During the first Carnegie Mellon University football practice of the 2013 season, three players received concussions, one of which eventually ended a player’s career on the gridiron.
That practice inspired starting punter Thomas Healy, who is also a mechanical engineering graduate student, to begin researching preventive measures for the head injuries plaguing his teammates.
“Obviously, we’re not an NFL-oriented program,” Mr. Healy said. “We’re scholars first, so the main focus is to protect our brains and allow us to be academically successful throughout the year.”
Fast-forward one year and Mr. Healy’s research has evolved into the launching of a company, HeadSmart Labs, which aims to improve head injury research methods and helmet testing. The company encompasses four areas of research — helmet inflation, the shell of the helmet, outfitting players with accelerometers implanted in their helmets to measure the impact of received hits and using that information to replicate impact hits that happen on the field in the laboratory.
The company already has begun testing the use of a helmet pump with CMU players and how different inflation levels of pads inside the helmet reduce impact when players are tackled.
“The first step we have to do is get players to start using inflation,” Mr. Healy said. “Players aren’t really thinking about that before they go on the field, and that really needs to be part of the conversation. When they do, we want our research to be able to say ‘Here’s how much you should be inflating it to.’”
The accelerometers, which are about the size of an iPod mini, would be placed inside the helmets of starting players and capture information about hits the players receive and which impacts cause concussions. It would then transmit impact information to a computer on the sideline. The development team has had talks and is looking to partner with CMU and University of Pittsburgh football teams to implement the research.
Burak Ozdoganlar, director of the Institute for Complex Engineered Systems, said there is a demand for more comprehensive head injury research, especially in football. As Ver Planck Chair Professor of Mechanical Engineering at CMU, he joined the team of engineers and UPMC doctors who have joined with HeadSmart Labs in conducting research after Mr. Healy presented him with some of his research ideas.
"We want to make the sport fun and enjoyable for spectators but safe for players,” Mr. Ozdoganlar said. “Unless a big, significant effort is put forward in making helmet usage to be much more effective towards players, football has a very dim future.”
Mr. Healy’s "entrepreneurial side and intuition" stood out when he took several of Mr. Ozdoganlar’s classes, he said.
His student and mentee spent thousands of dollars out of his pocket on equipment and technology to fund the initial stages of research, he said, because he believed in the project.
"He is very dedicated,” Mr. Ozdoganlar said. “He believes that we can make big changes. I started to work with him, and he made me a believer, too."
The research remains in its beginning phase while the development team applies for additional funding, including the Head Health Challenge sponsored by the NFL, Under Armour and GE. The winner would receive an award up to $10 million for innovations in head injury research, including materials to protect the head and tools for tracking head impacts. The developers also are looking into other possible grants, including funding from the NCAA, to help secure a research lab and purchase additional materials and technology.
The lab could be a place where researchers would try to replicate the impact of hits experienced on the field, and research results could be attractive to helmet manufacturers.
Garrett Bird, a former CMU saferty and environmental engineering student, was practicing basic tackling drills at training camp last summer when he received a concussion.
"Next thing I know I kind of rung my bells and couldn't really think for a second,” he said. “It became a nagging headache. I probably should've sat on the sides and taken a break, but I stayed through for another few minutes until I couldn’t anymore."
He was sidelined for the rest of the football season.
For weeks after, “everything was a haze.” He was given medication to help him focus through the pain and sensitivity to light and sound, but his mind would frequently drift in class.
Then, while playing in a lacrosse game the following spring, he received another concussion. For him, that was the “tipping point.”
"My trainer pretty much told me that I was going to keep having these injuries if I keep playing contact sports,” Mr. Bird said.
“Once you get them, it kind of becomes a recursive problem. I was possibly hurting myself long-term, so I was ruled out for any contact sport."
Mr. Healy’s research hits close to home for Mr. Bird.
"It's definitely a change,” he said. “I've missed out on something that I love. Your teammates are your best friends, the guys you live with and spend time with. To not be able to play with them anymore … it's a big loss."
Clarece Polke: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1889 or on Twitter @clarepolke.