By Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff
Ben Harvatine had been practicing hard before he hit the mat and couldn’t get up. He’d been dizzy for a while during wrestling practice, but that hadn’t alarmed him: it’s what happens when you’re cutting weight in a 100-degree room.
The twenty-year-old MIT student wound up in the hospital and spent months recovering. It was a concussion, the first he said he’d gotten in more than a decade of wrestling.
“For a week or two I struggled to carry on conversations,” he told me when I interviewed him by phone a few weeks ago. He couldn’t keep up in his mechanical engineering and architecture classes. And he was sensitive to light.
“I effectively didn’t go to school for three months.”
When he did go back, he enrolled in a Sensors and Instrumentation class, where a project called “Go Forth and Measure” had him sifting through hundreds of sensors.
He got an accelerometer, strapped it to some wrestling gear, and headed to wrestling practice.
That is where the idea for the Jolt Sensor came to be.
For the past year, Harvatine has been working with his father, an engineer as well, on creating the prototypes and smart phone app that would make this tiny sensor a new tool in the effort to better manage concussions. He and his MIT friend and now business partner, Seth Berg, are halfway to meeting their Kickstarter goal of $60,000.
Harvatine doesn’t think you can completely prevent concussions, but he does think they can be identified more quickly. And helmets, he says, may protect the skull from fracturing, but not the brain from bouncing around inside your skull.
“Your head (brain) is the sponge in a Tupperware container with some water around it” he told me. “If you put more Tupperware containers—no matter how many layers you have around it, the sponge is still going to run into the sides if you accelerate.”
The Jolt Sensor is a small clip that attaches to head-worn athletic equipment. It is waterproof and can attach to helmets, headbands and even goggles.
The Kickstarter page describes how it works:
“When an athlete’s head accelerates in a potentially dangerous way, the sensor vibrates to alert the athlete. It also connects wirelessly to parents’ and coaches’ smartphones (Android & iOS), using Bluetooth Low Energy, to alert them on the sidelines.”
The mobile app lets parents track their kids, and coaches track an entire team with a dashboard of “detailed analytics.”
“When a dangerous impact is detected, a parent or coach is immediately notified that the athlete should be evaluated on the sideline with the app’s built-in cognitive test and concussion symptom checklist. The results of this test, along with the impact data, are contextualized and presented in simple and understandable terms for parents and coaches.
A player showing any signs or symptoms of a concussion should not return to play until evaluated by a medical professional, as only a doctor can diagnose a concussion. All of the important data that has been collected by the app and sensor is stored in the cloud, for quick and easy access by you and your doctor.”
Harvatine credits his father, who has years of experience as a designer, with teaching him more in the past year than he learned in four years at MIT. But Jolt has also been part of MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service and is a MassChallenge 2014 Finalist. He and Berg recently received a St. Louis Arch Grant, which gave them funds and incentive to locate their startup in the city’s downtown.
There are other products on the market that are similar to Jolt, but Harvatine says their sensor is unique because of its versatility and more nuanced interpretation of data and evaluation protocol.
The Kickstarter campaign has a “give a senor” option to get sensors to kids who cannot afford them. Harvatine told me his biggest concern is to make the units, which now cost $100, a lot less expensive. “I don’t want it to be cost prohibitive,” he said.
It was not only his own experience with a concussion at MIT that impressed upon him how directly concussions relate to education.
His mentor’s son, he said, sustained a concussion in seventh grade. Because of scheduling, the boy had the same teacher the following year in eighth grade.
When the parents went in for the parent teacher conferences at the end of that year, the teacher told them, “Your son is finally getting back to where he was before the concussion.”
They had no idea.
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