NFL's 1st And Future Startup Competition Heats Things Up In Minneapolis

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On the eve of Super Bowl LII, the stars were not the football players, but the innovators and entrepreneurs with the ideas to change the game. Yesterday morning, nine early stage sports tech startups pitched their emerging technologies during the NFL’s 1st and Future Competition, the organization’s premier business pitch event, to a panel of judges and invite-only audience to win $50,000 and two tickets to Super Bowl LII.

The startups remaining in this annual competition participated in one of three categories: Advancements in Protective Equipment, New Therapies to Speed Recovery, and Technology to Improve Athletic Performance. One winner was selected in each category.

The Denver, Colorado based startup Impressio won the Advancements in Protective Equipment division. Impressio is led by a pair of engineering professors who have spent the last fifteen years “obsessed with finding new materials to improve human health.” This team aims to replace the current foam in helmets with a material containing “unprecedented energy absorbing ability,” called liquid crystal elastomers, to reduce concussion rates. These oval shaped molecules rotate when impacted to absorb more energy and dissipate absorption from impact over a broader range than current helmet foam material, increasing helmet safety. The technology requires no fundamental re-design of the helmet. Liquid crystal elastomers are documented by over forty years of research but are difficult to make, according to Impressio. The team has a patented procedure to manufacture the material in bulk.

Curv.ai, based in Toronto, Ontario, walked away as winners in the Technology to Improve Athletic Performance category. This startup is developing software that transforms the camera on any smart phone into a tool to test athletic abilities, track athletic progress, diagnose injury, and compare athletic advancements socially. The application can capture data such as throwing speed, vertical jump, knee kinematics, and reaction time to create a “revolution in athletic testing and athlete development.” The platform is free to use, with a paid premium model available to track data over time. The software is geared toward young athletes. A variety of wearables do exist to quantify these same types of data. However, these items are expensive, complicated, and cannot be integrated onto one platform, according to Curv.ai.

The Mountain View, California startup Recover X won the final division, New Therapies to Speed Recovery. This startup is “building the next generation of injury recovery devices to help speed recovery…and keep players accountable to their actual treatment.” The startup is developing a smart phone-controlled electric cold and hot therapy device that warms up or cools down to the optimal therapy temperatures in under thirty seconds. The device can also alternate between heat and cold for optimal recovery. The device is portable, runs on batteries, and requires the use of no ice. It even tracks data to ensure that players are performing their therapy as prescribed. The device is currently targeted to the knee, the cause of 28% of Injury Reserve issues in the NFL last year. However, the design is modular and can be adapted to target other portions of the body.

The NFL’s 1st and Future Competition was sponsored by Mayo Clinic, Sports Engine, and Comcast NBCUniversal. The event was hosted by Scott Hanson of the NFL Network. The expert panel of judges included Amy Banse, Managing Director and Head of Funds for Comcast Ventures; Jonathan Finnoff, Medical Director of Mayo Clinic Square with the Sports Medicine Center in Minneapolis; Courtney Hall, Managing Director of Hillcrest Venture Partners and former NFL athlete; Justin Kaufenberg, Co-Founder and CEO of Sports Engine; Laurie Locascio, Vice President for Research at the University of Maryland; Eric Sugarman, Director of Sports Medicine and Head Athletic Trainer with the Minnesota Vikings; and Jennifer Wethe, Neuropsychologist for Mayo Clinic Arizona Sports Neurology and Concussion Program.

Last year, Rochester’s own GoRout participated in the 1st and Future Competition the day before Super Bowl LI in Houston and won their division, Communication with the Athlete. GoRout is a hardware and software company that elevates “scout team execution with football’s most powerful on-field practice gear.”

This year, no Minnesota companies made it to the final round of the competition.