Engineering students design concussion sensor for football helmets

Contact: Mark Schwerin
Photo of an engineer testing a pressure sensor on a football helmet.

Ali Eshkeiti examines the sensor on the SafeSense helmet.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—At a time when football concussions are triggering lawsuits and making headlines, students at Western Michigan University have come up with a device that can be implanted in a football helmet to monitor the severity and location of blows to the head.

Student engineers have designed a pressure sensor using printed electronics on a flexible organic plastic substrate that can cover the inside of a helmet. Now they are looking for investors and grants to get their business startup, SafeSense Technologies LLC, off the ground.

Top eight finisher

Their idea was recognized as one of the top eight final teams in a recent competition sponsored by the University of Michigan in which the students received training for young entrepreneurs. More than 300 teams submitted ideas, with the finals held in February.

"Based on that, we believed we had a niche technology and that we should establish a company, so we did," says Dr. Massood Atashbar, professor of electrical and computer engineering and the team's faculty advisor.

The impact-sensing technology has a wide range of applications, from the battlefield to the gridiron. The sensors could measure the impact of a bomb blast or other type of trauma. But with all the attention given to football concussions, it seemed the new device would be of immediate use in monitoring blows on the football field.

Here's how it works: Data from the sensor, whether inside a football or soldier's helmet, can be relayed over Bluetooth to a smartphone so a team leader would instantly know the severity of an impact. That data also could be stored on a cloud-based server to give a complete history.

"Basically, this device or system would eliminate the possibility of inaccuracies from field judgments made by coaches, who rely on the self-assessment or self-reporting of players," Atashbar says. "The coach would receive real-time, actionable information when one of the players receives a potentially dangerous and serious impact to the head."

One of several startups

The concussion project is one of several startups under development using printed electronics. On June 27, representatives from Michigan companies gathered at WMU for a day of networking and brainstorming to connect Michigan businesses with experts in the field of flexible electronic and printed electronic technologies. Since 2008, developing that technology has been the focus of the University's Center for the Advancement of Printed Electronics, or CAPE. The technology has applications in automotive supply, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, food packaging and clothing.

The shock sensor would be especially valuable in sports, where players tend to under-report symptoms, Atashbar adds, and could be a valuable tool in other sports, like lacrosse or hockey.

"The players, because of the pressure, try to ignore the injury they have endured and continue playing," he says.

The sensor could be purchased as an add-on for an existing helmet or embedded by the manufacturer before purchase, Atashbar says. But the project requires additional research and development before it is ready for the marketplace, which is why grant funding is being sought. After it is more fully developed, students are hoping a venture capitalist or angel investor will step forward.

"We are very excited," Atashbar says. "We think that we have an enabling technology that I personally expect can lead to a very usable product fairly soon."

New direction for students

Four graduate students are working on the project. Three are doctoral students in electrical engineering and one is a master's student in chemical and printing engineering. The students say the experience has been a real eye-opener.

"It was very new for us, because we're from the engineering side," says Ali Eshkeiti, one of the doctoral students. "We didn't know anything about business, how to talk about the product or what kind of words we should use."

"We've learned a lot about the business side," agrees Binu Baby Narakathu, also a doctoral student, who has assumed a leadership role in the project.

The project also has gotten some much-needed help through Starting Gate, a WMU student business accelerator that gives students rich and valuable resources to develop their startup companies. SafeSense started with Starting Gate in May, entering the accelerator's summer 100-day program. Students have been very active in Starting Gate workshops, meetings and mentoring programs and will soon make presentations at Demo Day and Investor Day events.

The students have been working on the sensor for nearly two years. They are understandably excited about its potential.

"Football concussions are a very hot topic nowadays," Eshkeiti says. "We hear about this problem everywhere—on the news, on TV."

The device not only would warn that a hit had taken place and of its severity, but would also pinpoint its location on the head.

"That would be helpful for doctors, who are treating that patient," Narakathu says, "whereas right now, they're not able to get that data. Our application would be able to store or log that data so the doctors can retrieve past impacts and do their treatment accordingly."