University innovators judge NFL competition designed to advance player health and safety

Provost Jeffrey Duerk (far right) and Lee Kaplan (center), director of the University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute, participated as judges on a panel to assess innovative products at the NFL's 1st and Future competition. Photos: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami
By Michael R. Malone

Provost Jeffrey Duerk (far right) and Lee Kaplan (center), director of the University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute, participated as judges on a panel to assess innovative products at the NFL's 1st and Future competition. Photos: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

University innovators judge NFL competition designed to advance player health and safety

By Michael R. Malone
Three University of Miami innovators served as judges on the NFL 1st and Future innovation pitch competition.

Three University of Miami innovators served as judges on a National Football League pitch competition that was designed to boost advancements in athlete health and safety. The event was part of the University’s collaboration with the NFL, which hosted a range of Super Bowl activities in Miami this past week.

The NFL’s 1st and Future competition, held Friday at the Miami Beach Convention Center, reviewed presentations on both innovative product concepts and analytics and data models—which compared factors such as natural versus synthetic turf with the aim to reduce the potential for injury, especially to lower limbs.

Dan Hellie, host of NFL Total Access, emceed the event he described as “a little bit ‘Shark Tank’ and a little bit ‘Oprah’ ” and a “unique and very cool look into the future and the innovation of our great game.”

“This was a great opportunity to celebrate not only our role in the region, but also our efforts and research in the areas of big science, big data, and analytics in general,” said Jeffrey Duerk, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.

Duerk and Lee Kaplan, director of the University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute, participated as judges on the panel to assess innovative products. Kaplan and Nick Tsinoremas—vice provost for research computing and data and founding director of the Center for Computational Science—served on the data analytics competition panel.

The provost highlighted the benefits that the collaboration afforded.

“One of the things that comes out of our participation is expanding our network with high tech companies, and it provided some validation that the types of projects we’re looking at are really well aligned, not just with research frontiers, but also with the products these companies are looking at,” said Duerk, whose panel included Michelle Lee, vice president of Amazon ML Solutions Lab.

“In the past, our relationship with the NFL has been through our graduates who have gone on to become pioneering players and hall of famers—like Edgerrin James who was elected today. But through networks like this, we’re leveraging relationships beyond our alumni players in entrepreneurship and research—and you can only do that if you seize the opportunity to meet people and highlight our efforts,” the provost added.

Protect3D, a team composed of three former Duke University football players majoring in engineering, won the grand prize in the innovative product concepts category—$50,000 and two tickets to the Super Bowl—for their project to use 3D technology to create anatomically precise protective devices.

Their concept was born, they explained, when their team’s quarterback, Daniel Jones, was injured in 2018. Using new technology to perform a precise body scan, they outfitted Jones with a customized device that provided more mobility, comfort, and protection. They advanced their project by developing devices for other players and teams around the country and proposed, as part of their presentation, to expand their market to include youth football leagues and other sports.

Ben Jenkins, a senior at the University of Colorado, who teamed with his father, a retired geologist, won the top prize—$25,000 and two tickets to the Super Bowl—in the NFL Analytics Competition. The student engineer used data to map how deceleration, twisting, and angles increase the potential for lower-limb injuries.

Nick Tsinoremas—vice provost for research computing and data and founding director of the Center for Computational Science—served on the data analytics competition panel.
Nick Tsinoremas (left), vice provost for research computing and data and founding director of the Center for Computational Science, served on the data analytics competition panel.

Nick Tsinoremas was impressed with the competition and the quality of the presentations.

“It was a very high-level competition with amazingly good contestants,” Tsinoremas said. “It really shows that the NFL is very forward looking to utilize big data, with sensors, cameras, and cutting-edge data science, to reduce injuries.”

The Center for Computational Science, he said, uses similar kinds of techniques and models to those employed by the contestants, that, “of course have to be adapted,” such as the NFL has done, to explore specific applications.

Jeff Miller, executive vice president of Health and Safety Innovation for the NFL, said that the collaboration with the University had been especially successful. 

“We always look for local partners, and it’s great to have an academic partner who has the expertise and subject matter experts to help evaluate these types of proposals,” Miller said.

“There’s a substantial amount of work especially in the early stages—over a hundred proposals—and the University of Miami has been an essential resource in terms of expertise and time to triage them and select those worthy of consideration,” he added.

Norma Kenyon, vice provost for innovation and chief innovation officer, Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine; Will Silverman, executive director of the Coulter Project; and the U Innovation team, which includes coaches and mentors from the community, contributed to the event’s success.

U Innovation hosted the website that took in all the submissions, helped in selecting the finalists, and coached and mentored those contestants for two days at Converge Miami, the UM innovation hub in Miami, Kenyon explained.

“It was a lot of work, a lot of fun, and a great opportunity to showcase the University,” Kenyon said, emphasizing that Lee Kaplan and the Sports Medicine Institute played a vital role in the collaboration.

From his perspective as a judge, Kaplan said he learned “a great deal” and was impressed with the caliber of the presentations and the novelty of the contestants’ concepts.

Roger Goodell, NFL commisioner
Roger Goodell, NFL commisioner

The Sports Medicine Institute parallels the NFL’s effort, he said, to seek new and innovative ways to improve health and safety for athletes.

Duerk, who has significant experience developing patents and working with start-ups, appreciated the opportunity to participate from this perspective.

“With patents and start-ups, you’re always thinking about paying it forward and helping the next generation, but you also have to be present and current with new ideas—otherwise you can lose touch with things,” he said.

This was the fifth annual NFL 1st and Future. Ideas from past proposals have resulted in new equipment, new drills, and even prompted rule changes.