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Pennsylvania businesses look to grow while helping protect against sports concussions

Third in a series on concussions in sports Those Pennsylvania entrepreneurs looking back on 2012 for encouraging trends might want to consider Michael Vick's head.

Robert A. Vito (right) president, and Michael Foerster (left) VP for research and product development, check out the padding in a hockey helmet at Unequal Technologies in Oxford, PA December 14, 2012, one of the many concussion-related industrues that this epidemic has spawned. (Tom Garlish/Staff Photographer)
Robert A. Vito (right) president, and Michael Foerster (left) VP for research and product development, check out the padding in a hockey helmet at Unequal Technologies in Oxford, PA December 14, 2012, one of the many concussion-related industrues that this epidemic has spawned. (Tom Garlish/Staff Photographer)Read more

Third in a series on concussions in sports

Those Pennsylvania entrepreneurs looking back on 2012 for encouraging trends might want to consider Michael Vick's head.

Protected and monitored by the products of two ambitious Pennsylvania companies, the Eagles quarterback's skull was symbolic of a mini-economic boom spawned here by the concussion epidemic in sports.

When a head injury sidelined Vick this fall, the Eagles contacted Unequal Technologies in Avondale, which has developed protective gear for the Army, Sidney Crosby, Troy Polamalu, Tony Romo, and Tom Cruise.

Sunday, wearing one of Unequal's "domes" - a padded skull cap - beneath his helmet, Vick will return for the final game of the Eagles' season, but only because a test developed by ImPACT Applications of Pittsburgh determined he had sufficiently recovered.

In Pennsylvania, a postindustrial state eager to reinvent itself, increased concerns about concussions have created new opportunities for equipment manufacturers like Unequal, for software companies like ImPACT, for countless university researchers, and for several medical and academic facilities that have arisen to contend with sports' most pressing issue.

From the NFL to the NHL to high school cross-country - "I had a cross-country runner who was concussed after he collided with a deer on a golf course," said Mark Lovell, ImPACT's founder - leagues, parents, and athletes themselves are searching for solutions.

And those solutions are being pursued, literally, from one end of Pennsylvania to the other, from Avondale in the state's southeastern corner to Erie in the extreme northwest.

In addition to Unequal and ImPACT, Erie's Protective Sports Equipment (PSE) makes the Pro Cap, an outer shell that fits over traditional football helmets; Conshohocken's Brain-Pad produces mouth guards aimed at ameliorating head trauma; Philadelphia's Magee Rehabilitation Hospital opened a concussion center in 2010; Penn State's Center for Sport Concussion Research and Service debuted recently; and the Universities of Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh are home to some of the most intensive concussion-related research anywhere.

"The new battlefield is concussions, and we've decided to take that head on, no pun intended," said Rob Vito, the Philadelphia native who heads Unequal and who also teaches an entrepreneurial course at Penn State-Great Valley. "It's created some wonderful opportunities for new and existing businesses. But you've got to keep changing, keep innovating. Bill Gates said it best: Anyone in a garage with a better idea could put us out of business tomorrow."

In Pennsylvania, at least, that spirit has resulted in products ranging from a high-tech padding some pitchers will begin wearing beneath their baseball caps this spring, to the 3-D, virtual-reality tests Penn State now administers to its injured athletes.

While the researchers and medical professionals focus on the serious, long-term health issues posed by concussions, the equipment manufacturers' concerns are more market-driven.

Combining safety features and sports-fashion trends, for example, Unequal has created products like Vick's skull cap and padded headbands for athletes who are as concerned about style as protection.

"It's protection, but it's concealed protection," said Vito. "These athletes want to be safe, but they also want to look cool."

A PSE executive recalled his visit to a Buffalo Bills facility where players were choosing new face guards.

"These guys, wearing nothing but jockstraps, would grab one, go to a mirror, and check out how they looked in one," said Randal Straus, PSE's director of special products. "There's got to be a coolness factor with these products or, no matter how much protection they provide, these guys won't use them."

Still, no matter how cool and well-built, none of the protective equipment produced in Pennsylvania and elsewhere is likely to eliminate concussions, medical experts insist.

"There's no way we're going to engineer our way out of this problem," said Lovell. "You could build a super helmet, and the brain is still going to be sloshing around up there. Sure, the helmets now are better. They do exactly what they're supposed to do. But I've been doing this as long as anybody, and I don't think we're ever going to get rid of concussions."

Vick's role

Unequal, located now in an otherwise abandoned southern Chester County factory but slated to move soon to a 63,000-square-foot facility in Delaware County, didn't have sports concussions in mind when it was founded in 2008.

Using patented Kevlar-related compounds, the company outfitted American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan with helmet liners and lightweight armor for virtually every part of the body.

"We even put the stuff in underwear," said Vito. "Guys were complaining that if they were in Humvees hit by [improvised explosive devices], they had no protection down there. As a result, a lot of them were sitting on their helmets."

Then Vito saw the story of a 16-year-old baseball player killed by a baseball that struck him in the chest. Why not, he thought, take some of these military products and adapt them to sports?

The company's real entry into sports consciousness came in 2010, when Vick torched the Redskins for 59 points in a Monday Night Football rout.

"The Eagles had called and said Mike Vick broke his sternum," said Vito. "They wanted to know if we could take some of that military-grade composite and put it into a chest protector for him. We'd never done it before, but we built him a plate."

Initially reluctant, Vick wore it at practice that week, felt comfortable, and donned it against Washington. Following the Eagles' offensive explosion, he said, with cameras whirring: "Unequal makes me feel invincible."

"After that," said Vito, "we went from one NFL team [that used Unequal products] to 10 in 2011 to 27 this season."

As awareness and concern about concussions grew, NFL players like Romo and the Steelers' Polamalu and James Harrison, all of whom had been sidelined with head injuries, began requesting help from the company.

Soon the buzz had spread to Hollywood. Cruise, who reportedly has suffered a concussion while filming in the past, recently sought Unequal's help while shooting an action movie.

 "He flew us over to London to outfit him and his stunt crew," said Vito. "It was pretty cool when you think about it. Warner Bros. calling [Avondale] for help."

Such acceptance - or rejection - by big-name stars can make all the difference for a youthful business, as Erie's PSE has discovered.

It developed the Pro Cap, a hard-shell helmet cover, 23 years ago. For a while, the Buffalo Bills' Mark Kelso and a few other NFL players wore them successfully.

But even though the company's testing showed they provided 30 percent better protection, players from the NFL to Pop Warner resisted. They thought the bubblehead effect created by placing those bulky early models over traditional helmets looked awkward and silly.

"You can have guys like Kelso tell these younger players all day long about how well these things work, and they still don't get it," Straus said.

Straus monitors the NFL's injury list. When he learns that an NFL player has suffered a head injury, he inevitably sends a Pro Cap to that team's trainer. Several years ago, he shipped one to Dallas after quarterback Troy Aikman was concussed. When, a week or so later, it was returned, Straus phoned the Cowboys' trainer.

"I asked him what was up. He said, 'Well, it's not really a Troy thing.' So I said, 'Let me understand you. You don't want to spend $52 to protect $52 million?' Aikman ended up having what, [10] concussions in his career?

"It's the same with kids," Straus added. "Here's a product scientifically proven to reduce concussions, yet you'd be amazed at how much resistance we get. Parents will buy a $30 Styrofoam shell for their kids to ride a bike. But if the same kid plays football, they won't buy something costing $52 that will protect them from concussions."

To meet that demand, the company's most recent shell, the Pro Cap III, is sleeker, more stylish, and virtually undetectable from current helmets. Straus hopes its release will be the breakthrough the company - now housed in a 30-by-30-foot warehouse room - has been seeking since his father developed the Pro Cap more than two decades ago.

"Twenty-three years," Straus said, looking around his cramped facility, "and this is still where we're at. Where a lot of companies would have given up, our belief in the value of our product keeps us going. No matter what, we keep pushing forward."

Not just football

The concussion battle, of course, extends beyond football.

In hockey, another sport plagued by head injuries, Unequal has sent its CRT - concussion resistant technology - helmet padding to Crosby, a superstar plagued by head injuries, as well as several Boston Bruins.

And not long after Detroit's Doug Fister was struck in the head by a batted ball during this fall's World Series, Major League Baseball asked the company to create a concealed hat liner for pitchers.

"They told us it's got to be lightweight, thin, flexible, concealable," Vito said. "It can't absorb sweat. It can't do this and that. And they want it to stop a 100-m.p.h. baseball.

"I said, 'You can't stop a 100-m.p.h. baseball with a hard-shell helmet, and you want me to do it with a soft hat?' But I told them, 'I think we can do it.' "

In Pittsburgh, Lovell had been working with concussed athletes in that city and elsewhere since 1985. Back then no one kept detailed records on head injuries, and there were no standardized baseline tests. So, with the aid of various grants and research projects, Lovell developed one.

"I'd carved out a niche working with athletes," he said, "but the tools we had weren't enough."

Now, whenever an athlete, at virtually any level in any sport suffers a brain injury, he can't return to action until he has passed a test, most frequently ImPACT (Immediate Post-concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing).

The grueling computerized exam includes various memory, motor-skill, and matching exercises, functions typically affected by brain injuries.

"It ain't easy," said Lovell, sitting in his company's offices in a technology park along Pittsburgh's Monongahela River. "If it were easy, it wouldn't tell us anything. You've got to get quite well. You can't fake your way through it."

Since he started ImPACT, other companies have developed similar baseline examinations. At Penn State, for example, concussed athletes are tested using 3-D, virtual-reality models.

"We were the first to use [it] to study the cognitive and motor effects of concussions on athletes," said Semyon Slobounov, the director of Penn State's sports-concussion program.

Some of these products and the companies that make and utilize them will prosper, of course, while others will fail. But the best even the winners can hope for is to contain the raging concussion beast.

"The ideal outcome [for these companies] is to make sports as safe as possible," Lovell said. "We're not going to get rid of concussions. But we've got to make sure we get these athletes off the field and not let them back until they're good to go. That's the best we can do now.

"I think a lot of leagues - the NFL, the NHL - are doing the right thing and trying to institute rules that cut down on it. That's good. But at that speed and with those forces, I'm afraid concussions are always going to be a part of the game."

Video: Concussion Prevention Industry

Rob Vito, the Philadelphia native who heads Unequal Technologies in Avondale, talks about the industry of creating equipment to help prevent concussions. Video by Inquirer staff photographer Tom Gralish.