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Soon, state-of-the-art technology that has for years protected drivers may be deployed to protect professional football players – and possibly millions of American children – from undue head injuries, thanks to a unique partnership between a small Detroit technology startup and one of America’s largest and most innovative corporations.
Viconic Sporting, a small upstart based just outside the Motor City in Dearborn, Michigan, is working with General Electric to develop and test a new proprietary layer of shock-absorbent, thermoplastic cones that would lie under the artificial turf in NFL stadiums. The collapsible cones would essentially soften players’ fall when they hit the ground and help. prevent head injuries – an increasingly dangerous problem for the league.
“The Viconic energy absorber acts as a spring under the artificial turf,” Joel Cormier, the company’s director of development engineering, said in a video released by GE and the NFL. “Our goal is to design, develop and produce a superior head impact protection system that goes underneath the quality artificial turf surfaces the industry currently provides.”
Viconic’s technology is already an industry leader in Detroit’s auto industry. Nearly two in three vehicles sold in America have the firm’s technology embedded in the vehicle’s overhead area, where it’s meant to prevent or lessen head injuries in the event of a collision, Kroll explained.
However, it wasn’t until Viconic partnered with GE that Kroll’s team started to spot even more exciting new uses for its core technology. Today, GE engineers and business experts are working with the startup to quickly adapt, test and apply that technology to the sports arena.
“We see a lot of opportunity,” Jason Kroll, Viconic’s Director of Business Development, said in an interview with Free Enterprise. “Ninety percent of new fields going down, it’s just a field, with no under-layer. We hope to have a commercially ready product by year end.”
The partnership between the two companies all started with the Head Health Initiative, a $60-million collaborative effort by GE, Under Armour and the NFL to advance the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of traumatic brain injury. Since 2013, the Head Health partners have hosted a series of multi-million-dollar open innovation challenges, awarding dozens of grants to small innovators to accelerate development of the best ideas. Viconic’s shock-absorbing turf system may be one of the initiative’s first commercially viable innovations.
“Viconic is a great story of a company we didn’t expect to find,” said Alan Gilbert, a director of GE’s healthymagination initiative, which teamed up with the NFL on Head Health. “They had a product in almost every car in America and they were looking for what else they could use it for.”
If the new shock-absorbing turf system produces its expected results in NFL stadiums, its applications could extend far beyond the gridiron. Viconic hopes the product could be deployed to help prevent concussions on thousands of athletic fields and playgrounds across America. Currently, about 12,000 synthetic turf sports fields are in use throughout the United States.
Of course, head injuries on the sports field are a growing problem. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that millions of Americans suffer concussions each year, from sports and all other reasons. The CDC’s Grant Baldwin told a House Energy and Commerce Committee roundtable earlier this year that 2.5 million concussions were treated in emergency room visits in 2010 alone, while countless more were likely treated at home or not at all. Concussions cost the U.S. economy $141 billion per year in medical expenses and productivity losses, he estimated.
In the NFL in particular, the lasting impact of repeated head trauma has garnered myriad headlines in recent years and prompted the league to change numerous rules in an attempt to protect players. With initiatives like Head Health, it’s clear that the league recognizes that American innovators and the private sector can play a major role in addressing this challenge, too.
This is where companies like GE come in. One major focus of the Head Health partners is to spur innovation – and not just in preventing head injury – but also in advanced medical technologies to diagnose and treat it.
“We commercialized the first MRI machine and we invented the X-ray,” GE’s Gilbert said. “We have a whole market of diagnostic technologies, and specifically in the field of neurologic diseases, there’s a huge gap. It’s been less than a decade since we could see inside the brain to see what’s going on.”
To address this gap, GE and the NFL Head Health partners recently dedicated one of their open innovation challenges specifically to innovations in diagnostic technologies. After an initial round of sixteen contenders, grants were awarded to six groundbreaking small organizations. One winner, Brainscope, is developing a portable device using electroencephalogram technology to detect brain injury in the field. Another winner, Banyan, is developing a point-of-care blood test to detect biomarkers indicating brain injury.
“We had six winners and we are working with several of them,” said Gilbert. GE is also collaborating with leading universities and healthcare facilities to support clinical research and trials to explore new methods to image and quantify brain function.
“We cast a wide net to see what’s out there,” said Gilbert. “The exciting thing is the connections we’ve made and that it’s accelerating work toward the solutions we all want to see.”
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