The NFL has awarded a $50,000 grant to Organic Robotics Corporation (ORC) of Ithaca, New York, for its Light Lace sensors that use light to measure muscle fatigue and respiration.
The start-up company won the league's sixth annual 1st & Future competition designed to discover novel advancements in athletes’ safety and performance. Innovators and data scientists have been awarded a total of $750,000 for their winning pitches in the program's first five years.
ORC's product uses a stretchable sensor that can be integrated into garments or even helmets. The information generated can help athletes and training staffs better assess injury risk factors, and optimize performance.
“By examining the behaviour of the light we can then measure muscle activity, motion and respiration,” says Ilayda Samilgil, a Cornell University Mechanical Engineering School graduate who is CEO and co-founder of the company with Rob Shepherd. “It has a removable electronic hub that can be switched to other garments with Light Lace sensors and also can be moved to different areas of the body.”
The device can indicate when an athlete is overworking a specific muscle group as well. Muscle activity on the field is measured in real time, and the device is designed not to interfere with the motion of the athlete.
“That was the first time I had seen this type of product,” says Reggie Scott, the Los Angeles Rams' senior director of sports medicine and performance and one of the judges. “You see a lot of people look at sensors and real time motion, but it's really hard to capture accurately. I think they really found the secret sauce: Figuring out the mechanics of injuries and what is happening at that muscular level.”
ORC first applied for 1st and Future back in 2020 and was not selected as a finalist. Samilgil believes the advances made over the past year led to her company winning the 2021 competition.
When applying to 1st and Future back in 2020 “we had very recently decided we wanted to do athletic performance,” she says. “In January 2020 we were saying athletic application seems cool, let’s try it out. We were not selected and we were a bit sad, but in one year we had made so much progress and knew we wanted to use it as a wearable for pro athletes, and we know the market better and the product better.
“It was a great feeling when we were selected, and to also see we have come along so far in the last year.”
There are many further steps for ORC, but the grant will help in maintaining employees, spending on the prototype device, and enhancing awareness of the product.
ORC has targeted professional athletes at the outset, but has plans to expand to colleges, high schools and youth sports. While football is the prime focus, the sensor originally was considered for baseball.
“Before applying for NFL 1st & Future, we looked deeply into baseball, specifically for pitchers, with an upper body garment,” Samilgil says. “We received really good feedback from baseball teams and organizations, and in the next two or three years we do not want to focus just on football.”
She can envision applications for figure skaters, dancers, singers and other performers, too.
“We can make our garment glow and not glow, use different colours , and there's a lot you can do visually as well for performers,” Samilgil explains. “For skaters, we can have our sensors as part of socks to look at skate fittings to make sure it doesn’t cause harm to the feet, especially with when you get new skates.”
The Rams' Scott served as a judge for the first time, but knew the history of the competition and how other winners have had their projects incorporated into elements of football. He is eager to return to the panel.
“What you get out of it, I love the attempts and what people are truly doing in the world of player health and safety in sports,” he says. “It's so refreshing to see. Also something I gained was to see how smart people are. The future of our game is really bright and exciting, with some really smart people coming up with some really cool products. That's the kind of a part of it I can't wait to start tracking in, and get to the point of them being in the trenches.”
Genesis Helmets, Inc., applying its proprietary computational modeling and patented technology to create better-performing football helmets, was the runner-up and was awarded $25,000.
1st and Future also featured a Computer Vision category. Computer scientists received actual NFL game data and were challenged to create ways to detect on-field helmet impacts. The first-place finisher was Dmytro Poplavskiy from Brisbane, Australia.
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Barry Wilner, The Associated Press