matt nurse, senior director of NIKE Sport Research Lab (NSRL)



matt nurse is the senior director of the NIKE Sport Research Lab (NSRL). over the last ten years he has worked as a senior researcher for the basketball, golf, and equipment categories in addition to numerous advanced product concepts that have lead to more than a dozen footwear and apparel patents. he currently leads a multi-disciplinary team of researchers, scientists, and innovators focused on biomechanics, human physiology, sensory perception and data science.




the mission of the NSRL is to drive performance product innovation through knowledge & insights gained from a scientific understanding of athletes & athletic performance.



designboom: please could you tell us about your background and how you came to work at the NSRL?


matt nurse: I studied a PHD in biomechanics & medical science at the university of calgary. at the same time I worked in the human performance lab at the university, where we did a lot of research for sports equipment manufacturers. the international community of people who do this kind of work is only about 200-250 people so you get to know at least 70% of that community quite quickly. my predecessor at NIKE, mario lafortune had approached me a few times to work with him and initially I had doubts because I saw myself more as an academic who wanted to work at a university rather than a researcher at a company. just prior to joining NIKE I was researching cleats for children and mario explained to me that if I were to do the same kind of work at NIKE, who would produce over 12 million cleats in the next 5 years I would have a bigger impact on reducing injuries in the real world. the point was, that even if we only reduced injuries in 1% of the kids, that was still a massive, direct impact. this direct connection to results appealed to me and so I decided to join NIKE.



NSRL – NIKE Sport Research Lab



DB: how does your work at the NSRL differ from what you had been doing at the university?


MN: here my work is much more applied and less academic. I’d been working on various things to do with running and basketball in calgary. when I came to NIKE the big change was that I could immediately test research with the aid of prototypes and that certainly lead to a deeper level of understanding. before I joined NIKE I had the concern that I would just have to follow the plans of the company and that someone above me would guide all my research but I couldn’t have been more wrong – it’s been very liberating. there’s a very fresh, entrepreneurial spirit running through this huge company.



the NSRL environmental chambers can replicate climactic conditions from all over the world



DB: please could you talk us through the typical process behind your work on a new product?


MN: when it comes to categories there is a process in place because we have a 14-18 month window from when research and design begins until the end product goes to market. however, innovation works differently, in that it’s much less formulaic and non-linear. innovation is not really about strict deadlines but rather finding the very best solutions – if that takes 12 months or several years then so be it, we have to feel like our solution can’t be any better than what we end up with. so, some innovation projects might be fairly quick from start to finish, whereas others gestate for years and end up feeding into other projects without actually resulting in an ‘end product’ themselves.



a 3D foot scan in progress



DB: at what point does a project leave the NSRL?


MN: it’s a journey that’s slightly different with each project. our work is fully integrated with what’s going on in other departments such as the NIKE innovation kitchen so it’s not so much a ‘hand off’ from one department to another – but a natural transition, as and when it’s ready. along the way we have check points and reviews with other teams to understand if what we are working on fits within the overall vision of NIKE – we can’t just research aimlessly. based on these reviews an innovation project can stop, be paused or it can be accelerated.



HAL – a sweating copper mannequin



DB: what’s been the most significant project you’ve worked on since you joined NIKE?


MN: I’d look at it as a whole and say with complete confidence that collectively, our team knows more about sport than anyone else. for myself personally I’m very closely connected to basketball products such as the kobe line, the KDs and the lebrons. we did so much work looking into how these elite athletes play the game and designing products that can help them improve. the results are now there for people to see and experience and that’s a great feeling.



force plates in the basketball motion capture court measure force exerted at impact



DB: does research within a category ever cross over between signature models?


MN: some things cross over because we’re talking about the same sport. ultimately we’re trying to understand basketball from a scientific standpoint. when we learn certain things that we believe are important we share them with our athletes and explain why and how design changes or materials can benefit them. but on the other hand, when you get down to details – each of the players play in different ways and thus have different demands. so, we don’t use another player’s specific input as a starting point for a new shoe in a different line.


one thing I will say though is that talk of other athletes can be a good motivator when we’re in the lab and I see that someone is not giving it their all. I might mention that another player’s numbers were better and then you see the guys really start going for it! and that’s the type of data that we need to be working with – the absolute limits of what’s possible.



quantifying athlete movement provides critical data for product development



DB: is learning how to get that raw data that you need as important as what you do with it then?


MN: yes absolutely. when we’re recruiting we look for the world’s best scientists – as you would expect. but then we add more filters: are they are entrepreneurial enough? are there creative enough? can they think laterally as well as literally? this is very important because we not only want to innovate on a functional level abut also on a design level from the start. if you look at a formula one car there’s nothing on that car that doesn’t need to be there it’s purely functional, but they also look pretty good too!



golf swing motion capture information leads to precise product design



DB: what do you do to keep your ideas fresh?


MN: I’m a frustrated designer! I think a lot about aesthetics, I look at design and art. I keep track of technological advances and know what other leading companies are doing in their field. there’s really no end to who and what you can learn from. our demands keep on evolving so it’s a big challenge to keep up, well, not just keep up but stay ahead. I think it’s important to always keep setting yourself new goals no matter how big or small they are – that keeps you hungry.



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