BETHESDA – A number of sports equipment companies say they have found a piece of the puzzle in identifying concussions, especially in contact sports such as football.
An emerging industry is developing around providing sensors that can detect whether an athlete sustained a hit hard enough to injure him or her.
Large companies like Riddell have launched a product line featuring sensors that are installed into their helmets, and they are competing with small startups that produce sensors that attach to helmets.
But some health professionals are concerned that the technology isn’t yet proven to be helpful or practical for use in one of the target markets — youth sports.
Greg Panczek, president of the Maryland Athletic Trainers Association, said the youth leagues are the most at risk of being misled by the technology. “What you worry about is not the false positive … but the false negative,” he said — injured players being left in a game because a sensor didn’t go off.
Still, companies and entrepreneurs are noticing the link between tech and sports, and the opportunity for growth.
Riddell, a popular helmet company whose product is used by about 80 percent of American high schools and universities, is developing new technology to analyze and report head injuries sustained by athletes.
“Technology and sports go hand in hand,” said Erin Griffin, director of corporate communications for Riddell. “This is just the very beginning for technological advancements and the helmet industry.”
Last year, Riddell unveiled its InSite Impact Response System, the company’s first helmet with sensors installed that is available for retail.
A number of schools have inquired about the helmet, and one Delaware high school started using it this fall, Griffin said.
The system can be calibrated to detect different levels of sensitivity and report impacts sustained by the helmet to trainers and coaches on the sidelines during practices and games.
Riddell faces stiff competition from smaller startup companies.
The Bethesda-based Brain Sentry Inc. markets a sensor for $75; it would attach to a standard varsity football helmet.
The most popular Riddell varsity football helmet costs about $275, but many teams receive discounts when buying larger quantities of standard helmets in bulk, Griffin said.
The new sensor-equipped Riddell helmet has a three-part cost: about $275 for the helmet, plus $150 for the installed sensor, and an additional $200 for the Alert monitor which covers up to 150 players, Griffin said.
Greg Merril, CEO and co-founder of Brain Sentry, boasts his company’s story “comes in making the first practical low-cost sensor technology.” Brain Sentry launched three years ago and sells a sensor about the size of a flash drive that attaches to the back of a helmet.
Despite contracts with the professional Arena Football League, Brain Sentry wants to focus on preventing concussions in young athletes, Merril said.
“We are worried about kids, and the market is much larger for younger children,” Merril said.
“If you just look at football, football is played by about 5 million people in the United States, but 3.5 million of those are under the age of 14.”
Merril points to a lack of observers at youth games qualified to diagnose concussions as a sign of the need for his company’s product.
“The sensor has got to work on these kids; young children who are being managed by parents who have jobs that are not coaching.” According to ClearedToPlay.org, about 8,000 children are treated in U.S. emergency rooms each day for sports-related injuries.
Of those, children ages 15 to 17 experience the highest emergency room visits for sports injuries.
There are three times as many catastrophic football injuries among high school athletes as college athletes, ClearedToPlay.org reports.