Two startups are looking to tackle concussions in young athletes

SHARE Two startups are looking to tackle concussions in young athletes
SHARE Two startups are looking to tackle concussions in young athletes

With concussions on many minds these days, a couple of local startups are hoping to lend a hand while cashing in.

Most of the headlines surrounding concussions center around former NFL players suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, defined by Boston University as “a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes with a history of brain trauma.” Late last month, likely because of increasing lawsuits related to concussions, the NFL confirmed it was ending its “official helmet” deal with Rosemont-based manufacturer Riddell.

Those concerns have trickled down to children. There was a 67 percent rise in concussions and other recreation-related brain injuries among kids from 2001 to 2009, according to a new report from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council.

“We’re really starting to see the long-term effects on people who have suffered concussions,” says Kelly Gee, CEO of Quantum Institute, a Vernon Hills-based startup. “They’re showing that these concussions aren’t a short-term issue — they’re a lifelong issue especially once you start piling them up.”

Gee and Dan Nicholson, founder of Head Case Concussion Management System, are basing their new businesses around early concussion detection in kids as young as 2 to minimize long-term damage.

“Right now people don’t really know what a concussion is,” Nicholson says. “They have no clue how dangerous it is. A concussion is brain damage. It’s temporary brain damage, but it’s brain damage.”

Quantum Institute, with 13 employees, has raised more than $1 million to develop portable brain-mapping technology known as Q-Map to determine whether an athlete needs further medical attention after a hit.

“We were able to simplify the technology and software so it works wirelessly and mobile,” Gee says. “You can fit everything you need to do sideline testing inside of a backpack easily. The really cool thing about our test is it’s quick. Within 20 to 30 minutes max, we have medically valid and accurate data where we generate these brain maps so you know right away.”

Using the product doesn’t require medical training, but rather the completion of a course offered through the Quantum Institute.

While Gee’s goals are noble, attaining them isn’t cheap. He says it’s going to cost “eight figures” to fulfill his ambitions, which include being in up to 25 markets outside of Chicago by the end of 2015. Right now, the company has just over $1 million in seed funding and is in the Series B round of venture capital funding. Quantum expects to start licensing QMap early next year.

“It’s not going to take the place of a doctor,” Gee says. “We’re talking about the central nervous system and the human brain. It’s not going to take the place of CT or CAT scans, either. Ours is functional data.”

Gee is marketing the product to individual athletes as well as larger programs such as high schools and colleges.

“We’ve developed licensing packages for large athletic programs where they’ll be able to have sideline units,” he says, noting the cost of the units is still to be determined. “From the consumer base model, we have a main center where they can come in and see us. We have mobile technology where we can go and see them.”

Nicholson’s Head Case, based in Lake Forest with 12 part-time employees, finds itself in a similar situation — long on ambition but short on capital and, well, actual product.

“We’re giving [Head Case] to a bunch of different schools in a bunch of different sports to have them utilize it so we can gather data,” he says.

Head Case’s model is slightly simpler and intended for young athletes. An impact sensor inserted in a helmet is connected to a website that tracks how many hits an athlete takes and how hard each hit is. There’s also an app to inform coaches and parents of warning signs of a concussion so they can determine if the athlete should remain in the game.

Much like Gee’s Q-Map, Head Case isn’t designed to replace a visit to the doctor but rather to determine if one is necessary. Gee worked with neurologists to develop his product. Nicholson, who stressed that Head Case is “a sports diagnostic tool, like a stopwatch,” is working with researchers at the University of Chicago.

Head Case will cost the average user less than $100 to keep an athlete’s data on file for life. Problem is there’s not enough data yet to determine whether the system works.

Nicholson is hoping to raise $300,000 to run a beta test of his brainchild, of which he has around $200,000. He plans to roll out a Head Case prototype in first-quarter 2014 and says he has 1,000 athletes signed up to try it.

After the initial test run, Nicholson’s going to need well over $1 million to produce and distribute Head Case nationwide. If his Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign is any indication, interest in the product isn’t there just yet. At press time, Head Case had raised $2,240, or less than 5 percent, of its goal to raise $50,000 by Friday.

But Nicholson has a backup plan in the form of an angel investor. He’s also reaching out to other potential private backers. The father and coach of three young athletes is confident in his technology and his purpose: “The real key is getting people to think about their kids and not just turn them over to a football coach.”

ABOVE: Dan Nicholson of Head Case with his son.

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