Monday November 28th, 2016

Read about the latest sports tech news, innovations, ideas and products that impact players, fans and the sports industry at SportTechie.com.

Rice University senior Senthil Natarajan blew out his arm when he was 14, dashing his hopes of pitching for his high school baseball team in New Orleans. Now he and fellow electrical engineering student Alex Dzeda are developing a high-tech sleeve that might save other young pitchers from the same fate. The sleeve, which is the first product of their startup company, Ziel Solutions, uses a combination of advanced technologies.

“It has sensors that can track and monitor your muscle activity and your motion through accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, and electromyography,” Natarajan said in an interview with SportTechie.

Electromyography (EMG) is a common medical technique through which you can record the electrical activity of a muscle. By analyzing the level of that activity, you can potentially detect medical issues like fatigue and overuse. The sensors on Ziel’s sleeve essentially combine that EMG system with motion tracking technology, giving you access to a comprehensive collection of data that can help you avoid a serious injury before it’s too late.

“We can get a good read on data points to monitor major risk factors for injuries, such as muscle fatigue, stress exerted on the arm, throwing mechanics, things like that,” Natarajan said. “What that gives us is a device that allows us to make real-time decisions on the health and the status of the player’s arm.”

But how will a coach or a player with no scientific background be able to interpret this data in real-time? One word: Bluetooth. Each of the sleeve’s sensors has a Bluetooth module that wirelessly sends the data to an application on your smartphone or tablet. The app will not only allow you to see the data right away, but it will also offer you practical advice to help you reduce injury risk and improve your throwing motion.

Dzeda and Natarajan are currently finishing up their fourth prototype of the sleeve and expect to test that version with several different high school and college teams next year.

“We’re going to begin beta tests formally late spring or the summer,” Natarajan said, “and that’s going to be serving primarily as a data collection mechanism for us — to understand how the sleeve holds up in live-action play, durability concerns, connectivity issues, all those kinds of things.”

If all goes well, they hope that the final version of the sleeve will be ready to hit the market in early 2018. The sleeve itself is expected to cost about $250, while a $10 monthly subscription will be offered to coaches who want access to the software and analytics associated with it. They still have a long way to go, but for Dzeda and Natarajan, the journey has already spanned most of their time in college.

It all started during their freshman year when a dance teacher at Rice asked Dzeda to create a device that could analyze the hip movements of her dance students. So Dzeda built a crude EMG-like device, complete with electrodes that dancers could tape to their hips. This device, which was essentially the first prototype of the Ziel sleeve, allowed the dancers to determine whether their hips were contracting or not.

It wasn’t until his sophomore year that Dzeda met Natarajan. In their Engineering Design Workshop course, Dzeda showed Natarajan what he had developed. Together they refined the device, making it more accurate and adding digital signal processing along the way. That marked the completion of the second prototype, and it was around this time that Dzeda and Natarajan had their “aha moment.”

“Once we had (the second prototype), we realized that there is a lot of potential for something like this,” Natarajan said. “There’s a lot of use case in which an accurate, portable EMG device could be pretty useful. And not only that, if we could combine it with some sort of motion sensing, that gives us this unparalleled ability to holistically evaluate physical activity.”

So they created hardware sensors that could combine muscle sensing with motion tracking, and, realizing what they had, they decided that it was time to create a company. After doing some market research, the Ziel Solutions duo decided to hone in on the baseball pitching market. They began to experiment with Bluetooth and radio frequency connectivity, and the third prototype was born.

Now on their fourth prototype, Dzeda and Natarajan are focused on improving the Bluetooth capabilities, reducing the power consumption, and using more flexible circuit boards. It took them a long two and a half years to get to this point, but there were plenty of successes that helped motivate them throughout the process.

Their first breakthrough came in April 2015 when Ziel Solutions took first place in Owl Tank, an annual competition sponsored by the business school at Rice. They took home $5,000 for winning.

In order to continue their success, Dzeda and Natarajan knew they would have to work on their pitch and improve their business strategy. In May 2015, they attended a casting call for ABC’s Shark Tank, a popular television show where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to the billionaire “sharks,” hoping for an investment. Although the sharks were not present at the casting call, the pair saw this as a good learning opportunity.

“It was a great experience just to be on that set and get feedback from people who do that kind of evaluation daily,” Natarajan said. “We knew we would be too early stage for them, but it was still a really cool experience just to go. You don’t get too many chances to audition for Shark Tank, right?”

Evidently, their pitch got better. After going through Rice University’s OwlSpark startup accelerator program that summer, Dzeda and Natarajan won the semifinals of the Recess Pitch competition in October 2015. As a result, they were awarded an all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles to compete in the finals in January.

The trip, sponsored by Recess — a company that aims to help college students get their business ideas off the ground — afforded Ziel Solutions the opportunity to meet potential investors, talk to industry giants, and learn about market analysis. They placed third in the final competition.

Since then, Dzeda and Natarajan have continued to market their product to potential customers. Earlier this year, they got their first customer, a woman in Houston who works in physical therapy.  They have finalized a licensing deal to sell her the sensors from the sleeve, which she hopes to integrate into her own physical therapy devices.

You might be wondering how the sensors from a baseball sleeve could possibly be useful in physical therapy. Well, the beauty of their technology, Dzeda and Natarajan say, is that it can be extremely versatile. While their immediate goal is to work their way up the baseball pitching market — from high school to college to the professional level — their secondary goal is to eventually expand the technology to a variety of different activities.

They say the sensors that they created can be used for any repetitive physical activity, like running or working out, and would only require some minor changes. “The software — how we analyze the data and stuff — would have to be tweaked, but the hardware would remain mostly intact,” Natarajan said.

But that’s still a long way down the road, so for now, the two students are mostly concentrating on finishing the fourth prototype and getting it ready for beta testing. They’ve been working on it for about a year, but that shouldn’t be a surprise when you consider that they’re still college seniors. Given the rigors of a Rice education, it’s fair to wonder how they find time to work on the sleeve at all.

“You get creative,” Natarajan said. “That’s what I always tell people. You get creative with how you balance your time and you find a way to make it work in the margins.”

So far, Ziel Solutions has found a lot of success in those margins. Only time and testing will tell how far that success can stretch.

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