Q&A With Prevent Biometrics CEO Steve Washburn

Prevent Biometrics is one of Minnesota’s most ambitious (and well funded) sportstech startups out there.

Led by industry veteran Steve Washburn, the company is based on intellectual property sourced from the Cleveland Clinic to measure head impacts — a major concern right now for just about every contact sport there is.

Last week, the company made a key acquisition with X2 Biosystems patent portfilio tied to a wearable product; this brings us to an interview with Washburn on all things Prevent:

When, why and how did Prevent Biometrics start?

I was the CEO at Shock Doctor from 1994 – 2009 during which I learned a lot about mouth guards and grew the company to a market dominant position before selling to private equity (twice, actually).

I never imagined there would ever be ‘smart’ technology embedded into the mouth guard product I was so familiar with, but came across this opportunity initially from the Cleveland Clinic who reached out to me for some input on their research around head-impact monitoring for sports.

The basis for the technology came in part from a neurosurgeon and boxing ringside physician who had a keen interest in finding a more objective means of calling matches.   They demonstrated early and promising potential by adding sensors to a mouth guard which measures data directly off the skull through the upper arches of teeth.  The group of four applied for and received an NIH grant of $2.5m around 2009 to further explore the space as they proceeded to develop the algorithm and prototype a product for years to come.

In 2014, that group published a study demonstrating the ability to measure head impacts with 6 degrees of freedom. This brought credibility to the science as well as broader attention for a solution. So at that point, to further the NIH funding and commercialize the product I became more deeply involved, obtained an exclusive global license to the technology, and started Prevent Biometrics based on that core IP in 2015.

What exactly is the product?

A head-impact measuring mouth guard with embedded sensors and Bluetooth wireless charging/monitoring.  There is an app and a dashboard that pairs with the mouth guard to collect and review data in real time.   Each mouth guard is powered for up to ~5 hours of continues use, and the storage case features UV light treatment for bacteria reduction.

What is the efficacy of the system?

To be clear – we’re not a medical device company and make no such medical claims. The validity of the product is based on accurately measuring head impacts which we have demonstrated and is now supported by multiple third party testing labs.

When an athlete wearing our mouth guard receives head impact measured above a preset threshold then a trainer or doctor would receive an instant alert for further assessment. This addresses one of the most urgent concerns right now relating to concussions which is the statistic that fully 50% go undetected, leading to further health problems and risk for the athlete.

So we’re not detecting or diagnosing concussion, but rather assisting those who are qualified to do so.

What phase or stage is the technology – and company at?

We are in beta testing (our second right now) and developing a next generation product we anticipate going to market with mid-late 2019 to coincide with next years football season.

What is your go to market strategy and sport(s)?

We’re going to be B2B – selling into collegiate, high school and youth level teams and organizations – beginning with football, hockey, La Crosse, and Rugby.   We also have a grant from the Department of Defense to position the technology for military applications further down the road.

As far as going to market, we most recently hired Matt Hanson as our VP of Sales who came from SportsEngine and his role is to develop our sales team now and into 2019.

What about professional sports?

We definitely will work with professional teams, we have even tested it with the NFL in some cases. But these teams and associations have a different process for implementing head impact monitoring across the league.  We’re following that.

How much have you raised for the company?

We have done A round for $2.5m and $6.5m series B, now closing on series C.

Are there any investors do date you want to mention?

Cleveland Clinic is considered a founder of the company and has a seat on the board. Our series B round included a strategic investment from Japan-based Murato Electronics.

What does the overall addressable market look like and do you plan to take it there or is Prevent more of an IP-acquisition play?

It’s a huge market…just look at the 35 million athletes in the US.  We think it’s very likely once we get out there in market that sports governing bodies would go so far as to mandate the use of a system like Prevent Biometrics. We are in a unique position right now with our patent portfolio — four core patents came from the Cleveland Clinic and an additional five patents we just acquired with the X2 purchase.

Was IP your primary motivating factor behind buying X2 Biosystems recently?

Primary, yes.  We are also aware that this problem could be solved by combining products in some fashion, or that there could be a range of solutions offered by Prevent Biometrics depending on the sport and use case.  For example, kids under ten still have their baby teeth and the mouthguard may not be as ideal as a skin patch behind the ear. And some cases in the military they seek options outside the mouthguard. Either way, our strength and intellectual property is largely is found in the firmware.

Do you plan to acquire further technology in the space?

What we have is all for now, but you never know?

How many people work for Prevent Biometrics?

We’re right at about 25 – primarily R&D, management, sales and marketing will be growth areas for us going forward.

What is the biggest challenge you face?

Well, there’s a lot that goes into this as you can imagine…but I think the biggest challenge is changing the way players, coaches, and teams approach their sports in terms of education and behavior change. The gadget can work great, but people will need to integrate the gadget into their world and learn to listen to it.  It needs to be so easy that it’s an automatic sort of thing.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We are a big believer in the value of sports in society, especially for kids, and are proud to be a part making sports safer for all to enjoy.