FITGuard Co-Founder: ‘If You Didn’t Lose Consciousness Then You’re Probably Fine Is an Old Way of Thinking’

May 20, 2021 – via Sporttechie
Original Post:

By Matt Ehalt

Our Startups series looks at companies and founders who are innovating in the fields of athlete performance, fan engagement, team/league operations and other high-impact areas in sports. If you’d like to be considered for this series, tell us about your mission.

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World’s shortest elevator pitch: “We help athletes understand how the severity and frequency of impacts affects their cognitive and physical performance.”

Company: Force Impact Technologies Inc. (FIT)

Location: Gilbert, Arizona

Year founded: 2016


Funding round to date: “We’re in pre-A.”

Who are your investors? “Avnet, Inc. They’re a publicly traded company. They’ve invested 3.7 million. We have ISBX, a firm. And friends and family. The total is $4.7 million.”

Are you looking for more investment? “Yes. We’re looking for an additional $6 million.”

Tell us about yourself, CEO & co-founder Anthony Gonzales“I met my co-founder, Bob Merriman, back in Brazilian jiu-jitsu in 2008. We were gym buddies. Then, we became co-workers at a very large technology company, Avnet. We were selling sensors and components professionally. I was playing rugby in university, going to jiu-jitsu, going to rugby, going to jiu-jitsu. We came up with this idea together of why don’t we take these sensors we sell at work and put them into the only piece of equipment that we use in all of our sports, a mouth guard. We co-developed this concept of an instrumented mouth guard back in 2013. That led to Avnet actually investing into us and us spinning out a full company. We’re still in Gilbert. We’re involved with Arizona State University because we both went there. We’re very proud Sun Devils. We did our early days on campus, attended the startup events and stuff like that.”

Who are your co-founders/partners? “Bob Merriman and Susie Merriman. Susie is a physical therapist and a clinical researcher. She has a lot of experience managing athletes in their journey to recover from a head injury. She has been instrumental in leading our research and development. Bob is the yin to my yang. We are very similar and exact opposites at the same time. We have similar educational backgrounds and work for similar companies, but our personalities differ quite drastically.”

How does your product/service work, and what does it do? “Our FITGuard is an instrumented mouth guard with sensors that measures the severity and frequency of impacts to the head. That data is then sent to the FITApp, in which the user can better understand their average exposure to impacts and how that affects their physical and cognitive performance. That’s displayed in the form of a FITScore. We then provide insight that’s actionable about what a user can do to reduce their FITScore and overall risk profile for potential injury. We do not diagnose or identify concussions.”

What problem is your company solving? “Individuals who remain in an activity with an identified head injury have the risk of an event that can result in a catastrophic sports injury, sometimes a fatality. By providing active surveillance, we are constantly identifying and monitoring impacts in real time when they happen to allow for action to occur. We really are focused on performance. So, it’s helping athletes optimize their head health so they can perform the best they possibly can. Because when you don’t, you result in decreased reaction time, decision-making and on-field performance.”

What does your product cost and who is your target customer? “It’s $299. Our target customers are high-velocity athletes. We don’t care if you’re snowboarding, if you’re water skiing, if you’re playing an organized sport like football, if you’re in the Olympics—if you’re doing something that has the risk of moving your head very fast and that getting impacted, we can add value. So, it’s any athlete regardless of what sport.”

How are you marketing your product? “We communicate the value we deliver to our customers by working with tier-one athletes and Olympians and deliver value to them. And having them amplify that, ‘Hey, as a professional or an Olympian, this is how FIT made me a better version of me.’”

How do you scale, and what is your targeted level of growth? “Our goal is to enter particular sports: rugby, ice hockey and lacrosse initially, and then start to capture more and more sports. So, it’s to enter a particular sport at a consumer market, grow up through the teams and leagues and the organizations, eventually the sanctioning bodies where they require our impact monitoring system for the entire league or ecosystem.”

Who are your competitors, and what makes you different? “Our main competition is the status quo. How things are done today. This toxic masculinity of cowboy up and dust it off, if you didn’t lose consciousness then you’re probably fine is an old way of thinking. And that’s our biggest competition is kind of a mentality of head injuries being brushed underneath the rug. What makes us different is our seamless integration into an athlete’s life. They typically are already wearing mouth guards, and it’s a very low switching cost to use a FITGuard because they don’t have to do anything different.”

What’s the unfair advantage that separates your company? “Our team. It really comes down to that. We have a world-class team of industry experts in their own particular domain stretching from clinical recovery of managing with TBI, researchers who have led trials for Stanford; we have a phenomenal engineering team that has literally built the most complicated system in a very harsh environment, inside of a user’s mouth. Our ability to work together cohesively is really our secret sauce because we’re a company by athletes for athletes. All those really smart people that I’ve mentioned, they all have a background in athletics. That duality of self is our secret sauce of being intellectuals and athletes combined to have a business mindset.”

What milestone have you recently hit or will soon hit? “We’re going to be in the Olympics 2021. I think that’s pretty cool. Check out Alev Kelter on Team USA Rugby.”

In what ways have you adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic? “Our sanitation regarding group charging has been re-evaluated. Before it was, ‘Hey, it should be easy, everyone can throw their mouth guard into a group charging case.’ And we said, ‘Hey, OK, COVID’s around, maybe we should have more individual charging and allow people to not put their mouth guards physically close to each other if they don’t have to.’”

Beyond the pandemic, what obstacles has your company had to overcome? “There are some lead time issues with components, sourcing components. The global supply chain of electronics has been disrupted . . . We were affected by that capacity as well.”

What are the values that are core to your brand? “Authenticity, efficacy and coolness. Because we’re a company by athletes for athletes and have an athlete mindset, we really have emotional intelligence around the communities that we serve. For efficacy, we have a very comprehensive interdisciplinary team—data scientists, researchers and physical therapists who help us validate that the information is accurate and true. Coolness is about how we are framing our solution. This is not a safety product to stop head injuries. This is about being the best version of you. You do that by providing load management to the body’s most important organ, the brain, and if you take care of it, and use your FITScore and take our actionable insights, you can perform at your best. That inherently is cool. A pretty cool core competency is our mouthguard lights up. When you get hit and it breaches a threshold, it immediately visually indicates an event has occurred, a high-impact event.”

What does success ultimately look like for your company? “Being the expectation of what head health looks like. We would like our brand to be top of mind when consumers think about being the best version of themselves in sports and athletics. We want our brand to be synonymous with being the best version of yourself.”

What should investors or customers know about you—the person, your life experiences—that shows they can believe in you? “Bob and I are both black belts in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. This is a very personal problem to us as individuals and now as fathers. It now manifests beyond oneself into something that we’re responsible for and it makes the issue that much more intimate knowing that we are focusing primarily on youth athletes and trying to keep the adolescent brains of America as safe as possible while giving them the social benefit of sports. The one thing COVID taught us is we need community, and sports and organized sports provide that. When you’re on the sports field, the only color that matters is the color of your jersey. When you have people who are afraid to participate in that communal activity due to a fear-mongering around head injuries, our goal is to reduce that and increase youth participation while keeping them safer.”

What’s your favorite quote about leadership? “Teddy Roosevelt’s speech, Citizenship in a Republic, ‘The Man in the Arena.’ It’s a mantra of tenacity and perseverance. The takeaway is it is OK to fail as long as you fail while daring greatly, so that you will know your soul will never rest with the timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. It’s OK to do something and fail, as long as you did it with vigor and sought action. It’s better than not doing anything and saying, ‘Well, at least I didn’t fail.’ ”