Illinois Students Developing Real-Time Concussion Detection System

Mike Koon, Engineering Communications Office

Editor's Note: This is one in a series of features on competitors in the 2015 Cozad New Venture competition, a program sponsored by the University of Illinois' Technology Entrepreneur Center that is designed to encourage students to create new businesses. The competition process offers teams assistance in the form of: mentors to help guide them through the phases of venture creation, workshops to help with idea validation, pitching skills, customer development, and more as well as and courses to enhance their skills and knowledge. Teams who make it to the finals round of competition will have the opportunity to meet with venture capitalists, early stage investors and successful entrepreneurs who will serve as judges. The judges will determine up to eight finalist teams that will present their ventures at the finals event. Last year, these teams competed for nearly $200,000 in funding and in-kind prizes.

Michigan football made headlines last fall when the coaching staff sent quarterback Shane Morris back on the field after being leveled by a Minnesota player. The coaching staff was unaware of the severity of the hit, which ultimately warranted being tested for a concussion. The Sports Concussion Institute reports that football players alone have a 75 percent chance for concussion, but it is often difficult for coaches and athletic trainers to identify such hits with 22 players on a football field at one time.

Michael Dietz and his startup Sudden Impact Analytics are addressing that challenge by providing an instant detection system to alert athletic trainers when blows reach a certain threshold. An amateur boxer from Naperville, Ill., who is participating in the Chicago Golden Gloves Boxing Tournament, Dietz is intimately aware of the concussion risk from being struck repeatedly in the head.

Through research, Dietz discovered that the linear and rotational acceleration due to G-forces applied to the head are directly related to concussions. While most effects of a first concussion dissipate over time, tragic long-term problems can result from being struck again before fully healing from the initial concussion. While many hits are obvious to the observer, the problem comes in measuring every impact in real time before a player has a chance to be hit again.

The full team consists of Dietz, a senior majoring in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois, Joe Benassi a junior in computer science, and Hanish Moola, a junior in aerospace engineering.

 “Our goal is when a player gets hit hard enough, he doesn’t keep playing and is evaluated properly,” Dietz said. “Hits on the line often go undetected so in many cases it’s all up to the player to report and come out for evaluation.”

The team is designing a chip to stick in an athlete’s mouth guard. It will measure the G-forces and if above a programmed threshold, alert the athletic trainer, the coach, or even the parent of such an impact. Using Bluetooth, the chip would send the alert with supporting data to a smart phone. The player would then be taken out of the game immediately for further evaluation.

The chip will run on a small battery and turns on only when it senses motion and transmits information only when it detects an impact above a certain threshold. There is no need for players to turn the chip on and its limited transmissions mean the battery should last the length of the season.

Since the chip must be placed inside an athlete’s mouth, one of the issues that Moola is facing is that is making sure the device is waterproof and the chip encased. That issue may at least initially be addressed, however, by sticking the device on to a lip guard, as many football players are starting using a mouthpiece with a lip guard.

Although SIA’s first version is capable of sending a signal 50 yards, Dietz’s goal is for the final product will be able to send a signal 100 yards or the length of the football field.

“I’ve talked to a few athletic directors and the feedback we have received is that if it works, we want it,” Dietz said. “The question is how good can we make it work? We’ll find that out when we get it on the field and start testing it.”

The team isn’t stopping at detection. They envision an eye-tracking device, which can tell if a person’s eyes aren’t perfectly in sync. The athlete would watch a short video or follow a dot on a smart phone, which in turn videotapes the eye movement and measures how much the eyes vary (or not correlated). That correlation is one of the most accurate methods used in diagnosing a concussion.

“Research shows that doing that well is better than a CT scan,” Dietz said.

This spring, Sudden Impact Analytics is competing in the Cozad New Venture competition, which last year awarded more than $200,000 in funding for student startups.

Dietz sees the chip retailing for around $40-50 each, while an added expense for athletic departments, a good investment to make the game safer.

“We want parents to see our product and know that the school is doing something to help protect their kids,” he said. “This could be a game-changer in the safety of contact sports.”