A mouthguard that measures the impact of sports

As public concern about sports-related head injuries mounts, two ASU graduates have developed a product that could help athletes and their coaches spot potential problems sooner.

Double Devils Anthony Gonzales (BS Management ’11, MBA ’14) and Bob Merriman (BS Communication ’02, MBA ’12) have created the FITGuard, a mouthguard that measures the severity of an impact to the head and uses LED sensors embedded in the device to display its intensity.

The LED lights cast a green glow over the mouthpiece if the hit is low-impact. The glow turns blue if there’s a moderate injury risk and red if the hit is serious enough that the player should be removed from the field. The Bluetooth-enabled device can send real-time information via a mobile app to the player’s smartphone, the coach, the player’s parents, or anyone else added to the network. Doctors can review the information later to get a history of head injuries or blows.

The app takes into account information about the athlete’s weight, gender, and age to determine the impact’s severity. The mouthguard does not attempt to diagnose concussions. Instead, it calls attention to hard impacts for coaches.

Serious problem

Sports-related head injury is a widespread and longstanding problem, but it has only begun to get serious attention in the past decade. Between 1.6 and 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur in the U.S. each year, according to the Brain Research Institute. Sixty-five percent of traumatic brain injuries occur among children ages 5 to 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Though fatalities are rare, they are the No. 1 cause of death in children and young adults.

While football accounts for a majority, players of soccer, baseball, and other contact sports are also affected. In fact, almost 50 percent of sports-related head injuries are sustained during recreational activities like bicycling, skateboarding, and skating, according to Stanford Children’s Health hospital.

Many concussions go unreported, leaving coaches unaware of a problem that could get worse if athletes aren’t careful. People who have had one concussion are at greater risk for suffering additional ones. Almost 20 percent of teens said they have been diagnosed with at least one concussion and nearly 6 percent said they’ve been diagnosed with more than one, according to a research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

From class assignment to real-life business

Gonzales and Merriman, who met in an off-campus jiu-jitsu class, began working on the product after Gonzales received a W. P. Carey business class assignment to tackle a real-world problem. “I got beat up all the time in rugby, so that was a problem,” he says. Using electronics in a mouthguard to measure impact seemed like a good idea to both of them.

In 2013, after testing prototypes on themselves in jiu-jitsu practice, they decided to launch a company, Force Impact Technologies, to develop the product commercially. The company now includes doctors, medical advisors, and an engineer, as well as angel investors, including Richard Sherman, the former Seattle Seahawks player who recently signed with the San Francisco 49ers.

The knowledge Gonzales and Merriman gained at W. P. Carey was instrumental to their success in starting the company and keeping it going during funding challenges, the two say.

“The MBA program exposed us to opportunities we never would have had otherwise,” Gonzales says. The students took advantage of startup competitions and grants, but perhaps their most valuable experience was discussing strategy with faculty and getting free and unbiased advice. “In the real world, if you talk to someone, it’s, ‘I’ll help you if you pay me,’” Gonzales says.

The pair is currently testing their product at ASU. So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. They are collecting data that they plan to eventually share with the FDA. But they can launch the product without FDA approval as long as they don’t make medical claims.

“We plan to release it to consumers and call it what it is: a product that measures how hard you get hit,” Gonzales says.

The company’s long-term goals include supporting a better understanding of traumatic brain injury and developing other products for sports injuries. “We hope to come up with products to address shoulder problems, runner’s ankle, and other conditions,” Merriman says.

By Teresa Meek