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Duke Student Startup Wins $50,000 NFL 1st and Future Innovation Challenge

Formed by three Duke Engineers on Duke's football team, Protect3d uses 3D scanners and printers to produce anatomically precise protective devices

When three Duke Engineering undergraduates decided to make a customized 3D-printed collarbone brace, they were just trying to help out an injured fellow Duke football player, Daniel Jones, the team’s quarterback destined to start for the New York Giants. But the result was such a success that they saw an opportunity to form a startup company around the idea.

With the help of design and entrepreneurship resources at Duke Engineering and across the university, Protect3d was born. Now, not even a year and a half after the trio engineered that first protective device, the burgeoning company has won the NFL’s 1st and Future Innovations challenge—beating out three other teams for the grand prize of $50,000 and two tickets to the Super Bowl.

“Drawing from what we learned with Duke Football, we did everything in our power to be fully prepared for the competition, so pitching in front of the judges was ultimately game day for us,” said Kevin Gehsmann (ME ’19), who founded the company with Clark Bulleit (BME ’19) and Tim Skapek (ME ’20).

"We know how intellectually advanced they are individually, but it's especially rewarding to watch from afar as they use principles learned from athletics—teamwork, leadership, work ethic, innovation and selflessness—to achieve success,” Duke head football coach David Cutcliffe told GoDuke.com. “All three are outstanding representatives of their families, Duke University and our program. We could not be more proud of them while knowing their finest accomplishments are yet to come."

Held the Friday before Super Bowl LIV in Miami, Florida, the competition is designed to spur innovation in player health, safety and performance, including but not limited to protective equipment, medical devices, sensors and training devices. After presenting their company’s business model and technology—using 3D scans and 3D printing technology to create anatomically-precise protective devices, each optimized for an individual athlete’s comfort, mobility and protection—the team was declared the winners.

Mentored by Ken Gall, associate dean for entrepreneurship at Duke Engineering, the team made full use of all of the resources available to them at Duke. “The team gave an incredible presentation of their bold vision for protective equipment at the NFL competition,” said Gall, a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and serial entrepreneur who serves as the team’s technical and commercial advisor. “The Duke Engineering Entrepreneurship team has enjoyed working with them and supporting their new venture.”

The Duke Innovation CoLab provided guidance and support in becoming masters of the space’s many 3D printers, while the Pratt Student Shop helped realize their initial vision by lending the students a $40,000 3D scanner to do the original scan of Daniel Jones, and the Breakthrough Research Initiative to Develop Global Entrepreneurs (BRiDGE) startup incubator in Durham’s Chesterfield Building provided space and guidance to grow. A Baquerizo Innovation Grant provided a launchpad for Gehsmann and Bulleit to work on Protect3d full-time after graduation, while Skapek continued working as a current student. The team also spent the previous summer honing their business plan at the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship’s inaugural Summer Accelerator, where they gained guidance and insight.

After a full pilot program with NC State’s football team, Protect3d had created 61 protective devices for almost 30 individual athletes. Through their experience, the team—bolstered by the help of a couple more innovative football players, Aaron Wright (ME '21) and Jackson Hubbard (CS '21)—streamlined their process and created an app that allows trainers to scan an athlete's body in 30 seconds using an iPad and a small 3D sensor attachment. Protect3d then creates a digital prototype that fits the scanned anatomy and 3D prints the custom medical device to fit whichever body part an athlete needs protected. Their goal is to deliver personalized protective devices within two to three days anywhere in the country.

Now part of the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs program on Duke’s campus, the team plans to take their prize money and get to work on the next phase of their business’s growth.

“We hope this event helps spring our business forward so we are able to support NFL and college football teams across the country this coming season,” said Gehsmann. “Most of the money will be used to expand our manufacturing facility in Durham to prepare to scale up to meet that challenge.”