Scott Dann in a laboratory worked in by Polymateria, a company in which the centre-back has invested. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/Guardian
Scott Dann politely turns down the offer of a lab coat and, with a brief shake of the head, makes clear he wants nothing to do with the proposed pair of goggles, either. All of which reinforces the sense that a laboratory on Imperial University’s White City campus is an incongruous venue at which to find a Premier League footballer tantalisingly close to his return from long-term injury.
Yet to the lab technicians at Polymateria, diligently developing a new standard in biodegradable and compostable plastics to combat global pollution, the visitor is not a seasoned centre-half. Rather, he is a shareholder, one of those investors who helped make all this possible. For Dann, too, this is an unconventional relationship with benefits. “I’d go into the training ground at Crystal Palace every day and work hard on my rehabilitation, hitting my targets, staying on track,” he says. “But away from there it was about keeping focusing mentally on something else unconnected with football.
“So, when I was not with my family, I’d concentrate on finding start-up investment projects like this. It was always something I’d wanted to do. I’ve tried to be sensible and put something aside, planning for the future, but when you suffer a bad injury it brings home how short this career could be. But it also gave me that distraction. Not once did I ever feel down or frustrated. I was never bored, wondering what to do with myself. And, by being able to switch off from football, I swear it helped in the recovery from the injury.”
To recap, Dann had bodychecked Kevin De Bruyne just after the quarter-hour mark of Palace’s meeting with Manchester City, at Selhurst Park last New Year’s Eve. The Belgian, floored by the foul, had landed on the centre-back’s right leg. Dann “felt something snap” and knew instantly his season was over. He would retire on a stretcher, the referee Jonathan Moss ushering him on his way with a yellow card, as the initial protective adrenaline rush gave way to excruciating pain. He still managed a wave up to his wife and young son, watching from the stands. “Seeing my family helped put things into perspective,” he says. “Yes, I love football, and I didn’t want to be out injured. But it hit home that, whatever happened, I’d be OK.”
It would be a fortnight before the swelling receded sufficiently for him to go under the knife, the incisions made to repair the cruciate ligament and meniscus on either side of his right knee leaving ugly scars. “My son, who was two at the time, saw the marks and asked if I’d been bitten by a shark. I went along with it obviously. Jaws sounded a lot more dramatic. But now he’s told at least 100 people his dad was bit.”
Palace hired a driver to pick up Dann from his home in Surrey, collecting his teammate Jason Puncheon – who had suffered his own knee injury when fouling De Bruyne in stoppage time in the goalless draw with City – a few junctions further round the M25, and shipping the wounded into Beckenham for rehab. At least there was a programme to follow to restore the 31-year-old to fitness in nine to 12 months, with Dann joining Puncheon and Connor Wickham, who returned in October after almost two years out injured, in long-term rehab. Footballers deal with the monotony of recovery differently but they would spur each other on, maintaining morale as best they could. Dann, at least, had other distractions.
As a fan of American sport, he was aware the average career length in the NBA is less than five years, and a little over three years in NFL, with athletes – from Kevin Durant to Stephen Curry in basketball, baseball’s Derek Jeter to tennis’s Serena Williams – increasingly taking ownership of where they invest their earnings as they plan for life beyond competition. The potential financial rewards are clear. LeBron James was an early backer of Beats Headphones, subsequently sold to Apple for $3bn.
Dann had always been intrigued by tech start-ups, and would listen to podcasts delivered by entrepreneurs such as Chris Sacca, Ray Dalio or Mark Cuban on the hour-long slog across south London to training, “trying to learn from people who have been successful in this line of business”. There is an element of Dragon’s Den to the selection process. He would meet the start-ups in person, with those he will go on to back through his company, Ivy Mont LLP, required to impress with their vision and ambition, but also with their desire to make a difference. “The investments have to be something to make the world better, something my kids would be proud of,” he says. “Look at Polymateria.
“So much has been made of the damage plastic is doing to our environment. We’ve all watched Blue Planet. We’ve all seen the images. We can’t just bury our heads in the sand but here you have a company who have developed a technology allowing us to redesign plastics at manufacture so that, if they escape a recycling facility, they biodegrade down to nothing. No micro-plastics. Nothing. That is game-changing, surely?”
Then there is Advetec, based in Bath, which has developed bio-thermic digester technology which allows bespoke microorganisms to break down waste. Or, on a slightly different theme, the online platform The Blogger Programme, or Telcom, a British software-driven connectivity business seeking to improve internet connections up and down the United Kingdom.
The former Birmingham and Blackburn defender has pestered his business partner with potential ideas and updates on the progress of investments, his teammates largely oblivious to this extracurricular interest, while speeding towards a return to the day job.
It was nine months to the day since surgery when Dann took the field in a friendly at Dulwich Hamlet last month. Wickham scored in his own cameo that night. The centre-half, in contrast, spent 45 minutes desperately inviting an attack from the non-league side so he could test the knee in a challenge. “I don’t think I tackled anyone,” he says. “I remember the first day back training with the lads, I went round trying to slide into a challenge, just to feel it again. I must have slid five times but didn’t actually tackle anyone.
“But at Dulwich I wasn’t one bit worried. All the hard work I’ve put in for the last nine months put me in the position to be able to play again. If I wasn’t right, I wouldn’t have been back. It’ll all come back to me, and then I can target regaining a place in the team. My football remains my focus but having these outside interests has helped get me back to this point: fit again, and ready to play.”