Monday, August 24, 2009

Answering Requests, Part II

J.K. asks,

"But maybe something learned from any past attempts at entrepreneurship?"

I haven't learned anything especially revelatory, but one thing I learned is that a good idea isn't worth a whole lot if you can't sell it, and if you can't sell it, it may not even be a good idea.

The idea, in my case, was an invention to protect football players from breaking their necks. I started thinking about this after watching a defensive linemen break his neck during an NFL game. I figured that, with all the advances in protective equipment over the years, there ought to be a way to prevent this. I did some research and found a seminal study by Dr. Joseph Torg1. Dr. Torg realized that, unlike most cervical spine injuries, football injuries were often caught film, and he used that film to analyze them. From that, he discovered the primary mechanism by which these injuries occurred, which he called axial loading. Essentially, when your head is upright, your cervical spine is slightly curved, like an inverted, elongated "c", and when you tilt your head forward at an angle of about 30 degrees, it becomes more like a segmented column. This is where it's most vulnerable to a blow to the crown of your head, which can compress and fracture your cervical vertebrae.

Equipment designed to protect football players' necks worked by restricting the range of motion of the head and neck, but did nothing to protect against axial loading. So, in consultation with an acquaintance who was an engineer, I invented a solution, an 'over-helmet' shell which would be loosely connected by springs to a regular football helmet underneath (the springs were just there to keep the over-helmet from rattling against the regular helmet), as shown in the goofy-looking CAD drawing above. This invention would permit but limit motion of a player's head and neck in all directions, within the player's natural range of motion, and it would also transfer forces incident on the over-helmet to the player's shoulders, thus sparing his cervical spine.

I thought this was a great idea, but I really had no clue what to do with it. I knew there was a significant market for it if this became standard equipment in football. From a Fermi approximation, I figured there were about a million high school football players in America, and my engineer estimated this contraption, made of fiberglass and steel, would cost about $50 to manufacture. I knew that helmets and shoulder pads each retailed for a few hundred dollars apiece. I applied for a patent on this invention, and then contacted the handful of companies that manufactured helmets and shoulder pads. No interest. What next? I heard later that these manufacturers generally are unimpressed with patent-type drawings and prefer to see working prototypes. Fortunately, there was a shop that made prototypes in my county. Unfortunately, they wanted a six figure deposit to build one, which I didn't have. So this ended up getting filed away in my Grandiose Ideas file, after I spent about $5k in patent attorney fees2. And today the goofy CAD drawing smiles at me from my computer screen, as if mocking me.

I still come up with grandiose ideas today. I can't help it. But I can focus my energies on more feasible ideas, and that's what I'm trying to do now. The problem with my neck-protector idea, aside from the cost of getting one manufactured and tested, was that to get it adopted would require a revolution of sorts: you'd most likely sell everyone or no one with this; there likely wouldn't be an incremental adoption. Not an impossible task, but not one I was up to at the time.

1That link lists Dr. Torg as an emeritus faculty member at Temple, but if memory serves, he was at Penn at the time. Coincidentally, I ended up cold calling his son a few years later, when I was a trainee at a boutique investment bank in Manhattan. His son (a Florida-based attorney) and I had a very pleasant conversation, about Dr. Torg among other subjects, and said he looked forward to hearing an investment idea from me in the future. He never did though. Most likely, he heard one for the fellow I was assigned to cold call for, a former Sbarro's manager with slicked-back hair named Vinny or Frank or something, I forget.

2Apparently, patent legal work costs a lot more these days. Recently I consulted with my attorney about getting a patent on an algorithm I'm having developed for a site. He forwarded it to his colleague who specializes in intellectual property and she gave a ball park estimate of tens of thousands of dollars in fees to get a new patent. She also said that since the algorithm would be a "business process" patent, and since the validity of these patents was going to be reviewed by the Supreme Court, it basically wasn't worth pursuing at this point.


JK said...

Wow, good post. I suffer from grandiose fantasy ideas too. That is an interesting concept, maybe when your websites take off you will have the capital to push it. I think it could be done incrementally, if you attack high school football first (like how amateur boxers wear protective gear the pros don't) district by district. First step would be fear-mongering the High School football moms about the risk of injury to their precious ones and then they'd lobby their school districts. You may have to shamelessy take advantage of some tragic injury to do this. And it would still be a hard sell. The kids would resist.

(That face does have a mocking smile, doesn't it?)

DaveinHackensack said...

Glad you liked it. You're right that you could do it incrementally by district (or by league) but you couldn't do it incrementally by player or parent. Generally, the schools buy the equipment, and they're not going to buy it unless A) the parents demand it; B) the other schools, the league, etc. are OK with it.

When I still had a patent on this, I thought of approaching that football coach I mentioned in a previous thread about helping to sell this. He was a bright guy who sort of chafed a little about teachers' pay (even though he probably did pretty well for a teacher, working in a high-end district), and he worked a side job at a swim club run by another teacher. Smart guy + football coach (leadership skills) + teacher (presentation/platform skills) + wants more money = good sales guy.

Coincidentally, Nick B...[don't remember the spelling of the rest of his name], the former college linebacker (and son of the former NFL star) who got paralyzed 20 years ago was on the cover of a magazine this week in Barnes & Nobel. I forget which one. You could conceivably get him as a spokesperson for you, and wheel him into a high school auditorium full of football players' parents. I wouldn't want to be on the other side of that pitch; it would be like kicking the late Christopher Reeve out on his ass.

John said...

That's a good idea. I don't think it's necessarily grandiose. All it would take would be for the robotics type of technology (or something along those lines--maybe a material that would become rigid, along the sides of the head, like in a gas spring mechanism, in response to that axial loading). I guess that's not really saying anything, for me to wish for a material with spring-like properties. I'm surprised that car safety hasn't progressed more. There should be computerized proximity alerts and airbags all over the place, down the center of the car, and so on. In most cases, it seems like people need to witness a disaster of some kind, such as a car accident, to develop ways of preventing the disaster in question.

DaveinHackensack said...

Funny you should mention airbags. I was going to mention this in its own post (I still may, if the motivation hits me), but remember that previous thread about books for entrepreneurs? In it, I linked to the venture capitalist Fred Wilson's blog, but after I wrote that post, someone mentioned Neal Stephenson's book Snow Crash in that thread. In that book, set in the future, one of the characters -- a teenage messenger girl, of sorts -- would hook herself up to cars, and cruise through traffic on roller blades. She didn't wear a helmet, but if she fell, an airbag would pop up out of the shoulders of her suit to protect her head.

Back to the mention of this book on Fred Wilson's blog: after the commenter mentioned Snow Crash in the comment thread, Fred jumped in and said that Snow Crash was one of Union Square Ventures "guide posts" or something like this.