Can Minnesota Secure Football's Future Health?

Can Minnesota Secure Football's Future Health?

Why you should care

Because the future of youth sports may be answered up north. 

When thousands of football fans flooded the frozen Minnesota tundra for Philadelphia’s Super Bowl LII win over New England on February 4, critics of the gridiron pastime made sure concerns over the threat of head injuries were loudly heard. Days after Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre suggested that his grandchildren wouldn’t play the game, Super Bowl halftime show performer Justin Timberlake said the same about his son. In both New York and Illinois, legislators introduced proposals to ban youth football. But in the shadows of U.S. Bank Stadium, a thriving ecosystem of innovators, medical researchers and developers is fighting to secure both acceptable safety standards and the future of contact sports.

Prevent Biometrics, a Twin Cities–based startup, is trying to use a high-tech mouthguard to measure the exact force and location of trauma suffered by a player during contact. A patented system relays the real-time data to a tablet on the sideline, alerting coaches exactly when, and to what extent, an athlete sustains head trauma. If the impact surpasses a certain threshold, the player is pulled from competition. Player’s Health, a clinical risk management platform, records where and when an injury occurs, ensuring that proper safety protocol is followed and parents and physicians are notified. And between the University of Minnesota Medical Center and the famed Mayo Clinic in nearby Rochester, Prevent Biometrics chief marketing officer David Sigel calls the Twin Cities “the nation’s leading center for research and cutting-edge solutions to the concussion epidemic.”

Between the major universities, sports teams, big business and innovative startups, a great sense of civic unity is shared.

Francis Shen, researcher

Armed with financial support from the private sector and partnerships with Twin Cities medical researchers, these initiatives hope to maximize our understanding of the most imminent threats to young athletes and influence future safety legislation. And coaches can use the gathered data to teach new techniques and change patterns.

“There’s a willingness across industries and between institutions to work together that is unique to Minnesota,” says Francis Shen, founder of the Shen Neurolaw Lab at the University of Minnesota. “Between the major universities, sports teams, big business and innovative startups, a great sense of civic unity is shared.”

When Shen moved to Minnesota in 2012, that unified front was not something that he was used to. In other major markets, he says, political jousting plays a more detrimental role in influencing medicine and legislature. Pressure between competing universities often dissuades the sharing of findings, and partnerships with private investors with potentially competing allegiances are hard to come by. But Minnesota has been different, he suggests. “As a newcomer, Minnesota has been very welcoming,” says Shen, who works to influence law and policy based on neuroscience research. “In our line of work, we need that spirit of partnership. We can’t arrive at strong policy unless we have a lot of folks willing to work together.”

Nowhere was that spirit of partnership more recently apparent than Super Bowl week. Away from the media center at Mall of America and out of sight of U.S. Bank Stadium, numerous showcases and symposiums — headlined by the Shen-moderated Player’s Health Super Bowl Summit — on research and development in player safety brought together thought leaders from the region. Prevent Biometrics was on display throughout the week, announcing $9.5 million in private financing (along with a $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense) and plans to take the product to market in July 2018.

Player’s Health was there too. Tyrre Burks, its founder, started the firm in Chicago after playing football at Winona State University, but soon moved to the Twin Cities. The Minnesota tech community — smaller than in other major cities — is tight-knit and the state’s investors are conscientious with their money, says Burks. “There’s much more due diligence that you’ll have to go through here, so your company has to be built to last,” says Burks. “But you can raise millions [in Minnesota].”

The Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine division — a leader in the study of postsurgery regenerative therapies for athletes — is another pillar on which Minnesota’s sports medicine edifice is growing. Mayo Clinic doctors have experimented with the use of stem cells and other therapies for 15 years now, but as technology has advanced, the field has become a priority for Mayo. In 2011, the clinic opened its Center for Regenerative Medicine. For athletes, regenerative therapies and stem cell injections are a welcome replacement for joint-damaging cortisone shots. And the Mayo Clinic’s location makes it even more appealing. “It’s important for [athletes] to go to a clinic that understands the implications for athletes,” says Dr. Jonathan Finnoff, medical director of Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine, noting that relationships with Twin Cities professional sports teams from all four major American sports have created a much more sports-knowledgeable environment at Mayo. For instance, if a stem cell injection is administered improperly, an athlete could face suspension. But at Mayo, physicians are well aware of best practices in the arena.

And the Mayo Clinic also partners with other research institutions, like the Shen Neurolaw Lab. Shen works on a range of projects from brain recognition technology to wearable neurotechnology to understanding the human costs of war. But youth contact sports — in particular, football and hockey — are a major preoccupation with him at the moment. Much like intensified perceptions of crime based on media reports, Shen cautions that the general public may be overestimating the risk of head injuries in youth sports. Since Shen’s research will eventually influence legislature, the “challenge becomes navigating a proper balance between brain health and not being too rash in our decisions,” he says. “And making sure we understand what the data says.”

For that, he’ll need partners in both research and industry. If there’s one place he’ll find them, it’s Minnesota.

OZYThe Huddle

Football, basketball, soccer. Cricket, rugby, the X-games. And anything else you can dream up to make you sweat.