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NFL awards $150k to three concussion and injury tech startups

The league has paid $1 billion to settle a suit over player brain injuries. It’s also investing in tech startups to prevent them from happening.

NFL players suffered a total of 281 concussions this season -- the highest since 2015 -- highlighting the league's continuing problem with brain injury. 

The daunting issue was graphically captured in a video published Thursday by The Intercept that showed each of those injuries as it happened on field. The video, which has racked up a half million views, is a haunting reminder of the trauma a beautiful sport can cause. 

The video has also drawn the attention of Chris Yakacki and Carl Frick, co-founders of Colorado-based Impressio. They've spent six years creating liquid-crystal foam helmet padding they say can do a better job absorbing the force created during head impact, possibly reducing the occurrence of concussions. 

Super Bowl LII - 2018

Impressio's plan to make liquid crystal foam helmet padding was impressive enough to win the NFL's 1st & Future startup competition. 

NBC

"We're not trying to redesign what's outside the helmet," said Yakacki, explaining his company's focus. "Just the materials inside of it." 

Impressio's pitch won over a panel of medical experts and venture capitalists at Saturday's "1st and Future" startup competition in Minneapolis, the site of this year's Super Bowl between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots. The competition is an outgrowth of a health crisis facing football that has prompted advocates, players and doctors to sound alarms over the danger the sport poses.

The NFL competition underscores the increasingly technological approach the league is adding to buttress rule changes and medical protocols designed to minimize concussions and their impact. The league started  the Head Health Initiative, part of a multiyear, $60 million effort to figure out faster diagnoses and improved treatment for traumatic brain injuries.

The league is also using video technology to examine any reported concussion, looking into as many as 100 different factors. These include the play called, the impact of the hit and the type of helmet a player was wearing. The information is collected into a database the league shares with equipment manufacturers.

The health risks pose a grave threat to football's future. Parents now grapple with the possibility their children could be physically and mentally crippled from playing the game in high school and college. Fans, meanwhile, have watched affected players lives unravel.

The NFL, which has turned "America's Game" into a ratings juggernaut worth billions of dollars, has already settled with players who say the game left them disabled. In 2016, the NFL paid $1 billion to 20,000 former players, admitting that repeated head trauma from football can lead to brain damage.

That same year, the league launched the 1st and Future competition. Startups get exposure from the event and serves as part of the league's efforts to shape its public image around the issue. The NFL, which has invested $200 million in concussion research, may also end up using these company's products. 

Like Impressio, many of the participants are developing technology to absorb the shock of an impact that can cause a concussion.

VyaTek, a 1st & Future finalist this year, is developing shock-absorbing helmet padding. Windpact, which develops a new type of padding using air and foam called Crash Cloud, was a 1st and Future winner last year. The company also won a $148,000 grant in October to continue running prototypes and tests.

VICIS hasn't participated in the 1st & Future competition. But its over-sized helmet is used by 50 NFL players. Those include Pro Bowl quarterbacks Alex Smith and Russell Wilson, who attended Saturday's event. 

HEALTH TECH

More than 100 sports-related startups applied to participate this year. Nine finalists eventually made the cut and took the stage on Saturday.

"All of this is about getting a better understanding of the brain, traumatic injuries, and frankly all injuries," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said at the competition.

Impressio won the "Advancement in Protective Equipment," category. RecoverX, which makes a connected device used for hot-and-cold therapy to treat player injuries on the go, won the "New Therapies to Speed Recovery" category. Curv, which uses augmented reality on mobile devices to measure player ability and injury risk, won the "Technology to Improve Athletic Performance" category.  

Moments after winning, Impressio's cofounders Yakacki and Frick met Wilson, who introduced them to executives from VICIS, the helmet maker. The pair also exchanged business cards with several NFL execs.

Yakacki said the prize money will be added to the grants his research received from the National Science Foundation and the US Army Research Office.

Impressio's next steps include getting helmet makers to test its foam technology. Researchers at Virginia Tech University, which is known for its safety studies, will also test its foam. The company hopes the padding will be used in helmets this fall. 

"We're going to take full advantage of this newfound visibility," Yakacki said. "There's a problem. We're trying to solve it."