Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Wearable Sensors Could Be an Antidote to Football’s Concussion Problem

It’s become clear that the biggest risk to the future of the multibillion-dollar football industry is the high-impact sport’s propensity for giving its athletes concussions. There have already been 29 football-related deaths in 2013, 16 of them attributed to brain injuries. After being blamed for years of denial, the National Football League has agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to compensate former players with brain injuries and to fund research, and it’s also working to change the rules of the game.

And at the other end of the spectrum, American youth football enrollment is dropping, with parents citing the risk of concussions as the reason they aren’t signing up their kids.

So why is this a tech story? One way to manage risks and concerns is to get better data about them, and some companies are producing wearable devices that measure players’ brain activity during games. The leader seems to be a Seattle-based startup named X2 Biosystems, which just reached a deal to make its systems mandatory for all 32 NFL teams, after a pilot test.

X2 benchmarks athlete’s brains so coaches and staff can better determine when they are ready to re-enter the game after a concussion.

At the most basic level, X2 offers an iOS app for tracking measurements of brain activity, coordination and balance throughout the season. And some pro teams are already using X2’s stick-on patch, which measures six different axes of acceleration and communicates the data wirelessly while an athlete is playing. After head impact, players are retested and monitored until they have met a standard safe for them to return to the sport.

What with wearable, connected sensors being just about the hottest thing in tech right now, X2 has attracted some crossover investors from the Internet sphere. MySpace co-founder Chris DeWolfe is part of a group of angel investors who have put $9 million into the company, and he recently joined its board amid further fundraising efforts.

DeWolfe is now CEO of Social Gaming Networks, and said his fellow MySpace co-founder and SGN COO Colin Digiaro has also invested in X2.

“This is one of the world’s big problems,” DeWolfe said in an interview last week, noting that everyone he talks to can think of an example of a kid who got a concussion playing sports. “It’s kind of like not wearing a seatbelt, to not wear a helmet as a kid.”

Of course, X2 is set up to support football, not discourage people from playing. Its advisory board includes NFL All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis, Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw and UCLA head coach (and former NFL coach) Jim Mora.

And X2 isn’t going to stop concussions from happening. Football is a sport that rewards brutality; teams at all levels have been known to test athletes with what’s called the Oklahoma drill, where two players come at each other — often helmets first.

X2 CEO Christoph Mack showed me a video of how the brain accelerates on impact during one of these drills, but it was hard to look at his nifty chart without being sickened by the accompanying slo-mo video of two players bashing their brains on purpose.

Mack explained that concussions seem to be especially damaging when people experience them without having sufficiently recovered from a previous injury. What’s called “Second Impact Syndrome” is often fatal. Over the past few years, legislators have ratcheted up standards about when young athletes can return to play after receiving concussions.

That’s where X2 comes in. Because of its initial benchmarks, it can evaluate when the brain is back to normal. Mack said some athletic insurers will now give discounts on liability policies when teams show they use X2.

“This is a public health issue that has an exposure limit model,” Mack said. The closest analog, he said, comes from youth baseball, where studies in the 1990s about overuse injuries led to establishing limits on the number of pitches allowed per player.

And concussions aren’t only a problem in football. The rate of concussions in women’s college soccer has been measured to be higher than that of high school football. The benefits of the X2 patch are that it is tiny and can be worn anywhere on the head — rather than being built into a helmet — which makes it applicable for sports other than football.

Currently, X2 software costs $1 per month per athlete, and the patch costs $120 per device, charged as a service at $10 per month per year. Mack said a lower-cost consumer version is in the works, which should have a battery life of a year. His company also plans to sell the devices to the military, which has a major traumatic brain impact problem of its own.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work