BY Marc Ballon
Millions suffer concussions each year. (Photo/Nick Veasey)
Concussions can literally kill.
An estimated 3 million Americans suffer them annually. Unfortunately, many athletes often understate the severity of their head injuries to remain in the game. Those who return to play too soon risk permanent neurological damage or even death.
Brain Injury Research Strategies Inc., or BIRS, hopes to change that.
BIRS, the 2015 winner of a $50,000 grand prize given out at the Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition (MEPC), has developed a portable device capable of delivering a five-minute concussion assessment test that takes out much of the guesswork.
Whereas many current concussion screenings rely on athletes subjectively describing post-injury symptoms, BIRS’ approach uses quantifiable eye-tracking movement to measure neurocognitive health, said Brian Robinson, BIRS co-director of technology.
“Right now there are no good tools for quickly assessing whether or not somebody has a concussion,” said Robinson, a biomedical engineering Ph.D. student at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “Our product would quickly provide objective and reliable data.”
Establishing a baseline
As envisioned, a BIRS device — a camera, tablet and proprietary software — would measure an athlete’s eye-tracking movements at the beginning of the season to establish a baseline. Trainers, coaches and physicians could compare that information to new data gathered after a head injury to help determine the best course of action. Typically, people suffering concussions have slower, less controlled eye movements.
Doctors and others could also use BIRS to determine when an injured athlete has recuperated enough to return safely to physical activity, said Dave Baron, company co-founder, interim chair at USC’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and a renowned concussion expert.
Although not a diagnostic tool, Baron called BIRS “one important piece of a bigger puzzle in [concussion management].”
In light of the NFL’s huge concussion payout to former players, interest in the long-term dangers of concussions is perhaps at an all-time high. BIRS believes the potential market for its product is large and growing, with an estimated 50 million-plus recreational athletes in the United States alone. Company executives also believe BIRS could appeal to the military, which has dealt with a surge in head injuries in recent years from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I think this seems like a very timely technology to get out there,” said Gene Yu, BIRS co-director of technology and a biomedical engineering doctoral student at USC Viterbi. “I think we could potentially be widespread across the nation in five years.”
It is the right technology, with the right team, at the right time.
Added MEPC Director Peter Beerel: “The beauty about BIRS is that it is the right technology, with the right team, at the right time.”
Other successful startups
As the winner of USC Viterbi’s premier business plan competition, BIRS joins some pretty successful startups.
ComfortCorrect, the 2014 MEPC winner, makes affordable braces that incorporate programmable memory wire technology. The company hopes to go to clinical trials in the near future. The 2013 victor, Second Spectrum, analyzes Big Data for sports insights. Its NBA clients include the Los Angeles Clippers.
BIRS, which plans to seek government research grants, expects clinical trials to begin later this year at a Turkish university interested in the technology. The company hopes to have its product on the market late next year.
Initially, the startup plans to give away its technology to professional sports leagues to generate awareness and publicity. In time, the firm wants to charge annual subscription fees for athletes to receive baseline and subsequent eye-tracking readings.