Student-made chip can detect concussions in athletes
As he pounds the grass beneath his feet, a running back clutches a football to his chest while dodging the opposing team’s defenders and sprinting down the field. He looks down at the grass, then looks back up to see a pair of shoulders exploding into view, split seconds before making contact. Dazed and confused on the grass, his eyes are out of focus. A chip inside his mouthguard instantly computes positional data and alerts the coach: there’s a 70 percent chance the runner has a concussion.
Senior electrical engineering major Michael Dietz, with three other Engineering at Illinois undergraduates, founded the startup 8-count to bring the technology to life. His co-founders are all undergraduates, as well. They include Joe Benassi, a senior computer science major; Hanish Moola, a junior aerospace engineering major; Tommy McCormack, George Shtern, and Ricardo Louis, two seniors and a junior studying business.
Their goal: harness the technology to create the first step in helping athletes and coaches respond to concussions.
The concept currently works by embedding a chip into the player’s mouthguard, helmet strap or the helmet itself.
The chip analyzes the player's position and how fast they're going at the time of an impact, then calculates how hard the player was hit and whether the abuse given was enough to warrant checking for a concussion.
The team was formed by a group of students that shared a passion for technology, but also that cared about sports and helping athletes perform. They could relate to the dazed feeling right after a collision, when a player reels on the ground and the world comes in and out of focus. At this moment, fast and accurate diagnoses are critical to ensuring whether the athlete can get up and keep playing, or if they need to sit out or immediately see a doctor.
Dietz is an avid boxer and he first had the idea for 8-count when wondering if a wearable device could detect concussions right as a player was knocked down. The more he thought about it, the more he realized the concept had applications in a variety of sports, from boxing to football, soccer, and even volleyball.
Dietz took the idea to a startup project event hosted by Founders, a student entrepreneurship organization. The event, called 54, gave contestants 54 hours to pitch each other ideas, form a business, and build a project with help from mentors. There, he met Benassi, Moola, and Louis, and they agreed to get as far as they could on the concept with the time they had.
The team formed the beginnings of 8-Count there, and ended up winning first place at the competition by demonstrating a demo of their product they’d built. They took their idea even further, winning third place in the 2014 IEEE projects fair with an updated prototype of their creation. Dietz has continued work on his project in ECE 395, the Advanced Digital Projects Lab, under Lecturer Lippold Haken.
“I was impressed with Michael's careful layout of the printed circuit board for this project,” Haken said. “He has space limitations because it has to fit comfortably inside a mouth guard; but he also has to support bluetooth and motion sensing chips. Michael's interest in microcontrollers and circuit design, as well as his interest in the work of other students in the lab, made him a joy to have in ADSL.”
The team hopes to compete in the Technology Entrepreneurship Center’s Cozad competition this spring as well, and will be presenting its technology at this year’s Engineering Open House. Eventually, they plan to form their idea into a fully-fledged startup.
“I plan on sticking with 8-count for at least 10 years down the road, it could turn into a whole host of motion analysis and analytics tools,” Dietz said. “Let’s say you want to learn how to play golf, or box, but you can’t afford expensive lessons. I see our tech getting to the point where we can analyze athletes’ techniques and model them, so a device could teach you how to swing like Tiger Woods, or punch like Mike Tyson.”