He doesn’t have an extensive sports background himself, but Dana Hawes has heard athletes describe the feeling — the I’m-worn-out-and-maybe-I-should-take-a-break feeling.
Hawes, the principal at Richmond Alternative School, has seen first hand how difficult it is for coaches and physical education teachers to know when a young athlete’s limits have been reached. More than once, he has called parents to let them know their child was suffering from dehydration.
And, Hawes has heard of cases when athletes have pushed too hard as they tried to reach new levels of performance and endurance, and the result was illness or even death.
Hawes wanted to find a way to help athletes — and their coaches, trainers, parents and guardians — avoid the very real dangers of over-exertion, dehydration and other dangerous conditions.
Now, Hawes said, he is developing what he believes is the solution — a high-tech “smart” mouth guard.
Hawes has formed SMRT Mouth Inc. with others including former NFL player Michael Robinson.
The company is working on its prototype, which is on track to be ready for use by January. By next July, Hawes hopes to have the mouth guards ready to deliver to consumers.
A SMRT Mouth guard, which looks much like ordinary mouth guards, has sensors embedded that measure hydration, circulation, respiration and exertion.
The data the mouth guard collects will be transmitted in real time to a monitor — it could be a cellphone, tablet or other mobile device — on the sidelines. The app that reads the data will signal when the measured factors may be putting an athlete in danger.
“This gives you the information you need to make a decision,” Hawes said. “You wouldn’t drive a vehicle without a dashboard feeding you information. But that’s what we’re asking athletes to do. We’re asking them to go all out with no indication of what’s happening to their bodies as a result.”
Hawes, the CEO of his company, has assembled a team to help bring the concept to reality.
Everett Foxx, whose career winds from foreign professional basketball to medical services and financial services, is chief operating officer.
Amish Patel, who runs a local data systems and services company, is chief financial officer. David Janney, with a background in nuclear engineering and physics, is chief information officer.
Elwood Patterson Jr., who founded the East End Youth Athletic Association, is youth marketing director. Patterson’s involvement also led to a connection to Varina High School football coach Stuart Brown and Robinson, who is president of SMRT Mouth.
Robinson was an All-State quarterback for Varina High School when Brown was offensive coordinator for the team. Robinson went on to a stellar college career at Penn State. In the National Football League he converted to fullback and played for the Seattle Seahawks in their 2014 Super Bowl victory.
He retired after the Super Bowl win and is now an analyst on the NFL Network. Robinson was not available for an interview last week.
Robinson’s interest in SMRT Mouth was more than casual, Hawes said. One of Robinson’s high school friends, teammate Craig Lobrano, died in 2000 as the result of heat stroke.
Years later, Robinson’s professional career was interrupted — almost ended — when dehydration in combination with prescription medication caused severe kidney and liver problems.
Hawes said it didn’t require salesmanship to get Robinson to join the project. “He was curious about the feasibility,” Hawes said, “but he liked the idea immediately. ... Michael is a hometown hero, and he gives us wide visibility.”
A startup company such as SMRT Mouth could have challenges to face, said Kenneth Kahn, director of the Virginia Commonwealth University da Vinci Center, which uses cross-disciplinary collaboration to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.
Kahn said the product has to be glitch-free. “That has been a problem for some wearable technology or other ‘smart’ products,” he said. He cited a company making a “smart” mug that tracks what the user drinks and the user’s hydration. Technical problems have pushed back release of the product. The delay, so far, has been about six months.
Kahn said that of course SMRT Mouth “has to offer the same protection a standard mouth guard offers,” and that it won’t have a negative impact on an athlete’s performance.
Assuming the product works, Kahn said, any company making a product offering health-related benefits must be aware of Food and Drug Administration regulatory requirements.
Hawes said his company has navigated those waters carefully — that even though the users of SMRT Mouth can provide a layer of safety for athletes, it is not being marketed as a medical product.
“It’s a consumer product,” he said. “It’s a predictive tool to inform people so they can make appropriate choices and decisions. SMRT Mouth won’t alert medical entities or provide care.
“Believe it or not,” Hawes said, “a thermometer isn’t a medical device. It provides information. That’s what SMRT Mouth does.”
Medical device or not, the use of SMRT Mouth could help prevent deaths every year, said Dr. Teresa Stadler Camden, medical director at Commonwealth Sports Medicine in Short Pump whose background includes work with NFL teams.
Stadler Camden said Robinson asked her for her thoughts on SMRT Mouth and she is impressed.
“It’s the first of its kind — relaying this important real-time data,” she said. “Prior to SMRT Mouth, the only way to get an athlete’s temperature was to pull that athlete off the field and check — or have the athlete swallow a thermometer pill, which also has limitations.”
SMRT is an acronym for Sports Monitoring Responsive Technology.
Janney, the company’s information officer, said SMRT Mouth “did the research to see what kind of sensorized mouth guard patents were already out there. ... In the early ’90s there were some temperature-only mouth guards. There are some mouth guards for concussion data.”
“Concussion data is important data to have,” he said, “but it’s not about prevention. If you’re going to get hit, you’re going to get hit. You can’t prevent the collision. Hydration and heat-related injuries and illnesses can be prevented.”
Janney noted that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies show 9,000 heat-related illness cases a year among U.S. high school athletes.
Hawes cited stats from the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research showing more than 50 heat-related football deaths in the last decade. Most of those, he said, were middle school or high school students.
Hawes and CFO Patel declined to disclose how much has been invested in the invention, design and marketing of the product to date. The company has launched a crowdfunding effort with Indiegogo.com with a goal of $50,000 to be raised by Oct. 15 to help bring the product to market.
Patel said the company’s plan is to attract an angel investor and venture capital funding — in addition to the crowdfunding — to pay for research and development, for design work by an Illinois-based company, and for marketing.
Hawes said SMRT Mouth eventually will be produced in different models, some tracking more elements than others, and in different sizes “from peewees to the pros.” The mouth guards will start at about $100, he said.
Two cable television production companies have expressed interest in featuring SMRT Mouth on shows about new products, he said.
All the members of the SMRT Mouth team seem to be aware of the product’s potential for use wherever sports are played or athletes train. Still, the company is keeping its overhead at a minimum.
“Our office?” Hawes said with a chuckle. “So far our office is wherever my cellphone happens to be. Maybe you could say SMRT Mouth corporate headquarters rotates among our residences.”