FITGuard: By Far the Smartest Sports-Tech Product

We talk with Anthony Gonzales and Bob Merriman, co-founders of Force Impact Technologies, about their revolutionary smart mouthguard, FITGuard, which identifies concussion risk in athletes.

FITGuardAnthony Gonzales is cofounder and Executive Director of Force Impact Technologies. He has received an MBA degree at W.P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University. Previously Anthony founded a 501(c) 3, was a collegiate rugby participant, completed an internship with Morgan Stanley, and coached High School Wrestling. Bob Merriman is co-founder and Chief Operations Officer of Force Impact Technologies, has a strong personal record of professional and academic success. He is experienced in global technology management and holds an MBA from W.P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University.

What inspired FITGuard?

Anthony: Originally I played Rugby at Arizona State University and so I had some experience with on-field unidentified injuries. Following my undergraduate program, I worked with Bob at a large engineering firm and we got our hands on some sample sensors. Originally we were trying to do a silly dance product where we could shake it around and the lights would go off. We decided that this was not as profitable an idea as having sensors measuring force for head-health awareness. Being the naive untechnical bunch I was confident we could get this accomplished. It took us about four years but I’m proud to say that we are able to produce a tangible product.

How did you come up with the idea of having the guard light up?

Anthony: In all honesty, at first we wanted to see how hard you could fist pump. The harder you fist pumped, the brighter the light would be. Our initial idea was the wacky dance product, so we looked at use cases of why someone would want to be notified with a light when they reached a certain amount of force. Having a background in mixed-martial arts it was rather intuitive that you would put it in the only piece of equipment you have, which is a mouth guard. From my experience, I was tunnel-visioned into that product. The sensors are quite rudimentary. They are the same sensors that are in a cell phone or car. We measure linear acceleration (how fast something stops and starts) and rotational acceleration or angular velocity (how fast something spins). Using those two data points in conjunction with direction of orientation we can collect really important data that can be used to correlate in making an indication of risk.

What metrics do you use to measure the force?

Anthony: In linear acceleration we measure them in G, and in rotational acceleration we measure them in radians per second squared, or rads squared. But it’s really important to understand that the data we collect isn’t necessarily what the user is going to see because data is only as good as the information you can derive from it. We haven’t really decided on how we’re going to actually convey this complicated information. If I told you that you got hit at 32G and 8,000 radians, that doesn’t mean anything to the user. It is our responsibility to convert that into actionable, meaningful and contextual information they can digest.

So the way you’re conveying that information is through the mouth guard lighting up?

Anthony: That is the initial warning that something has happened where a level of preset risk was breached. So let’s remove the individual from play and then we can dive deeper into what went wrong. Our slogan is “we’re the brain’s check-engine light”. When your check-engine light goes on, it doesn’t tell you what’s wrong. It tells you to go to the mechanic. That going to the mechanic step is taking the kid off the field, checking mobile application, and doing some onboard diagnostics. It will tell you quantitatively how hard they were hit, what direction, the duration of peak acceleration, and some other useful data points you can use. On its own, that amount of information isn’t enough to make an informed decision. But the user interface also asks for the user symptoms which we collect from an acute detection evaluation exam that’s put out by the CDC. Then additionally we have a partnership with a company that does cognitive performance evaluation so we can test if the brain is functioning versus how it was functioning before an event. We have a baseline exam the user would take, and a post injury event exam they would take after they were hit. The combination of cranial evaluation, user defined symptoms, and cognitive performance, are the major data points a physician can use to make an informed diagnosis.

Is the data being streamed real-time from the mouth guard?

Anthony: We call it near real-time. It pulses the data since we don’t need to be streaming it if it’s not necessary to inform you. We have the Bluetooth turn on when there is an indication or you manually request the data by double tapping the sync button. One feature we built is that it doesn’t need to go to the parent’s or coach’s app, it can go to any Fit app, which will communicate it to our server in the cloud and back to whoever needs to be notified. We don’t have a bottle neck of how we collect data, rather it’s a mesh network of all the apps out there that act as nodes to collect the data.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

Bob: Initially, and even still, the biggest challenge is size and form factor. When we first came out with this everything was very hypothetical. There is technology like this out there but they have more space to work with. One of our biggest desires is to make something useful to any athlete or person who is involved in an activity that wants to monitor this stuff. We came up with the mouth guard, and then the challenge became whether we could get it small enough, and then whether we could get the plastic around it and keep everything operational. That was a huge hurdle and we finally got there. Another challenge around that is the development piece where there are three phases to the platform: the hardware, the app, and the cloud. Integrating those three is challenging since we have to make sure any one piece doesn’t get too far without the other two being considered. So it’s been challenging developing all three in tandem but we’re finally there.

In addressing those challenges, were there things you had to say “no” to?

Bob: Not so much that we’ve had to say “no”, but we’ve had to push things that we’d like to the second generation. Through our research, we came across different stuff that we know we could include to increase the capability of the device, but we’re so far along that going back and adding them would be problematic and take us away from our core focus. Other products, like software, can simply add it in. The nature of our product means we have to shelve them for the next version. It can be frustrating because we hear about all this cool stuff and we want to do it, but it’s just not practical because of production timelines.

Anthony: Another thing you hear is general advice like “have you guys thought about this”, or “have you guys thought about the NFL”, or “have you thought about the military”. It’s very easy to get excited about the possibilities and lose focus so a part of saying no is being disciplined as to what your actual objective is. Ours is to make sports safer for youth athletes. We need to refer to that in every decision we make and whether it’s in line with what our end goal is.

Bob: By far the biggest challenge is money. Everything is expensive – you’ve got design, components, and production, and we’ve managed to do everything at very low cost so far and made tremendous progress. The biggest hurdle now is being ready to mass produce and raising the funds to do so.

You both have business backgrounds, how was it taking the leap into hardware development?

Bob: It’s interesting because from a technical sense it would make sense that engineers came up with this and designed it. But from a practical sense, two guys like Anthony and I are really the best two to conceive something like this because we have the background in sports, and came up with the idea to solve a problem. It wasn’t necessarily about creating a product or monetizing it, but rather solving a problem Anthony had experienced first-hand and designing a product that we were both passionate about. Early on we talked to a lot of engineers who said it couldn’t be done. Our lack of experience in that space was actually really helpful because we could just say “why not?” and we now know that some of the concerns of the early engineers we worked with were unjustified because we’ve done it. It was really about us just wanting to do it and until you explain why it’s impossible, we will keep asking why and keep pushing. We’re fortunate enough to find some resources that can handle that level of scrutiny and push us through to where we’re at.

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