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How A High School Concussion Inspired A Tech Startup

Rachel McDevitt
90.5 WESA
Matt Roda takes a test on the Reflexion Edge.

  Matt Roda of Lancaster County was a junior in high school when a single hockey game changed his entire life, putting him on a path to try and better identify and treat concussions. 

He was skating down the ice on a breakaway when he was checked from behind and flew head first into the boards.

Roda doesn't really remember the rest of that game. 

He knows his coach called him over to the bench and asked him: where are you? What year is it? Who is the president?

"I said, I'm at the Lancaster ice rink, it's 2014 and Barack Obama," Roda recalled. 

Roda was cleared to play the rest of the game, but he had sustained a severe concussion. He missed the next two months of school as he went in and out of doctors' offices. He suffered debilitating headaches and became depressed and anxious.

"What was so frustrating about it was not knowing when I would actually be able to be my normal self again," Roda said.

With his two best friends -- Matt Campagna and Patrick Walsh -- and support from his high school, Lancaster Catholic, he started researching and found a lot of concussions are missed, because the testing is subjective.

Dr. Michael Cordas agrees diagnosing concussions is an art, not a science.

Cordas is the director of Primary Care Sports Medicine at UPMC Pinnacle, where he says they probably see between five and ten concussion cases each week.

"But most concussions are underreported," he said.

Cordas says the best way to detect a concussion is to see the injury happen, but doctors also use what's called an ImPACT test.

"An ImPACT test is a measure of the cognitive ability, the thinking ability of an individual combined with activity," Cordas said.

Athletes take the test at the beginning of a season, then again if a concussion is suspected. Cordas says he's not thrilled with the test, because there are too many variables that can mess with the results. Variables such as the athlete having a cold, or being tired. 

This is where Roda says his startup Reflexion can really help athletes.

"That [the ImPACT test] was the test I did after my concussion and it really didn't tell me anything or help at all," Roda said.

Just a few weeks before they all headed for separate colleges, Roda, Campagna, and Walsh decided to go all in on turning their vision for better concussion testing into a business. 

The three invented a device to create a more comprehensive picture of athlete's brain function over the course of a season. Athletes would take the test every week, so if a person does get a concussion, a red flag is immediately thrown up.

The latest model of the Reflexion Edge is made of sleek touch screen panels. It's only a few inches thick, 6 feet long, and a foot-and-a-half tall. It mounts at eye level on a tripod.

This device is a far cry from the original 70-pound version Roda and his friends built in high school.

"It was ridiculous," Roda said with a laugh. 

The latest version folds up like an accordion to about the size of a brief case.

The tests are like something you would see in an arcade. One's called whack-a-mole. In it, green squares light up at random points on the screen, and slowly turn red if the athlete can't hit them fast enough. A game called minefield is similar, but speeds up over the course of the test. 

Roda says they want the Edge to be fun -- a test athletes look forward to taking, and work into their weekly routines. He says the tests will help improve brain function and reaction time if done regularly, as well as detect concussions.

"We envision this for more subtle, cumulative effects of sub-concussive blows or just concussions that are missed because athletic trainers can't see everything at once," he said.

Roda is now a junior at Penn State University, studying biochemistry. While launching a business with a full course load seems like a huge challenge, Roda says starting Reflexion from campus has almost made it easier. As a student, he has access to grant funding, networking, and great mentors.

"As a 21-year-old kid, I really don't know how to run a business. But for them to be able to provide that strategic advice and answer questions I've never even thought of, that's been a huge help for us," Roda said.

His company is now paying a Penn State professor to run clinical trials on the Edge.

Roda says they plan to officially launch in May and hope to have the device in 100 schools within the first year.

WESA’s Bridges to Health covers the well-being of Pennsylvanians and is funded by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.