With player safety under the microscope, the NFL and the Texas Medical Center held a competition Saturday for startups making innovative products geared toward improving the game.
Nine companies competed in three categories — communicating with the athlete, training the athlete and materials to protect the athlete — presenting pitches to a panel of judges that included doctors, CEOs and current and former NFL players.
GoRout won the communicating-with-the-athlete category, Mobile Virtual Player won for training the athlete and Windpact won for its materials to protect the athlete.
"I think what captivated the judges and grabbed our interest is these are translational ideas," said Jeff Miller, the NFL's executive vice president for health and safety initiatives. "You can imagine these things being on a field of play, whether at the NFL level or at lower levels of our sport relatively quickly."
Each winning company received $50,000 from the NFL to further develop their innovation, two Super Bowl tickets and acceptance into the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute, or TMCx.
GoRout, a Rochester, Minnesota-based company, created wearable technology that allows coaches to get digital play diagrams to every player on the field instantaneously with the push of a button.
Players would see the play diagrams either on a display screen worn on the wrist or in a voice-controlled display in their helmets. The device vibrates when a new play has arrived and shows players their responsibilities.
According to GoRout, teams can run 10 plays during 10 minutes of practice, but with the device they can run 45. The device also cuts the time to install new plays into an offense from four or five weeks to nine or 10 days, the company said.
"I can't tell you how important of a milestone this is for our organization of being a young startup," said Mike Rolih, CEO of GoRout. "You're always looking for traction, you're always looking for the opportunity to take another step forward."
Mobile Virtual Player created mobile, remote-controlled, self-righting "virtual players" to teach players how to tackle. The product simulates game speed and lasts for an entire practice.
The Lebanon, New Hampshire-based company was featured in the "Hard Knocks" series on HBO with the Los Angeles Rams.
"Our next objective is to get into the youth football market," MVP CEO John Currier said. "We firmly believe that's the future of football. It's great to have a product out there, and the NFL has been great leaders in getting our product out there, implementing it and helping us learn about it."
Windpact, based in Leesburg, Virginia, developed a padding system that uses air and foam to absorb and disperse impact energy.
Its CEO, former NFL player Shawn Springs, helped design the "Crash Cloud" technology, which can be integrated into helmets and other protective gear.
"This is important to me because not only am I an entrepreneur in my post career after football," Springs said. "But playing the sport I loved so much and so many valuable lessons I learned from high school, college to the NFL, to be able to get on stage in front of executives and show them and support my effort to advance the game — I'm just excited."
More than 200 independent companies applied for the "1st and Future" competition, Miller said, and the NFL will continue working with companies to make the game safer.
"If the league can help stimulate some of those changes, we're going to see the future faster," he said. "It's going to mean better health and safety for our sport and other sports."