By Chris Riotta and Tim Curtis
Capital News Service
BETHESDA, Md. – A number of sports equipment companies say they have found a piece of the puzzle in identifying concussions, especially in contact sports such as football.
An emerging industry is developing around providing sensors that can detect whether an athlete sustained a hit hard enough to injure him or her. Large companies like Riddell have launched a product line featuring sensors that are installed into their helmets, and they are competing with small startups that produce sensors that attach to helmets.
But some health professionals are concerned that the technology isn’t yet proven to be helpful or practical for use in one of the target markets — youth sports.
Greg Panczek, president of the Maryland Athletic Trainers Association, said the youth leagues are the most at risk of being misled by the technology. “What you worry about is not the false positive … but the false negative,” he said — injured players being left in a game because a sensor didn’t go off.
Still, companies and entrepreneurs are noticing the link between tech and sports, and the opportunity for growth.
Riddell, a popular helmet company whose product is used by about 80 percent of American high schools and universities, is developing new technology to analyze and report head injuries sustained by athletes. “Technology and sports go hand in hand,” said Erin Griffin, director of corporate communications for Riddell. “This is just the very beginning for technological advancements and the helmet industry.”
Last year, Riddell unveiled its InSite Impact Response System, the company’s first helmet with sensors installed that is available for retail. A number of schools have inquired about the helmet, and one Delaware high school started using it this fall, Griffin said.
The system can be calibrated to detect different levels of sensitivity and report impacts sustained by the helmet to trainers and coaches on the sidelines during practices and games.
|Selected Sensors and Helmets by Cost|
|Equipment||Cost of Equipment|
|Riddell InSite Impact Response System – sensor installed in helmet||$275 per helmet + $150 for sensors
+ $200 for Alert monitor for team
|Brain Sentry Helmet Sensor – attaches to a helmet||$75|
|Riddell Revolution Speed Classic Helmet||$275|
|Table for CNS by Tim Curtis. Data from Brain Sentry and Riddell|
Riddell faces stiff competition from smaller startup companies. The Bethesda-based Brain Sentry Inc. markets a sensor for $75; it would attach to a standard varsity football helmet. The most popular Riddell varsity football helmet costs about $275, but many teams receive discounts when buying larger quantities of standard helmets in bulk, Griffin said.
The new sensor-equipped Riddell helmet has a three-part cost: about $275 for the helmet, plus $150 for the installed sensor, and an additional $200 for the Alert monitor which covers up to 150 players, Griffin said.
Greg Merril, CEO and co-founder of Brain Sentry, boasts his company’s story “comes in making the first practical low-cost sensor technology.”
Brain Sentry launched three years ago and sells a sensor about the size of a flash drive that attaches to the back of a helmet. Despite contracts with the professional Arena Football League, Brain Sentry wants to focus on preventing concussions in young athletes, Merril said.
“We are worried about kids, and the market is much larger for younger children,” Merril said. “If you just look at football, football is played by about 5 million people in the United States, but 3.5 million of those are under the age of 14.”
Merril points to a lack of observers at youth games qualified to diagnose concussions as a sign of the need for his company’s product. “The sensor has got to work on these kids, young children who are being managed by parents who have jobs that are not coaching.”
According to ClearedToPlay.org, about 8,000 children are treated in U.S. emergency rooms each day for sports-related injuries. Of those, children ages 15 to 17 experience the highest emergency room visits for sports injuries.
There are three times as many catastrophic football injuries among high school athletes as college athletes, ClearedToPlay.org reports.
The Brain Sentry sensor doesn’t have to be charged and is designed to detect hits with enough force to cause a concussion. It also keeps track of small subconcussive hits so coaches and parents can be aware if their child is taking more hits than ordinary, Merril said.
Danny Crossman, CEO of Ontario-based Impakt Protective, said he also sees a large market for sensor technology, noting they have a good price point.
The optimism about the sensors’ usefulness by companies that stand to profit from the technology isn’t shared by experts in the field of athletic safety. The Maryland Athletic Trainers’ Association opposed a bill last year in the Maryland House of Delegates that would have started a pilot program to introduce sensors into Maryland high school sports programs. The bill died in committee.
“While at some point they might provide us with help with medical diagnosis, right now the science just isn’t there,” said Panczek, president of the association. “All the research says these things are not ready to be used in a diagnostic manner.”
Trainers and other healthcare professionals worry about the technology generalizing a problem that tends to be unique to each person. “We know more and more that head injury is individualized,” Panczek said.
Years of research show there’s still no single threshold of force required to cause a head injury, he said.
Unlike the NFL and the NCAA, which have multiple trainers and observers who can reliably spot concussions, only 37 percent of high schools in the United States have athletic trainers, and few youth programs have trainers, Panczek said.
Crossman said he knows the sensors aren’t a panacea for the concussion problem. But he said the private sector has a role to play in helping to prevent concussions. Private companies can be faster at finding solutions than research universities, he said.
Others in the business community are taking notice of sensors, too. Brain Sentry was supported with a grant from the Technology Development Corp. of Maryland and has received more than $1.5 million in investments. And it has been endorsed by some of the largest youth sport programs in the country, such as the Virginia Youth Independence Athletic Association, which encompasses most of the private high schools in Virginia, as well as the Gwinnett Football League and the North Georgia Youth Football League.
At the University of Maryland, where the football team has joined the Big Ten, the athletics department has not yet decided if it will purchase a few of the Riddell helmets for next season, said Ali Smith, assistant director of football operations. She said they may be useful.
“They may provide an extra level of comfort for student athletes and their parents when out on the field,” Smith said. “It’s our responsibility, as well as the league’s responsibility, to try and provide that safety and reassurance when possible.”