We had the opportunity to speak with Thomas Healy, CEO of HeadSmart Labs. Healy is a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University and the starting punter for the school’s football team. He started HeadSmart Labs with researchers from Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh to develop new testing methods and safety devices for athletes to help prevent head and neck injuries.
We wanted to know why so many people feel the painful urgency of finding a way to avoid head injuries among our young American football players and yet he is one of the few that is actually doing something about it. Here are his answers.
Do you remember when you precisely got the idea or saw the need that led you to launch HeadSmart Labs?
I first came up with the idea that I wanted to create a helmet research lab during training camp of my senior year at Carnegie Mellon University. During our first days of hitting practice, multiple players went down with concussions and I started thinking about ways that I could apply the engineering knowledge I had learned over the past four years to keep players safer. This is when I came up with some ideas on how helmets could be improved, the main one being that players need to inflate their helmets before they use them. I then brought my ideas to one of my professors, as well as doctors who are world-renowned for their concussion research, to work together and create HeadSmart Labs.
Surely others have felt an urge to do something to protect against head injuries, but for some reason you took action and are making something happen. Why do you think that is? What motivates you?
One of the main driving forces was that I was able to partner with a group of amazing researchers who are going to tremendously help propel our studies further. Carnegie Mellon has a unique atmosphere and it encourages its students to take risks and follow what they believe in. For me, I believed I could make a difference in reducing head injuries and it would have been a shame if I didn’t pursue it further.
Another driving force was that concussions are an extremely hot topic right now and many organizations are funding this type of research. In fact, we are currently seeking funding from multiple sources and we are hopeful that we will be successful and this will allow us to accomplish the different types of testing we are looking at undertaking.
You’ve put together an impressive coalition. How did you think about who you would need on your team to make it successful? What was your strategy for getting them on board?
I am extremely lucky and fortunate that I have been able to pair up with an amazing group of doctors and researchers. One of the main goals of HeadSmart Labs was to bridge the gap between engineering and medicine. I believed that if we have a team that has engineers who will be able to analyze the helmets to find ways to improve them and doctors who know what happens to the brain during a collision, and which impacts cause the most damage, then we will be able to put our minds together to find effective solutions to this overwhelming problem. We hope to better understand what is happening inside the head during an impact and to find ways to make the sport safer, which will ultimately improve the lives of those who play the sport they love.
What are the major barriers or challenges that you foresee you will confront in the future?
I anticipate that we will run into issues where companies disagree with our findings or are not happy with what we publish. (See our most recent pilot study findings suggesting a potential safety risk with football helmet inflation here). But this is one of the main reasons why HeadSmart Labs is staying fully independent from any helmet manufacturers. We do not want our data to be perceived as skewed because of any partnerships.
Many innovators fail because they have not prepared themselves for the barriers they will face. How do you make sure that you are thinking ahead about future challenges?
One of the advantages that I have is that this is not my first startup. I have gone through this process before and I know how much of a rollercoaster starting your own venture can be. Even though you know it will be a rollercoaster, it doesn’t mean you are ready for what’s ahead. But I have found that staying on your toes and being ready to be knocked down and climb back up is the best mentality you can have.
With HeadSmart Labs, we realize that although we are very confident in the new areas around concussions that we are studying, there is still a chance that we could need to course correct. This is why we are creating a more full-circle approach for looking at concussions as opposed to just looking at some very focused factors. This will allow us to find new things that will lead us down paths that we probably aren’t even envisioning right now.
What is your vision for the impact HeadSmart Labs will ultimately have? What is the purpose or mission that drives the company?
The ultimate goal behind HeadSmart Labs is that we will reduce concussion rates across many different sports. I started HeadSmart Labs mainly because of how concussions affected my friends and teammates and this is what keeps us driven. Over the sixteen years that I have played football, I have seen many of my fellow teammates suffer concussions. It saddens me to see how much these head injuries can impact players’ lives. It can prevent them from playing sports, going to classes, interacting with friends, and how they live their day-to-day lives. Concussions are a serious issue and the fact that we have the ability to make an impact that can improve players’ lives is what keeps us moving forward.
How can others, our readers for example, be part of/support HeadSmart Labs?
HeadSmart Labs encourages others to get involved with helmet safety and to be aware of the steps they should be taking in order to ensure that they or their loved ones are safe while playing. We have created the SMART Helmet Safety Checklist, which goes over how a player, coach, or parent can check their own football helmet to make sure it is ready for play.
We also suggest that players check their helmets for air leaks. From one of our recent pilot studies, we found an alarming rate of helmets were not able to hold air. We found that most of the air leaks were caused by the inflation valve on the helmet leaking. You can test to see if a valve is leaking by taking some soapy water and dripping it over the valve while the helmet is inflated. If the solution bubbles up, then the valve is leaking air and we suggest that you contact the helmet manufacturer or let the coach know so that they can resolve the issue. You can see what this looks like in our video.
What is your advice for an aspiring innovator or entrepreneur?
My best advice is to surround yourself with a great group of mentors. I was very fortunate to have met some amazing professors and friends at Carnegie Mellon who have helped me tremendously along the way. It is important that you speak with multiple people who have gone down the startup road before, as they will be able to describe how rewarding and how challenging it can be all at the same time. But if you realize that the adventure is worth it and that it is okay if you do not succeed, then I would suggest going for it and putting your heart and soul into every minute of it.