Tackling concussion in rugby with state-of-the-art headgear
When a player's career was cut short by a brain injury, a Galway couple developed headgear to help reduce the number of cases
Mark Ganly was so moved by the experience of a rugby player who was forced to give up his sport because of concussion that he decided to set up a company dedicated to reducing the incidence of such head injuries in rugby.
Ganly is chief executive of Contego Sports, a Galway sports technology company which has developed headgear to reduce the incidence of concussion in rugby. Ganly set this company up with his wife Sandra in the summer of 2014.
"Six years ago, I read an interview with John Fogarty in the Sunday Independent," said Ganly.
Fogarty, who is the Leinster scrum coach, was forced to retire as a player in late 2010 after suffering from repeated concussions.
"The human aspect of the story caught my attention as Fogarty was the same age as myself at the time - and he had a young family," said Ganly.
"The Fogarty story planted the seed with me and my wife and we started talking. At that point, our careers were separate - and so we talked about how we might combine our skills to make a head guard product."
Ganly was already developing hurling and camogie helmets for GAA players back in 2010 through MARC Helmets, a company he had set up himself.
He therefore had a good knowledge of the materials needed to develop a head guard. Sandra has a long background in biomedical engineering and medical device innovation.
She has a particular expertise in developing products to address an unmet clinical need, such as sports-induced mild traumatic brain injury - more commonly known as concussion.
Before setting up Contego Sports in summer 2014, the couple researched how they might develop headgear for rugby, and raised money from investors. "We have spent the last two years in advanced R&D on the product," said Ganly.
The product - N-Pro, which is short for neuro protection - was launched last November. It is the first rugby head guard scientifically proven to provide protection against concussion, according to Ganly. It is also the world's first, and only, sports head guard with a CE-marked medical device classification, says Ganly - this means it has been developed to meet medical standards.
It took three years - and the input of an international team of neurological experts - to develop the product.
"We are a small company operating on a global scale, so for us to gain credibility, we had to take the most stringent R&D path we could," said Ganly.
"You can't get any more stringent than medical device classification. Up to this point, sports equipment has largely been developed by sports companies which didn't have a huge amount of research behind their safety claims.
"We can't claim to eliminate the risk of concussion from sport - what we are giving is better impact protection. There are two major risk factors with head injuries - linear and rotational impact. Our headgear can reduce those impacts."
Many rugby players' careers have been cut short after serious impacts on the pitch - and there has been an increased understanding of concussion among players and coaches.
Studies have identified concussion as the most common match injury in recent years. Almost one-in-five injuries arise from concussion, with 95pc occurring during match play - according to a report on rugby injuries in English Premiership rugby published last March.
"Everyone is much more aware of the severities of the injuries that can be caused by concussion," said Ganly.
N-Pro, which has been specifically designed with rugby in mind, reduces impact force to the head by up to 75pc, according to the company.
It also addresses other issues which players see as barriers to wearing head guards. The company says its design allows for better peripheral vision and hearing. N-Pro includes moisture-wicking technology to keep the player cool.
N-Pro comes in five different sizes and so it can be worn by children beginning the sport - as well as adults.
It costs between €120 and €150 (depending on size) and it is only for sale online through website www.n-pro.com.
"As N-Pro has medical device classification throughout the EU, we've gone for an online-only sales model so that we're in direct contact with each of our customers," said Ganly.
"We have an obligation to do post-marketing surveillance on the products - which could lead to future design alterations of the product."
Although it has been for sale for less than two months, feedback from players and their parents has been very positive so far, according to Ganly.
"Before we started developing the design, we sat down with professional and amateur players and got feedback," said Ganly. "Comfort and fit were big issues amongst players."
Contego Sports ran a study with the Ulster Rugby Academy last summer to see how they felt about N-Pro. This academy develops players to go on and play with the Ulster Rugby senior team.
"About 85pc of the players found N-Pro to be a better fit than other headgear," said Ganly.
Ganly is originally from Ballinderreen in Co Galway. He now lives with his wife and three children in the nearby village of Kinvara. He is strongly involved in the GAA. "I play hurling with my local club in Ballinderreen," said Ganly. "I've been involved in sport all my life. One of my fondest memories of growing up is playing with Ballinderreen. It's a rural community and the hurling club was the focal point.
"We have a young family who are involved in contact sports - that was another driving factor for us as parents to develop the head guard."
Ganly believes there is huge scope for growth in sports medtech - the field where technology is used to develop sports products which can help to treat or prevent medical conditions common among sportsmen and sportswomen.
"What we are doing here is crossing two industries - where we're bringing sports and medtech together," says Ganly.
"There's huge scope for sport medtech companies - because so much product development and elite sports performance is now driven by data."
Although Ganly may adopt the head guard into other sports, the company's initial plan is to export it to Europe. "The technology we have developed could be incorporated into other sports - where head protection is a requirement," said Ganly. "However, our initial plan is to expand into other rugby markets across Europe.
"The next stop for us is France as that's a huge rugby nation. We would then hope to expand into the rest of Europe. We have had enquiries about N-Pro from all over the world including Japan, Australia and the Middle East. Rugby is now a worldwide sport."
Sunday Indo Business