NFL awards funding to 3 startups to develop safety technology

HOUSTON — The NFL’s effort to strive for a safer game continued Saturday with the league’s second annual “1st and Future” event at the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute (TMCx).

“We think technology is our friend,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said during a roundtable discussion. “Technology is going to help solve these complex problems for us. In just a short time of our Head Health (Initiative), we’ve developed a new surface below the artificial field that will probably reduce the impact 70 or 80 percent. That’s extraordinary, and that’s not going to help not just football players, but soccer players and everything else. We are pretty close to a pinprick that will identify and diagnose a concussion accurately on the sideline. There are helmet devices that are coming out and changing the helmet structure and the materials used in that. So there are actual real developments that are coming out of technology and innovation.”

To help advance technological breakthroughs that could make football safer and more efficient at all levels, startups summited entries in one of three categories: Communicating with the Athlete, Training the Athlete and Materials to Protect the Athlete.

On Saturday, three companies competed in each category to earn $50,000, two Super Bowl tickets and acceptance into the Texas Medical Center Accelerator to help further develop their product.

The winners were decided by a panel of judges that included several decorated medical doctors, a former NFL player (Chad Pennington) and one current NFL player (John Urschel). This season’s victors:

» Communicating with the Athlete: GoRoute a startup that created on-field wearable technology to enhance communication and allow players to receive digital play diagrams, promoting quicker learning and practicing techniques.

» Training the Athlete: Mobilve Virtual Player, a company that designs, markets and distributes ‘virtual players’ — motorized tackling dummies — that reduce the risk of getting injured while tackling during practice.

» Materials to Protect the Athlete: Windpact, a startup, led by former NFL cornerback Shawn Springs, that developed a padding system designed to absorb and disperse impact energy to improve the performance of helmets and other protective gear.

Each of the winning startups stressed how their product could help promote safer football at its root level.

“To me the critical point is youth football,” said Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens, who helped innovate the virtual player. “The greatest number of guys are involved at that level. And in terms of teaching and safety, if we can eliminate 50 percent of the problem, teach young guys proper technique, we’re going to take millions, thousands, hundreds of hits off people during the course of time.”

Protecting the brain, monitoring concussions and helping to curtail head injuries were a fundamental talking point of the conference.

“The brain is kind of understudied as an organ,” said GE CEO Jeff Immelt, who partnered with the NFL on the Head Health Initiative. “So all the progress that has been made in cancer and heart disease, studies on the health of the brain have trailed on that.”

While noting there is a long way to go in studying the brain, both Immelt and Goodell noted football safety has made a lot of progress, especially in regard to understanding the seriousness of concussions.

“I had a concussion playing baseball, and I think my mother was asked to flash a flashlight in my eyes in the middle of the night a couple times, other than that nothing,” Goodell said. “We’ve come so far (in understanding concussions).”

Added Immelt: “What science can do is really begin studying the brain over time, be able to tell who should play, who shouldn’t play and be able to distributed way on high school fields and football fields and we’re kind of like one percent into that journey.”

Awarding funding to three startups on Saturday, the NFL and its partners hope to quickly push beyond that one percent.

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