The Super Bowl of small-business competitions took place in Minneapolis Saturday as nine companies were each given five minutes to convince an NFL panel of judges that they had the best ideas to make football players play better, heal faster or stay safer.
Christopher Yakacki of Impressio told the seven-member panel of medical and athletic experts that a liquid-crystal substance he developed with “unprecedented energy-absorbing technology” could replace the padding of helmets and protect players in all conditions.
“If you’re playing in Miami, it will perform well,” he said. “If you’re playing in the snow in Green Bay, it will perform just as well.”
Denver-based Impressio won in the category of advances in protective equipment at the competition, modeled after the high-pressure “Shark Tank” reality TV show. Two runners-up proposed add-on devices to helmets that would absorb the force of tackles and hits. Awards also were given in competitions for innovations in sports performance and injury recovery.
Winners earned $50,000 awards and two Super Bowl tickets, but the intangible benefits were worth as much. Rochester-based GoRout won the 2017 NFL competition with its line of wearable technology to expedite play-calling and communication between players and coaches. Owner Mike Rolih said sales of the system tripled after winning the competition.
“When the NFL puts its stamp of approval on something, it certainly makes people take notice,” he said.
Judges this year included Minnesota Vikings trainer Eric Sugarman and Dr. Jonathan Finnoff, director of the sports medicine center for Mayo Clinic, which co-sponsored the event at the Guthrie Theater.
Aired on NFL Network, the competition produced some made-for-TV moments.
The audience gasped when the creator of the Focus eye-tracking device, designed to assess concussions, replayed how a mixed martial artist was able to follow a cursor on a screen before a fight — and how he couldn’t come close after the fight. “The eyes don’t lie,” said Patrick Carney, who created the Focus system.
Judges were incredulous when executives for Aladdin Dreamer Inc., pitched a headband and system capable of monitoring and stimulating brainwaves to optimize sleep and induce vivid dreams. Aladdin chief executive Craig Weiss said the system could stimulate lucid dreams, and that athletes could direct the content of those dreams by watching videos of proper athletic techniques before sleep. Dreaming about sports performance improves performance in real life, he said.
Finnoff countered that lucid dreams can often be anxious and stressful: “You may actually end up training people to have more issues!”
The biggest laughs came when a former rocket scientist was having trouble converting grams to pounds to answer the question of judge Courtney Hall, a former NFL player, about whether his safety product would add too much weight to a football helmet. “Help me with that math,” the contestant said to the panel.
“You’re the rocket scientist!” Hall replied.
Two of the three categories in this year’s entrepreneurial competition focused on player injuries, which have been a growing concern for NFL officials as research has identified the ramifications of head trauma and repeated concussions. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said during the event that the competition and the technology it highlighted should “spur” safety enhancements in football and change the game for the better.
“Innovation and what we can do to protect our players,” he said, “is obviously a huge priority for us.”