Photo: Nick Veasey

Tackling Concussions

BIRS, the promising startup that recently won the Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition, leverages proprietary eye-tracking software to provide a quick and objective concussion assessment test.

Concussions can literally kill.

An estimated 3 million Americans suffer them annually. Unfortunately, many athletes, especially at the professional and collegiate levels, often understate the severity of their head injuries to remain in the game. Those who return to play too soon risk permanent neurological damage, or even death.

Brain Injury Research Strategies, Inc., or BIRS, hopes to change that.

BIRS, the 2015 winner of the Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition’s $50,000 grand prize, has developed a portable device capable of delivering a five-minute concussion assessment test that takes out much of the guesswork. Whereas many current concussion screenings rely on athletes subjectively describing post-injury symptoms, BIRS’ approach uses quantifiable eye-tracking movement to measure neurocognitive health, said BIRS co-Director of Technology Brian Robinson.

“Right now there are no good tools for quickly assessing whether or not somebody has a concussion,” said Robinson, a USC Viterbi biomedical engineering Ph.D. student. “Our product would quickly provide objective and reliable data.”

As envisioned, a BIRS device — a camera, tablet and proprietary software —would measure an athlete’s eye-tracking movements at the beginning of the season to establish a baseline. Trainers, coaches and physicians could compare that information to new data gathered after a head injury to help determine the best course of action. Typically, people suffering concussions have slower, less controlled eye movements.

Doctors and others could also use BIRS to determine when an injured athlete has recuperated enough to return safely to physical activity, said Dr. Dave Baron, company co-founder, interim chair at USC’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and a renowned concussion expert.

Although not a diagnostic tool, Baron called BIRS “one important piece of a bigger puzzle in [concussion management].”

In light of the NFL’s huge concussion payout to former players, interest in the long-term dangers of concussions is perhaps at an all-time high. BIRS believes the potential market for its product is large and growing, with an estimated 50 million-plus recreational athletes in the United States alone. Company executives also believe BIRS could appeal to the military, which has dealt with a surge in head injuries in recent years from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I think this seems like a very timely technology to get out there,” said BIRS co-Director of Technology Gene Yu, a biomedical engineering doctoral student at USC Viterbi. “I think we could potentially be widespread across the nation in five years.”

Added MEPC Director Peter Beerel: “The beauty about BIRS is that it is the right technology, with the right team, at the right time.”

As the winner of USC Viterbi’s premier business plan competition, BIRS joins some pretty successful startups. ComfortCorrect, the 2014 MEPC winner, makes affordable braces that incorporate programmable memory wire technology. The company hopes to go to clinical trials in the near future. The 2013 victor, Second Spectrum, analyzes Big Data for sports insights. Its NBA clients include the Los Angeles Clippers.

BIRS, which plans to seek government research grants, expects clinical trials to begin later this year at a Turkish university interested in the technology. The company hopes to have its product on the market late next year.

Initially, the startup plans to give away its technology to professional sports leagues to generate awareness and publicity. In time, the firm wants to charge annual subscription fees for athletes to receive baseline and subsequent eye-tracking readings.

Dr. Tracy Zaslow — medical director of the Children’s Orthopaedic Center Sports Medicine and Concussion program, an assistant professor at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, and the LA Galaxy team physician — learned about BIRS when company executives sought her input during the business plan competition.

The technology impressed her.

BIRS “is promising and has the potential to be a great tool,” Zaslow said. “It’s definitely something that I could see being used by the LA Galaxy, colleges, high schools and at all levels one day.”