Scrappy startup aims to tackle football head injuries

Pressure Analysis Company has created a skullcap that athletes can wear under their helmets to detect and record head impacts

by Robin Dalmas

When Riley Morlock of Albuquerque, New Mexico suffered a head injury playing school football, no one realized it at first. Neither Morlock nor his coaches detected any symptoms.

“We weren’t sure what was going on,” said his mother, Jessica Morlock. “We didn’t realize until days later how badly he was hurt.” The young man was diagnosed with a concussion, a type of traumatic brain injury that can take hours or weeks to recover from.  

Pressure Analysis Company (PAC) based in Albuquerque has developed a new kind of technology that can help athletes such as Morlock by peering into their brains in real time. The startup company is manufacturing the SmackCap™, a hit-detecting skullcap that athletes wear under their helmets. Each time they are hit, the data is transmitted wirelessly in real time to a mobile application. The data shows where, how hard, and how many times they are hit over the course of a game, season, or career.

When the game is over, coaches, trainers, and parents can download a hit history on each athlete and make an informed decision as to whether, for example, he or she should skip a game or two so the brain can rest and recover. The data is also kept over time so users can access an athlete’s cumulative history of hits. The information will be useful to doctors and researchers as well as parents and coaches.

Inspiration for the SmackCap

Scott Sibbett, a research professor at the University of New Mexico, invented the pressure sensor technology used in the skull cap. While searching for real-world applications for his invention, he began chatting with colleague Loraine Upham, who has 26 years of experience in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry. Both of their sons played football. What if they used the technology to learn what was happening to their children on the field? The SmackCap was born.

Sibbett and Upham founded PAC. In April 2015, they knew they needed more players for their team, so they recruited Michelle Urban as CEO. Urban, who obtained her MBA from the University of New Mexico, had always wanted to be an entrepreneur. She also loves football.

“I’m a huge sports fan,” Urban said. “I watch football every Sunday, and every Monday and Thursday if I can.”

Urban calls football “a beautiful sport,” but also understands its consequences. “The most important thing about what we’re doing is that we’re able to keep a record of all the hits, especially the less concussive, the smaller hits,” she said. “The research is showing now that those smaller hits—the repeated hits to the head—are causing long-term brain damage. Whereas, most people just think, oh, you got hit really hard and now you might have a concussion. But it's really those small hits that don't exhibit any kind of symptoms that are the most dangerous.”

The SmackCap, available for pre-order on the PAC website, is still under development. Manufacturing began in late 2016, and the founders are getting closer to hiring someone to build the mobile app. Though the product won’t actually be available until fall of 2017, PAC has already won several competitions. In 2016, PAC placed third in a national competition that recognizes and supports early-stage mobile entrepreneurs who make the world a better place. In doing so, the company won $2,500. Startup capital has also come from bootstrapping, participation in a business accelerator, an angel investor, and grants.

Tested in the field

PAC partnered with an indoor football team in Albuquerque, to beta test them in the field.  “Over the course of the season, we were able to build about 10 skull caps,” Urban said. “We put them on athletes’ heads who volunteered to wear them, collected some data during a real game, and proved it to work.”

PAC moved into an Albuquerque high-rise building in November 2016. The building has recently undergone an extensive remodel and now provides both offices and co-working spaces. The new space provides its tenants with technology tools such as high-speed Internet, Wi-Fi, and printers.

PAC uses a lot of other technology on the sidelines to keep operations running smoothly. Urban uses cloud storage to save and access important documents. “I can work from anywhere, really,” she said. PAC also uses social media to educate the public about its product.

What will PAC look like down the road? Urban wants the product to go long. “In 5 years, it would be great having a lot of university teams wearing skull caps.”

While the SmackCap is currently being tested on football players, Urban can envision the product being used in all kinds of impact sports, including hockey, rugby, lacrosse, and volleyball.

“I think there are so many different ways that it's going to be used,” Urban said, and she’s passionate about the possibilities. “How it's going to change the game for the better, how it's going to change the way athletes take care of themselves or how the athletes are taken care of. That's really what excites me and keeps me motivated.”

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Two career-academic football-parents joined forces with Michelle Urban to head Pressure Analysis Company, which is finishing up product development on the SmackCap in the next couple months.