This ML-powered wearable can detect invisible head injuries — and save athletes’ lives
Thomas Goodbourn first discovered the extent of professional athletes’ alarming use and abuse of over-the-counter pain medication while researching athlete longevity for his undergraduate dissertation, soon realising that more holistic approaches to athlete care were needed.
“I spoke to about 500 athletes across a broad range of sports, and worked closely with a professional rugby team — athletes often feel that performance comes ahead of health considerations,” he says.
Now a PhD student in sports medicine at Durham University, Goodbourn launched his startup Radar Informatics as part of Conception X Cohort 5 to build solutions that could save athletes’ lives, starting with a wearable in-ear device powered by machine learning to monitor and predict head impact risks in sports.
The device can measure biomechanical forces linked to head impact exposure, provides real-time feedback to medical personnel and coaches, and collects data that allows the detection of athletes at high risk of both immediate and long-term neurodegenerative diseases.
“Existing solutions cater to athletes in contact sports and don’t quantify cumulative risk over an entire season or career; they also don’t address issues of athlete adherence and signal noise conclusively — for instance, instrumented mouthguards make it hard to speak and even breathe, which isn’t ideal in team sports, and less invasive solutions such as skin patches on the neck tend to produce false positives as there’s a lot movement from the subcutaneous layers of fat and tissue,” Goodbourn says.
Radar Informatics’ earpiece is fixed in place so it doesn’t move separately from the head, to minimise signal noise, and its design has evolved out of interviews with athletes and medics across a range of milder contact sports to enhance athlete adherence.
“I’ve worked with a lot of professional athletes, and they have a really set way of doing things; they’re very against any kind of slight change if it disrupts their usual ways and could interfere with performance,” Goodbourn says.
This is one of the reasons why the startup plans to initially release the product as a performance rather than medical device, to start protecting the health of athletes while helping them win.
“Countless studies have shown that with every subconcussive head impact — that’s a bump or blow to the head that doesn’t cause immediate symptoms — your cognitive function is affected and your problem solving ability decreases,” Goodbourn says. “If your problem solving gets worse, you’re going to make poor decisions, which lead to a lower chance of game success.”
This approach would also allow the team behind Radar Informatics to start collecting vital data to train the machine learning component of its device, which could eventually identify and predict health risks linked to invisible head impact events.
The Durham researcher joined Conception X as the only programme catering to aspiring PhD founders with a heavy focus on deeptech and a presence in north-east England, where he intends to settle and grow his startup after completing his PhD.
“Conception X provided me with opportunities I would never have been able to access otherwise,” Goodbourn says. “I got a sense of how the commercialisation of science works in practice, I got to network with other scientists interested in entrepreneurship like myself and work with a business coach, I had the opportunity to pitch at Demo Day, I managed to actually get in the room and speak to VCs, and had multiple investors look at my pitch decks.”
For Goodbourn, having the freedom to explore an alternative career pathway and experiment with his ideas in a cohort environment has been the most valuable aspect of the programme.
“With my PhD, I was very much working on my own — now I get to bounce ideas off friends I’ve met in the cohort,” he says. “I could see myself as a career entrepreneur now, working outside defined systems and structures. I’m very open to the fact that the first solution may not always be the correct one — you have to be, if you’re serious about solving a larger issue. And I’m passionate about solving this problem.”
Thomas Goodbourn joined Conception X as part of the inaugural Northern Deeptech Hub cohort, launched in partnership with Newcastle University, Durham University and Northumbria University to connect aspiring PhD founders in the North East with the local deeptech network, help them gain business skills, access funding and launch deeptech startups.