By Tim Curtis
Capital News Service
BETHESDA, Md. – Greg Merril understands. Merril knows why an athlete with an injury wants to get back in the game, because he’s been there himself.
When he was a professional sports car driver, he hurt his finger right before a race in Florida helping another driver set up the awning on his motor home.
“I got into the car and the race starts [and] my finger is … just soaked with blood. I mean blood is just dripping from my finger,” he said. But that wasn’t the end of his problems. Halfway through the race, his rear suspension snapped, forcing him to slide through the turns.
“Any sane person would park it,” he said. Instead, he continued and won the race.
“But that’s the mindset of a really competitive person,” Merril said. “I know it’s the same with someone who gets hit in the head, that’s got the blurred vision, that knows they’re concussed. If you ask that person if they can keep playing — yes, they keep playing.”
And that’s where Merril’s company, Brain Sentry, comes in. For the last three years, it’s been making sensors that attach to helmets and help to detect concussions. And finally, Merril, who co-founded the company with former University of Maryland football player and entrepreneur Sam Medile, says he sees the company’s progress starting to snowball.
Last year, 10,000 kids played in leagues or for teams that used the sensor, he said. This year, that number climbed to 100,000.
His company has been endorsed by teams and leagues that use the sensor, including youth football leagues in Georgia, the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association, which encompasses many of the private high schools in the state, and other private schools and youth football organizations across the country, including DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville and the Maret School in Washington, D.C.
The company is still small, with 10 employees. It outsources its manufacturing to a North Carolina firm. And, Merril said, while they can see progress, they’re still an early-stage startup company and are not yet profitable.
Merril, 49, said he started thinking about helmet sensors while working on a different project for the military. He was helping to create a smartphone app that would help medics to quickly diagnose soldiers injured on the battlefield and determine whether they could rejoin the fight or needed to be evacuated.
But he ran into a problem when it came to adapting the app to the football field, because injuries weren’t always so obvious.
“I realized that that would not be very helpful, because we wouldn’t know who to put that app in front of,” Merril said. Injured athletes don’t always want to take themselves out of the game.
Merril, who studied psychobiology at Western Maryland (now McDaniel) College, realized he needed to create a device that would alert coaches and parents when a player had taken a hit strong enough to give a concussion. But there were some problems that they had to work through to make this device as user-friendly as possible.
“It requires a battery. And so if you have to charge a battery– fail,” he said. He did not want the lack of a charge to be the reason the system wouldn’t work.
“If you can turn the sensor off? No. Not gonna work.
“So it has to be on all the time, and the battery has to last forever,” Merril said. “These are big challenges.”
He developed a device that uses a separate sensor to detect when it’s in motion or at rest, so it only turns on when it is in motion. The battery lasts one year, and then the team gets new sensors.
Beyond the technical problems of creating the device, the Bethesda-based company has had to fight for its product to gain acceptance from the marketplace. Many Maryland public school systems don’t allow their teams to use helmet sensors, due to concerns about cost and value.
Sports medicine professionals, including the Maryland Athletic Trainers Association, aren’t ready to adopt the sensors yet, either.
“All the research shows these things are not ready to be used in a diagnostic manner,” said Greg Panzcek, president of the Maryland Athletic Trainers Association. He adds that research shows that head injury is individualized, and it’s hard for any device to have a single threshold at which a player might sustain a traumatic brain injury.
Merril said the research points to a larger need for sensors, and that his company addresses those needs. “Research has established the two biggest risk factors for concussion are getting hit hard in the head and getting hit often in the head. Brain Sentry sensors work by measuring both of these factors.”
Brain Sentry also faces competition from larger companies that are placing sensors inside new helmets, like helmet manufacturer Riddell. Riddell spokeswoman Erin Griffin said its Insite Impact Response System is based on 10 years of research and, because the sensor is placed inside the helmet, rather than outside, measures head impacts rather than helmet impacts.
Merril said his company took the sensor’s placement on the outside of the helmet into account in the sensor’s threshold algorithm.
He said he intended the product for use primarily in youth football, below the high school level, because he sees those players as the most at risk of serious damage from undiagnosed concussions.
“I think that one of the things that I feel, as an adult, being somewhat responsible for is looking after children. So I feel like there was an opportunity to, for me to play a role in trying to make sports safer for children by addressing what I think is the unsolved piece of concussion management,” Merril said.
One wall in the Brain Sentry office has pictures of kids who have died as a result of a concussion. Merril said they use the wall as inspiration for what they’re doing.
Despite the company focus on youth football, one of their biggest boosts has come from the professional Arena Football League, which requires all helmets to be equipped with a Brain Sentry sensor.
One night, after a professional game in Jacksonville where Brain Sentry was testing a new sensor, Merril was removing the sensors from the helmets of the losing team. He said he ran into the quarterback who told him, “I just want to let you know, what you’re doing is really important, and I really appreciate what you’re doing.”