A football combine — which is basically a showcase for scouting athletes — might not sound like tech event. But your mind might change when you consider the amount of data collection and analysis involved.
NFL combines are long, excruciatingly detailed and increasingly tech focused. On the high school level, where college scholarships are on the line, combines focus on speed timing, but they don’t analyze the athletes’ full range of capabilities and physical limits. Delaware sports tech company Hx Innovations is looking to change that with a patented algorithm designed not just to measure, but to optimize an athlete’s performance.
On a recent February afternoon, eight promising Delaware high school football players convened at the Chase Fieldhouse in Wilmington for a pilot of Hx Innovations’ Delaware High School Football Scouting Combine. There, with the help of young Delaware artificial intelligence company (and fellow 2022 RealLIST Startups honoree) A.I. Whoo, which developed the customized machine learning model that works with the algorithm, the players’ skills were captured and converted into a complex set of data that college coaches can use for recruitment.
This unique program is happening in Delaware a couple of reasons: The two companies are Delaware-based, part of a growing segment of tech companies that fall outside the state’s major sectors such as fintech and chemistry; and Delaware high school athletes are rarely recruited by Delaware colleges and universities.
“Only about 5% of athletes at Delaware colleges are from Delaware,” said Nicole Homer, cofounder of Hx Innovations. “It’s a very low number, even at [University of Delaware]. Most of them do not recruit locally.” That means it’s easy for promising athletes at Delaware schools to miss out on opportunities.
When it comes to kids in the state and access issues, community-focused Hx Innovations, which has an ergonomics-themed summer science program with FAME (Forum to Advance Minorities in Engineering), has made a commitment to break barriers.
And athletics is Hx Innovations’ lane. Before cofounder Dr. Von Homer was a neuroscientist, bio engineer and footwear designer for big-brand names, he was a college football player who developed an interest in ergonomics while doing physical therapy as part of his recovery from a serious injury on the field.
“At the end of the day, coaches get information on how they can play the players in a safe way, and we get information on how our technology an add value to keep everyone safe,” Nicole Homer said.
The idea for the combine is so tied to health and safety that it came not from the bleachers, but from a clinical setting, when Homer and A.I. Whoo founder Matthew Saponaro collaborated to work on on gait assessments for podiatrists and hospitals.
“We did an assessment together for the Philadelphia Union, to basically record their game, and we were able to process the video to spit out statistics on a per-player level,” Saponaro said. “We were looking at their acceleration and deceleration velocity in order to help them to prevent injury.”
That tech was evolved into the tech used to analyze high school athletes, complete with performance enhancement recommendations for training or footwear. The Homers had connections at the Fieldhouse, and the high school combine became a reality.
At the Fieldhouse event, the participating athletes went through several data collecting stations. Other than a few monitors and camera on tripods, it looked like a relatively low-tech practice. Looking closer, every move, jump and throw was being captured, analyzed and logged while attending coaches observed.
“It’s almost like you’re taking each player to the biomechanics lab and getting every single metric that you can on a guy,” said Von Homer, motioning toward a young athlete. “This is a quarterback. We’re able to track how fast the ball comes out of his hand, and even the projected distance. The coaches want to see that to determine how strong and accurate he is.”
Although the pilot was small and the athletes were chosen by people in the Fieldhouse ecosystem, the team is looking to grow the event rapidly, with quarterly events, including one planned for April. They’ll be increasing the number of participating athletes and, eventually, adding sports like soccer, lacrosse and basketball.
And though the combine was created to address a local issue, the plan is to grow it to the national level.
“The goal is that we do this here, then we repeat it and scale it out to all the other locations all throughout the country,” Saponaro said. “We’re able to standardize the assessments of all these different athletes, and that’s the important part.”
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