer, footballer, sports scientist, production runner, costume designer and film director – it’s fair to say Mel O’Connor has worn many different hats in his life.
Now focussed on growing a sports tech business that is 20 years in the making, Mel’s mission is to take OKKULO, and the elite athletes who use it, to the next level.
OKKULO is a unique sports training system that uses vision and light science to help improve reaction times and performance in athletes of all abilities.
Training athletes under low lighting conditions that delay perception, the OKKULO system takes advantage of biological processes in the eyes and the brain to speed up response times.
By delaying the visual system by 50 milliseconds through reduced illumination, OKKULO forces the athlete’s eyes to recalibrate and adapt to reduced response times so that when normal illumination levels resume, performance is improved dramatically.
It’s a simple but effective technology which Mel has spent many years researching, and which is now ready to be adopted on a wider scale.
But where does this story begin?
Gateshead-born Mel grew up on a council estate in 1970s Birtley and recalls a contented upbringing where both of his parents encouraged him to pursue his interests and follow his heart.
One of his strongest memories was getting caught up in the breakdancing craze that swept across Britain in the early 1980s.
Just as hip hop music was entering the mainstream in America, its cultural offshoots – breakdancing and graffiti – were attracting the attention of young people in the most unlikely parts of the UK.
“Breakdancing washed over everything,” explains Mel. “We used to go to Tiffany’s every Saturday, and breakdance on the stage.
“I think it came off the back of movies like Wild Style (1982), Beat Street (1984) and Breakin’ (1984).”
Mel’s dalliance with the breaks between disco beats was then interrupted by another national obsession –football.
In the lead up to the 1990 World Cup – the one where England got to the semi-finals of before being knocked out on penalties by cup winners West Germany – 16-year old Mel went football mad, along with pretty much everyone else in the country.
“One of the main reasons the 1990 World Cup inspired me was the number of Geordie players in the team,” he says.
“You had Peter Beardsley, Paul Gascoigne and Chris Waddle in the squad and of course it was managed by Sir Bobby Robson.”
A fast player with a good first touch, Mel signed for local team Gateshead Cleveland Hall FC, where his game improved under the management of head coach, Bob Boustead.
Unfortunately, the bigger clubs never came knocking; but by 21, Mel was already moving in a new direction and planting the seeds of what would eventually become OKKULO.
Reading into the research of Professor Lindsay Sharpe and Professor Andrew Stockman, who are both considered to be leaders in the field of visual science, Mel began to think about how light adaptation could be used in sport.
In collaboration with the scientists, Durham University and the Elite Sporting Academy, he organised a study into how reaction times could be made faster through exposure to low light levels.
It yielded impressive results.
Mel explains: “We set up an experiment with a group of professional cricketers where we got everyone to bat against the bowling machine at different speeds to gauge what their best speed was.
“I think the average batting speed was about 83-84 miles per hour.
“Then we did two sessions a week for eight weeks at the OKKULO light level, delaying their visual systems by 50 milliseconds, which amounted to about 4.5 hours of low light exposure.
“When we did the post-test back at normal light levels, half of the players could hit the ball at 99 mph and the average batting speed was 97 mph.
“It was an unbelievable improvement.”
Around the same time as his eureka moment with OKKULO, an opportunity to fulfil another lifelong ambition presented itself.
A chance meeting with two local filmmakers saw Mel take a job on a documentary about the poker scene in Newcastle, which was being directed by an actor on Byker Grove. After impressing as a runner, Mel got the chance to work on the hit teen drama series, which opened many more doors for him in the TV and film industry.
“I did Byker Grove for three years in the costume department and I also worked on Vera and the football film, Goal!” he says.
“I got into costume design because I wanted to direct, and costume sits right next to the monitors where you can watch the director’s shots.”
He didn’t have to wait long for a chance to sit in the director’s seat. In 2009, Mel directed a short film which was chosen by Arts Council England to be shown at the cinema stage at Glastonbury.
The film was about a little boy and a little girl who were lost in Newcastle. It was filmed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day when the city was deserted.
For ten years, Mel worked for ITV in Leeds, commuting four hours every day from his home in Newcastle so that he didn’t miss out on watching his two boys grow up.
At the same time, he’s been continuing his research into the science behind light adaptation and pushing his understanding of what was needed to make OKKULO work as a business and build his network in sport.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how tired I’ve been,” he admits, “but I knew I had something with OKKULO that could make a difference.”
Finally, just over a year ago, Mel decided to fully commit to his dream of taking OKKULO to the next level and started putting together a business plan and speaking to investors to raise funds for the first facility.
Many of the last 12 months have been spent fine- tuning the product and preparing it for market.
This involved specifying the dimensions for the OKKULO tunnel (22 metres long x 8 metres wide x 5 metres high) and figuring out the best combination of lights and sensors.
But more than anything, it’s been about working with athletes to collect more data on the system’s game-changing results.
“We did a study with Ben Killip [first choice goalkeeper at Hartlepool United] back in February,” Mel explains.
“He had four sessions at our OKKULO R&D site and in the next six games, he kept five clean sheets out of six.
“This was the first time I saw it translate onto the football pitch.”
Ben Killip also went on to get a call up for England’s non-league team, England C.
Now based at the Blue Flames Sporting Club in Longbenton, Mel has had a lot of interest from football clubs wanting to come and test out the OKKULO system.
His vision for the company is to strike partnerships with top-flight clubs in the same way that Ian Saunders did with CryoAction.
“Ian is the one who put the cryo chamber into Leicester City when they won the Premier League,” Mel explains. “The next season, I think 12 other teams had it.”
Cryotherapy is now being adopted not just in football but in many other sports all over the world and Mel believes that OKKULO could follow suit.
Mel concludes: “We’re doing a lot of work behind the scenes with people around the world who are working for us at some level on opening and expanding the network.
“I am actually speaking to one of the biggest clubs in the world right now and have been for about six months.
“I feel things are really starting to happen for OKKULO.”