February 1, 2014 was a day practically like any other for Lancaster league hockey player Matt Roda.
The then high school junior spent the evening on the ice playing for his team, The Lancaster Firebirds. He scored right at the beginning, played the entire game, called a friend after the game and drove home.
“It was honestly right in the beginning of the game,” Roda said. “I was one of the better players in the league so I sort of had a target on my back.”
As soon as the puck dropped, Roda, a left wing, swiped it and went on a breakaway. After gliding across a defender and assessing he was home free he charged for the goal at breakaway speed, shooting the puck and scoring “by some saving grace.”
Immediately after he had taken his shot, Roda was hit from behind, falling on his back and sliding at full speed with no control over his body until something else would stop him. And something else did stop him—he slammed his head into the boards of the rink at about 25 miles per hour.
“I laid on the ice and couldn’t move for a few minutes,” Roda said. “Eventually I was taken off and the coach asked me three questions: ‘What year is it? Who’s the president? and Where are you?’ I said, ‘2014. Barack Obama. The Lancaster Ice Rink.’ And then he let me keep playing.”
He isn’t 100 percent certain if he sustained more head injuries after that since he barely recalls anything after hitting the board, but Roda does have a theory he obtained a second concussion at some point in the exact same game, which clearly could have worsened the already major initial concussion.
This would be the beginning of a seemingly never-ending journey of concussions for Roda—debilitating and empowering.
After months of different instructions from different doctors and years of excruciating post-concussion, Roda was trailing far behind “typical” recovery time with no real answers as to why.
“The doctor said ‘Two to three weeks [rest] and you should be O.K.’ and then two to three weeks come and I’m still not O.K., so they sent me to Hershey [Medical Center]” Roda said. “Knowing it was going to be a few months of recovery was difficult. You will hear a lot of people with similar stories to mine, but for most cases it is just ‘Concussion, then you’re better.’”
The first doctor gave him little to no direction—no looking at screens and try not to do too much brain activity or things might hurt. After three weeks of the same feeling, Roda traveled to Hershey Medical Center for answers. The doctor there put him on medication to alleviate the headaches, which “helped a little,” but still didn’t improve his symptoms to the degree he had hoped it would.
He continued working with a Hershey Medical Center doctor until, after months of little to no improvement, he felt he had run out of options. His next move was to “just push through” the headaches because it seemed like all he had left.
Roda’s symptoms were only supposed to linger for a few weeks. Instead, they stuck for two-and-a-half years. On top of that, he likely ended up with a total of three additional concussions on top of the first one he obtained that February night.
As far as discovering concussions in an athlete goes, there lies plenty of responsibility that can go around for “Who or what could have discovered this concussion sooner, or perhaps at all?” Roda, though, feels a crucial failing in his concussion experience was how little guidance ImPACT—the concussion test he had to take, and the most widely-used computerized concussion technology to date—actually provided him.
“I had to take this baseline ImPACT test [pre-concussion] so I asked if I should take a post-concussion test and the athletics trainers were like ‘No, it really doesn’t tell us much.’ I was like, ‘then why are we doing it?’” Roda said. “That’s really all they do for concussion so that means essentially there’s no good option for schools. They aren’t really doing anything.”
So, Roda and his two other high school friends took the liberty to fix those aspects of concussion technology themselves.
Roda, Matt Campagna and Patrick Walsh all took a Java computer programming class together and from there, the ideas for what would become Reflexion began to snowball.
“Our gym coach was telling us about different ways you can test for concussions that are known to be better but because of cost or portability, they were nearly impossible for schools to use,” Roda said. “From there, it was Matt, Patrick and I spending our weekends and free time in the basement of my suburban home building a very crude product prototype.”
Fast forward a few years to 2017: The three are all juniors in college—Roda at Penn State, Campagna (junior-computer engineering) at Case Western Reserve University and Walsh (junior-computer science) at Cornell University. Reflexion Interactive Technologies is made up of a team of eight men, the majority still college students but not all, and they’re preparing to launch its most up-to-date prototype of Reflexion Edge—a portable connection of six LED touch screens with tests programmed into it, proving an athlete’s memory, hand-eye coordination, reaction time and peripheral vision, all in 30 seconds.
Penn State student and guinea pig for Reflexion Edge prototypes Dan Beckman claimed his experience using the program was more efficient and enjoyable than any concussion testing he ever had to do for high school sports.
“It’s a pretty simple test. Basically dots just appear on the screen and you have to touch them as fast as you can,” Beckman (junior-mechanical engineering) said. “It’s kind of fun, honestly. The ImPACT test was like drudgery, but [Reflexion] is interactive. It’s like an arcade game, almost.”
A few of the Reflexion team members described the test as “playing a game on a big iPad,” as the “game” aspect can often distract athletes from the fact they’re being tested at all.
“It’s a lot of fun, and all the trials we run are 30 seconds, which is huge. That’s a fraction of your practice time,” Davidson (sophomore-English and history) said. “Once you’re in it, you kind of get sucked into it. You want to beat your high score, you want to beat your friends on the team. It’s really not your traditional concussion screening trial.”
Four years, two prototypes, a handful of investors, employees, interns and countless other events later, The Reflexion Interactive Technologies team is preparing to finally launch Reflexion Edge for use in schools and universities.
In January, the new Reflexion Edge model will make its way out to Las Vegas to be unveiled in the Consumer Electronics Show. The company intends to officially launch Reflexion Edge to customers by May in order to get into the market and become available for the entire fall 2018 sports seasons.
Reflexion Edge is still in its developmental stages, but is already beginning to gain early adopters. Roda claims it’s “pretty good,” but definitely still a prototype.
“We’re redesigning the product. We’re going to make it a lot more sleek, sexy and portable even,” Roda said. “But we’re also working on the software development, the back and front end of this user interface, so we can make it very easy for athletes, coaches and trainers to run through the software and see their scores.”
Getting Reflexion to where it is now has been far from easy for all eight of the men involved. Whether it be potential investors turning them down because the company is run primarily by 20-somethings, or employees like T. Keith Ward who left stable jobs to take a chance on the start-up partly because he had children who played sports, what’s brought the group together for this project is the blend of personal importance felt for the cause, as well as the opportunity they see in it.
“Your athletes are largely unprotected, and even if your school has a concussion protocol in place, it’s probably insufficient,” Walsh said. “Going back to junior year of high school, Matt [Roda] got his concussion and for a while he was just not there. He missed a lot and that shouldn’t happen.”
What sets Reflexion Edge apart from all the other competitors, Roda thinks, is that it can detect the minor blows that often create some of the largest problems other systems don’t track because the tests are weekly.
“You can have something that is a complete, 100 percent accurate diagnosis right then and there tool for concussions,” Roda said. “But the problem is, they’re never going to use that on the two-thirds of concussions that go undetected. They’re going to use it when an athletic trainer on the side goes ‘That was a really big hit, let’s use this concussion test.’”
Part of what Business Developer and former concussed athlete Jon Westlake values most about the system is that it pushes athletes to value their career holistically, valuing their health and statistics simultaneously.
“I almost want them in a sense to think it’s not concussion testing. It’s not going to be a pain of you sitting in a room for 30 minutes memorizing words,” Westlake (sophomore-Science BS and BA) said. “It’s almost like a workout if you think about it. The athlete is going to get better each week, they’re going to see that progress and hopefully that’s going to motivate them to become better and safer.”