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NFL awards startups aiming to improve player health and safety

Three sports startups wowed the NFL during league's "1st & Future" competition, which hopes to attract tech companies to bring innovative ideas to the NFL.

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NFL

For Mike Rolih and Lauren Scott, it was the two-minute drill times two.

Under bright lights, the co-creators of startup Go Rout had just four minutes Saturday to pitch to a panel of judges how their wearable technology could improve communication between coaches and players on the field during football games.

They do it through a device players wear that coaches can send alerts to, telling them about new plays and showing animations depicting what they're supposed to do. Go Rout ended up winning the NFL's second annual "1st & Future" startup pitch competition, held in Houston before the Super Bowl.

"All of our hard work is starting to pay off," Rolih said.

Go Rout was among nine early stage companies pitching to an audience also featuring several NFL team owners, executives and leaders in medicine. It's put together by the NFL, General Electric and this year's co-sponsor, the Texas Medical Center, which is hoping the tech industry can bring innovative ideas to improve player health and safety.

More than 200 sports-related startups applied to participate in programs like the GE-NFL Head Health Initiative, a multiyear, $60 million effort to come up with new ways to quickly diagnose and improve treatment for traumatic brain injuries.

Concussions have dogged the NFL for years, tarnishing football's image and raising concerns among parents of children who play the game in high school and college. The league fought with health experts and players who repeatedly claimed head trauma suffered in the game led to eventual brain damage. The NFL finally admitted a connection last year, paying $1 billion to settle a lawsuit with some 20,000 former players.

The issue still needs study. Last week, 30 ex-NFL players agreed to donate their brains after they die for further research of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease typically found in football players who suffered repeated head injuries.

Meanwhile, the NFL has begun reporting concussions. This season, it said the injuries had dropped 11 percent so far.

"I think we all believe in the value of sports and multiple sports, and we want to do it safely," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said before the final pitches.

The Minnesota-based Go Rout won the "Communicating with the Athlete," category, while Mobile Virtual Player, a remotely controlled robotic punching bag that can move around the field and be used to help players simulate tackling plays, won the "Training the Athlete" category. Windpact, which developed a new type of padding using air and foam, won the"Materials to Protect the Athlete" category.

Each of the three winning startups received a $50,000 check from the NFL's Strategic Investment Fund, two tickets to attend Sunday's Super Bowl at NRG Stadium and entry into TMC's Accelerator, TMCx.

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The creators of Go Rout pose with a $50,000 check after winning the "Communicating with the Athlete" category during the NFL's 2nd annual 1st & Future startup competition in Houston.

Mike Rolih/Go Rout

The pitch may have already helped two year old Go Rout attract more customers. Rolih said two NFL owners and a handful of general managers approached his team about their technology and gave their business cards for possible meetings at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in three weeks.

But first, he had to let winning at 1st & Future sink in.

"I mean, it all felt kinda surreal while we were holding that check and posing for photos," he said.

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