World-class sports. Cutting-edge technology. In-depth academic research.

It all came together at the University of Pittsburgh’s Innovation Institute this week as experts from throughout the university collaborated during the school’s first Performance Innovation Tournament.

“Bringing the researchers and athletics together on such a project is unique in the history of Pitt,” says Innovation Institute Program Manager Jennifer Ireland. In fact, she says, this may be the first time any university has merged their sports prowess and research talent for one goal.

The tournament united researchers across disciplines ranging from sports medicine to neuroscience. Teams collaborated to create solutions that address performance issues like preventing concussions and other sports-related injuries and recovering quickly from rigorous activity.

Applicants were invited to submit proposals summarizing their innovations and plans to create a prototype in a practical, real-world setting. The original group of 19 applicants was narrowed to an “elite eight,” who delivered 30-second pitches at a reception on April 11. The top two teams were awarded a combined $150,000 in seed funding to support their ideas.

Swimming and stressing

First prize winner Team Impulse received $80,000 — plus a trophy and four Panthers football season tickets — for the pool-based testing tool it developed to provide valuable real-time data to swimmers and coaches.

“Unfortunately, there are few tools available for measuring force production in the water,” said Dr. Matthew Darnell, an assistant professor in Pitt’s Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition, during the team’s pitch. “This leaves athletes and coaches in the dark about their training effectiveness. Impulse helps take the guesswork out of training and helps coaches and athletes enhance their performance.”

Heather Lyke and Rob Rutenbar with Apollo Neuroscience team members Kathryn Fantauzzi and Greg Siegle. Photo courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute.

Apollo Neuroscience took home the second prize of $70,000. For the last three years, Dr. Greg Siegle has led a team of researchers on studies demonstrating that vibration in certain subsonic frequency ranges can help alleviate people’s stress. They developed Apollo, a wearable device that has been shown to help individuals manage stress and improve performance by regulating heart rate variability in a double-blind, randomized, controlled clinical trial (now under peer review).

Last fall, they won $125,000 at the Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh), which they will use to support a clinical trial to study the effects of the technology on individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder. The promising results of the team’s early research got Siegle thinking about other applications.

“We know it can help people cope with mental stressors,” says Siegle, an associate professor in Pitt’s Department of Psychiatry. “The question is how it can help with physical stressors.”

“I started talking to people about this,” he explains, “and someone said, ‘Hey, the sports world would probably be really interested.’”

In fact, a national sports team has already expressed interest in adapting the technology. That’s due to the efforts of Kathryn Fantauzzi, who is helping get the wristwatch-sized device in front of new audiences as the company’s business development consultant.

After reviewing data from early studies conducted at Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic by Siegle and Psychiatry Resident Dr. David Rabin, Fantauzzi applied her early-stage technology commercialization experience to introduce Apollo to new markets. She believes it has the potential to improve athletes’ performance and recovery “effortlessly.”

“I think it’s phenomenal that Pitt is bringing together researchers with commercialization folks to bring these technologies to market and help teams in their own backyards,” says Fantauzzi.

Siegle appreciates seeing the results of his research applied in so many ways. He credits Pitt with providing opportunities to work with the university’s athletic teams and others who may not otherwise cross his path.

“As an academic, most of what I do turns into an article that sits in someone’s drawer,” says Siegle. “Having a company that cares about what we’re doing enough to think about marketing and commercializing it is extraordinary.”