In Super Bowl of Startups, NFL Looks to Tackle Football Safety

The National Football League’s pitch competition features new technologies to promote athlete safety and performance

Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots falls into the end zone after catching a touchdown pas
Photo: Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

In the world of tech startups, some say it’s best to “fail fast, fail often”—and it’s a mantra that WWE founder Vince McMahon might have had on his mind when he announced last week that he was bringing back the XFL. The gimmicky football league failed spectacularly when it first launched, flaming out in 2001 after only one season, and many are already predicting that McMahon’s 2020 reboot will fail again.

There are, however, nine other innovate startups on display this week, any number of which could have far more lasting impacts on the game of football. And in Minneapolis tomorrow, the day before the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles square off in Super Bowl LII, these nine companies will compete across three categories in the National Football League’s third annual “1st & Future” pitch competition, an event designed to spur new technologies that promote athlete safety and performance on the gridiron.

One winner from each category will receive a US $50,000 check from the league, two tickets to Sunday’s big game, and bragging rights for taking home what could be thought of as the “Heisman of Health-Tech.”

“There’s lots of amazing technology out there,” says Jennifer Wethe, lead neuropsychologist for the Mayo Clinic Arizona Concussion Program and one of the competition judges. But not everything is necessary impactful, novel, practical, and carries the science to back it up—all things Wethe will be looking for at Saturday’s startup showdown. “Hopefully, some of best ideas and research projects will come to the top,” she says.

The Mayo Clinic, with its flagship Minnesota hospital located fewer than 100 miles from the site of Sunday’s action, is co-sponsoring the event alongside the NFL and Comcast-NBCUniversal.

Wethe declined to pick a side in Sunday’s contest, but one startup whose founders will undoubtedly be cheering for the Pats is Exero Labs, an Ohio-based company co-created by Zoltán Meskó, a former NFL punter who played alongside New England quarterback Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLVI (which the team lost).

Exero makes an impact-reduction device that attaches to the front of any football helmet. It is competing in the “protective equipment” category against VyaTek Sports, an Arizona-based company also with an external energy-absorbing module, and Impressio, a University of Colorado Denver spinoff that’s developing a new kind of dissipative material involving liquid-crystal elastomers for the inside of a helmet’s lining.

Among the fledgling firms working on “new therapies to speed recovery”—category number two—are Cartilage Repair Systems, a New York company aiming to fix cartilage defects with a patient’s own cartilage-producing cells and bone marrow–derived stem cells; RecoverX, a Silicon Valley startup hoping to sell a smartphone-controlled electronic cold and heat pack; and EyeGuide, a Texas Tech University spinoff that makes a 10-second eye-tracking test for signs of mild traumatic brain injury.

“What we’re really measuring is impairment in attention,” says EyeGuide founder and Texas Tech software engineer Brian Still. As validated in a paper published last year, EyeGuide’s tool compares an athlete’s baseline ability to track a white dot moving in a figure eight with their performance after a head injury. It then determines whether someone has had a concussion—and, perhaps more importantly, through repeated testing, can advise when it’s safe for an athlete to return to play.

According to Still, the company has administered its test to more than 10,000 athletes at 30 high schools, colleges, and universities. One person who hasn’t taken it: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who suffered a concussion at last month’s AFC Championship Game. (And with a CEO that Still describes as “a diehard Eagles fan,” it’s unclear whether Philly-based EyeGuide would ever offer it to him anyway.)

Rounding out the 1st & Future competition are three companies vying for best “technology to improve athletic performance.” Two of these, Xensr out of Packers territory in Green Bay, Wisc., and a Canadian startup called Curv, are developing tools for sports-specific data tracking.

Xensr, which currently only sells products for extreme water sports, will pitch the idea of a body-worn sensor that offers specialized analytics that differ depending on whether you’re a cornerback, a tight end, or a QB. “We’re going deep into the data by position,” says founder and CEO David Troup. (“I gotta go Eagles,” he adds.)

Curv, meanwhile, has its sights set on the consumer market, aiming to supplant dedicated sports wearables with an app and web portal that, as CEO and cofounder Shea Balish explains, “turns the camera on any mobile device into a diagnostic tool for human motion.” Balish says he’ll be backing the Patriots because his great-grandfather once lived in Boston.

“But improving your performance doesn’t just mean your physical performance,” notes Craig Weiss, CEO and founder of the third company in the category, ‎Aladdin of Paradise Valley, Ariz. “Improving your sleep quality has been shown to improve your mental performance as well.”

Weiss’ startup is developing a headband-like device that uses a single-channel EEG with three electrodes to monitor brain waves. Unlike most sleep trackers, which can measure little more than motion and sound, Aladdin’s product is designed to analyze sleep-stage information to help people achieve more restorative deep-sleep.

And according to Weiss (who will be rooting for the Eagles because he’s an “NFC guy”), the same electrodes that measure brain activity can also deliver low frequencies of transcranial alternating current stimulation—small zaps that, when properly timed, have been shown to induce lucid dreaming, a semi-conscious state in which athletes can “practice” and improve motor skills in their sleep.

Steve Pecko is the cofounder and design executive of Kenzen, a San Francisco–based developer of wearable sweat analyzers and one of the winners of the inaugural Super Bowl startup competition two years ago. His advice to this year’s participants: “Really work on creating a tight narrative.”

The competition runs Saturday, 3 February, from nine-to-noon local Central time at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. NBC Sports will also carry a live-stream.

UnReal, a Boston maker of “healthy” peanut butter cups and candy-coated chocolates that counts Tom Brady as one of its investors, will not be participating.

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