Over the last few years, we’ve seen growing concerns related to the impacts on athletes’ heads and how these can affect their brain health. Despite this discussion and some medical research on the subject, there has been very little measured data available on forces acting on the athlete’s head in these situations. With the support of the IoT Forge Foundation, the Finnish start-up Northern Sports Insight and Intelligence (NSII) has developed a solution that can measure head impacts while athletes are in action – within almost any sport on dry land.
The fathers of the idea are Antti Kivimaa and Jyrki Launes. They came up with it when watching an ice-hockey game during which a player got injured due to a blow to his head. Jyrki, neurologist by profession, noted that the first thing to do was to acquire measured data on forces acting on the head when experiencing a hit. Therefore, they needed to develop a measuring device that athletes could use while doing sports. Antti, who has a technology background, invited his daughter Heidi Kivimaa to spar the idea. Heidi had an extensive career in commerce, and some personal experience of sports injuries, thanks to her background in equestrianism, ice-hockey, and floorball.
“It was important to me to understand that there was a real, human need to develop a solution. We were not looking for a way to utilize a new technological innovation but wanted to help find out what actually happens in sports – when, to whom and why athletes experience head impacts – and gather information that can help to understand and prevent head impacts, and perhaps one fine day help to diagnose the head injuries,” describes Heidi.
The sparring discussions led to establishing a start-up, Northern Sports Insight and Intelligence in 2017 with Heidi Kivimaa as CEO. Her founding partners were friends with entrepreneurial backgrounds, Tomi Koivulehto, Katajanokka Consulting Group and a family friend, Matti Saraheimo. The fathers of the idea, Antti Kivimaa and Jyrki Launes, continue as senior advisors of the company.
The first product on the market
NSII’s launched first product, the ACT Head Impact Tracker, in early 2022. All parts of the solution – the head motion sensor as well as the related mobile app and cloud service – were developed for this very purpose from the start.
“When an athlete is wearing the sensor and forces are acting on his or her head, or an athlete gets an impact on his or her head, the sensor sends information on the impact to the application and cloud service, and the impact information becomes then visible on the mobile app. This happens if the force measured exceeds the limit of 10g. The app also gathers the athlete’s history i.e. information about the impact load that accumulates over time,” explains Heidi.
She notes that bringing the first product to the market was an interesting journey, where key partners and subcontractors were instrumental in getting NSII where it is today.
There were also challenges along the way. The Covid pandemic stopped sports activities, changed sports actors’ agendas, and brought financial losses for the industry players. When one strives to keep the wheels turning, new development areas are among the last things to consider and invest in. As the pandemic has eased, the technology sector is experiencing a continued and severe shortage of components, which poses challenges to product availability and profitability. Hence in the current situation, NSII is focusing on growing its networks and the number of pilot partners as well as opening international connections and partnerships.
The goal is to change practices and attitudes
The athletes who piloted the ACT Head Impact Tracker were of major help in its development. Included in the pilot groups were teams from the Finnish national hockey league, football players’ associations from Finland and internationally, football and ice hockey junior players, members of the Cycling Finland Association and the Oulun Kärpät women’s ice hockey team and the ONS women’s football team. Cooperation is also underway with, for instance, the American Football Association for Finland.
“Our solution provides users – such as a sports federations, clubs, or teams – with information to base actions and changes on. Our goal is for new practices, rules, methods, and attitudes to emerge in training sessions and competitions to reduce head impacts and their affects,” explains Heidi.
She notes that there is a lot of tacit information on the matter. When it is backed-up by objective measurement data, it is easier to intervene. For example, knowing whether certain situations or circumstances, specific players, levels, genders or age groups are subject to a particularly high impact load makes it possible to make targeted and effective changes.
Crucial help from the IoT Forge Foundation
The IoT Forge Foundation has supported NSII in developing the ACT Head Impact Tracker. “The team at IoT Forge is absolutely fantastic. They are helpful, professional, and versatile experts. Without their support, we would not be here. Thank you so much to each of them!” Heidi praises.
She says they received concrete help to develop the product. “The IoT Forge team has the know-how, experience, and vision, and they share it with those who need it. Whether it was the stages of product development, ways of working, processes or solving problems, we always got help. An outside perspective can also bring out easier or better ways of doing things. They questioned our approach if they saw we were going in the wrong direction. In product development many things can go wrong and went wrong – but far fewer things than could have, thanks to the immense help of the IoT Forge.”
The opportunity to get mental support and sparring from IoT Forge has also been valuable to Heidi: “Every entrepreneur needs a sparring partner. This was especially important to me because my background is in commerce rather than technology. I got assurance from the conversations with the IoT Forge team. I’m very grateful that they took us under their wings, and I warmly recommend all start-ups developing hardware to apply to IoT Forge.”