It’s a sunny autumn day in West Orange, N.J, and the Bergen Catholic Crusaders are shutting out Seton Hall Prep early in the second quarter.
The Crusaders are threatening to score, itching to get past the 8-yard line. The quarterback snaps the ball and hands it off to star running back Josh McKenzie.
The junior dances around a line of defenders, cuts swiftly and finds himself just 5 yards from the end zone with one defender to beat. Suddenly, the defender rams his helmet into McKenzie’s, instantly causing him to drop the football.
Hours later, NJ.com revealed that Mckenzie had a concussion. One of the first indications that this blow might have been concussive was courtesy of a Philadelphia start-up company, Tozuda.
The three-year-old company manufactures head-impact sensors for football players and construction workers.
The simple mechanical device is comprised of two balls that keep red dye in place while compressing a spring. When a player is hit in the head by a strong enough force, the spring is knocked out of place and the dye floods the plastic encasing, turning the sensor red.
But before this was a marketable product, it took many twists and turns.
While in graduate school at Lehigh University, Tozuda founder and CEO Jessie Garcia came up with the idea to make something that could detect concussive blows after suffering a concussion while playing rugby.
“The technology itself has changed a lot over time,” she said during an interview in February.
Her first concept for the market, a mouth guard made with model magic, was met with criticism. The consensus on mouthguards was that they were uncomfortable and made breathing and use with braces difficult. This experience was her “first pivot” and ended up serving as a valuable learning experience for her next model.
Now inspired by biomimicry — engineering products based on the human body — Garcia created a device where a ball would break through a polyurethane barrier causing red dye to stream out and fill the device. But, of course, the device had one design flaw: It could only sense head-on hits.
Garcia went back to the drawing board and developed yet another sensor. “The spiky ball solution” was a ball surrounded by spikes in an enclosed chamber. Yet again, the Lehigh grad ran into derailing issues.
“There wasn’t a reliable way to calibrate this design to a particular force level,” Garcia said. “We could have made this design, but it wouldn’t have been accurate enough for use with head impacts. ”
Frustrated but still determined, she and her team went back to square one and created a magnetic device that they instantly fell in love with.
The sensor had two magnets and dye in the middle that would fill the device if one of the magnets were dislodged on a concussive blow. The team almost went to market with this idea and even pursued a patent for it.
But yet, there was another flaw.
“For a side blow, the magnetic sensor was very weak,” Garcia said.
This was a crippling blow to all of the progress they’d made and a moment the New Jersey native calls “the most difficult time for the company.”
But that moment would help shape and make the company what it is today. Utilizing the knowledge they’d acquired from every failure, they were able to make a product that can be further improved and tinkered with today.
Tozuda has “optimized the product for adult settings and youth settings,” discussed having four options for people with different head strengths and sensitivities, and even thought about calibrating it to “a non-helmeted application.”
The company is furthering the innovation of its product to include “different divisions or licensing the technology to people in different industries.”
Garcia and her team’s plans include military use and non-helmeted applications such as shipping and mishandling for sensitive packages.
Tozuda’s product is something that can truly revolutionize safety as we know it. One of the first people Garcia ever sold the product to is Nunzio Campanile, former head coach at Bergen Catholic and the new wide receivers coach at Rutgers University.
Applauding the head-impact sensor, the coach said: “The second that this becomes a mainstream product, I think it’s going to help a lot of people.”