The NFL is bringing its awards for novel advancements in athletes’ safety and performance to television.

Next Tuesday night during Super Bowl week, the league will air its sixth annual “1st & Future” competition. The show is set for 8 p.m. EST on NFL Network. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Andy Jassy, the CEO of Amazon Web Services, which is collaborating with the league, will be on hand as $150,000 in prize money is handed out on the telecast.

Innovators and data scientists have been awarded a total of $750,000 for their winning pitches in past years.

“The 1st & Future program has grown substantially over the last few years as a direct result of the fact that we have been able to attract innovative ideas and actual products that have translated to the NFL field relatively quickly,” said Jeff Miller, the league’s executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy.

Some real-world examples of 1st & Future winners’ impact:

— Mobile Virtual Player (MVP) is a company started by Dartmouth football coach Buddy Teevens that invented a robotic tackling dummy which reduces tackling in practice. Teevens believed “there was a better way to replicate the needs of the game if we can get something that simulates movement on a field, be fast enough, thick enough, heavy enough to strike, but not jeopardize the person making the tackle or the person being tackled. That’s how it started.”

MVP is used by more than half of the 32 NFL teams and hundreds of college, high school and youth football programs, according to its website.

“Something that is relatively simple or translatable to a football field was able to come out of it because the platform existed for them to showcase it and get some funding to help them increase business,” Miller said.

Impressio, which is working to redesign how inter-liners of football helmets work. The company developed new, high-energy absorbing materials used in protective equipment to make customized helmets not only for the player but for his position, and to increase the performance of the helmet during a collision. The material has applications to other sports, to the military and beyond.

“We were a startup company that had only been incorporated a few months (before 1st & Future), said Impressio President and CTO Chris Yakacki. “We were virtually unknown before the competition. And then the next thing you know, NASA is calling.”

There are two categories in the 1st & Future competition. The “innovations” category features four start-ups pitching projects designed to improve player health and safety to a panel of judges made up of doctors, athletic trainers, engineering experts, venture capitalists and former players. Winners will be awarded $50,000 and $25,000 for the grand and runner-up prizes, respectively.

The “computer vision” category, held via the data science platform Kaggle, has five winners to be unveiled during the TV show who will split $75,000. The NFL provided computer scientists actual game data and challenged them to create ways to detect on-field helmet impacts. Nearly 7,800 submissions from 55 countries were received.

Successful computer vision models of helmet contacts will inform rules changes, teaching tools and even future helmet designs.

“The program has grown in multiple different directions as a result of our ability to see the possibilities that exist,” Miller said. “Innovation from different sources is a fabulous way for us to be able to help solve problems that we have. This platform allows us to attract people who would not otherwise work to the benefit of football and to apply their ideas to exactly those set of issues that we want to help solve.

“Take a computer scientist or materials scientist who is out there working on some new innovation or breakthrough and for them to be able to discover that the NFL as one possible source for application of what they are working on has substantial benefit to us.”

This year’s finalists for innovations are Genesis Helmets, Inc. of Keystone Heights, Florida; Nix, Inc. of Boston; Organic Robotics Corporation (ORC) of Ithaca, New York; and PEEP Performance, LLC of Houston.

Genesis Helmets is seeking to develop a better-performing football helmet focused on the brain rather than the skull. Nix generates real-time data on sweat rate and electrolyte losses to empower athletes to maintain proper hydration. ORC’s sensors use light to measure muscle fatigue and respiration. PEEP Performance’s GO² Device is a breathing device that increases the user’s blood oxygen levels while providing the protection of a traditional mouth guard.

“It’s very much Day 1 in applying machine learning to uncover previously unknown insights in sports,” said Priya Ponnapalli, senior manager and principal scientist at the Amazon Machine Learning (ML) Solutions Lab at AWS. “I’m optimistic about the materially beneficial impact this sophisticated technology can provide to athletes, managers, sportscasters, fans and more.”


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