As customers we have always been spoilt for choice by the diverse selection of sports shoes available for any sport and every activity. But have we ever thought about the engineering and innovation behind the footwear that we wear or those that professional athletes use?

Prashanth Peketi, our next pathbreaker, Sports & Innovation Professional at Adidas, works at the intersection of new technologies, materials, and manufacturing processes to create high performance footwear for sportsmen and elite athletes.

Prashanth talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about combining his love for science (materials) and sports for a career in Sports Engineering & Innovation.

For students, if you enjoy sports, think about ways to enhance sports through better technologies based on science !

Prashanth, tell us about your initial years?

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio in the USA, and always had a passion for math and science. Growing up, I was always reading a magazine called Popular Mechanics, and learning everything I could know about the latest and greatest technology trends that were out in the world. I was also an avid tennis player, and every summer my days were consumed with playing on the courts whenever the weather was nice. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I took these two passions with me to my undergraduate education at The Ohio State University, where I studied Materials Science and Engineering, with a focus on composite materials with the hopes of one day being able to engineer sports equipment. After graduation, I wanted to study the engineering of sports equipment further, so I moved to the UK to study an MSc. Sports Engineering degree at Sheffield Hallam University. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

There were a few major influencers that drove me on this path. I had various mentors on my journey that continuously gave me insights on what paths to take. It is important to find mentors that are both inside and outside of your industry, as different people will have different perspectives for you to weigh. Also, continuously challenge your status quo – everyone has a ‘dream job’ that they set their sights for, but sometimes even that dream job doesn’t feel like a dream after a few months or years on the job. Do not despair! This is a great opportunity for you to find out what your next dream job is, because that will constantly change as you continue to grow.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

After completing my masters degree, I was able to break into the sports industry. I worked for Labosport France, testing Goal Line Technology in stadiums around France. I was chosen for this program by my academic leadership at Sheffield Hallam University – the professors in the research center chose their top students to work with Labosport and begin their sports engineering careers with a hands-on and exciting experience.

My role was to use high speed cameras to test the accuracy of the goal line technologies that were used in the stadium, so I would work with the Labosport team to push the goal line technology to its limits to make sure it would work during real gameplay. Goalline technology or GLT is the use of technology to determine if the ball has crossed the goal line or not. This information is transmitted within a split second to a special watch worn by the referee to ensure immediate response and that there are no stoppages or other forms of interference in the game.

I then began a postgraduate placement at adidas in Germany within their engineering team. Here, my role was in the mechanical and digital characterization of materials and sports shoe components. For example, if we wanted to make an outdoor running shoe that needed very sticky rubber to help you get grip on the trails, my focus was on testing how sticky (how much traction) different rubber materials had so we could choose the best one to put in a shoe. I would also do computational explorations using simulation software to digitally test products before we physically made them, helping the team save time, money, and try ideas that couldn’t be made physically yet. After working on this team for around 6 months, I began to shift my focus to the project management side of the business – instead of creating the data, I wanted to make decisions using the data. Instead of figuring out how sticky the rubber was, I wanted to take in all the information (stickiness, cost, availability, etc.) and make a decision on what rubber to use in the product. At this point, I began to search for project management roles, and landed in Portland, Oregon, where the adidas US HQ is located. 

How did you get your first break?

After completing my masters degree, I was able to break into the sports industry. I worked for Labosport France testing Goal Line Technology in stadiums around France. I was chosen for this program by my academic leadership at Sheffield Hallam University – the professors in the research center chose their top students to work with Labosport

Where do you work now? 

I currently work as an Innovation Project Manager at adidas in Portland, Oregon. My job is focused on how to create the best footwear and apparel products for our elite athletes, so I find new technologies, materials, and manufacturing processes to bring to my industry. For example, one of my project was working on the creation of 3D printed footwear, and how we can use 3D printing to create the best shoes for each athlete based on how they move. In order to do this, we first needed to measure how people move, which is the study of biomechanics – how much force goes into the ground when you jump, or what muscles activate when you throw a ball. The skills needed for my job are project management, technical understanding of new technology, ability to be creative and solve problems, and ability to learn new technology. Jobs in innovation are different every day, as there is always something new to explore, so a mentality that fits that is key. 

How does your work benefit the society? 

At adidas, our core belief is that Through sport, we have the power to change lives. I am thankful that I get to work at a company that puts such a belief at the core of what we do – adidas has many initiatives that enable athletes around the world to participate and benefit from sport, helping young athletes grow physically and mentally by having fun. Adidas also invests heavily into sustainability, and ensuring that we leave the earth healthier than we found it through our initiatives with Parley. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I think my favorite piece of work I have gotten to experience at adidas was working on the team that produced the Futurecraft 4D, which is the 3D printed shoes. Although the projects that I have worked on have not released to the market (yet!) what adidas has been able to create in that space has been incredible – the first company ever to bring 3D printing to a commercial goods scale is no small feat!

Your advice to students based on your experience?

From my early career, my main focus was trying to find a position within the sports engineering industry that allowed me to focus on a few things – networking, degrees, and relevant experience. Networking is key – getting in touch with the right people is the most effective way to find opportunities and educate yourself. Send messages on LinkedIn, go to networking events, and find ways to connect with the people that are doing the jobs you want to be doing. Be prepared for these conversations by having a list of questions that you want to ask, so you can be efficient with your time. Getting the right degree can also be helpful – the reason I got my MSc. Sports Engineering was to stand out on my resume with these large sports companies. These companies may get 10,000 applications for each job posting, so finding ways to differentiate yourself is important. However, a degree is not the only way to do this – I would argue that having relevant experience is more important than having the right degree. If you have a passion for something, sport or otherwise, getting your hands dirty with your own explorations can show companies your creativity and ingenuity. Making prototypes, putting together digital representations, or making a portfolio are all ways to express your passion and stand out from a crowd.

Future Plans?

My vision for the future is to continue to bring the latest and greatest innovations to the footwear industry – always looking for the next big thing!