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Modern Gladiator

Spring 2017 | By Paula Novash for The College

Michelle Urban (SF08) is CEO of Pressure Analysis Company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Photo by Kevin Lange)
Michelle Urban (SF08) is CEO of Pressure Analysis Company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Photo by Kevin Lange)

Michelle Urban (SF08) is convinced there is major value in having to figure things out.

“When I was at St. John’s writing a paper, I usually wouldn’t know how to prove what I wanted to,” Urban says. “But then it would come together—and succeeding at something you have struggled with is a great feeling.”

It is a philosophy that translates well to Urban’s current situation as an entrepreneur running a tech startup. As CEO of Albuquerque-based Pressure Analysis Company (PAC), which designs and manufactures wireless technology to track head injuries in athletes, Urban says that her biggest challenge is inexperience.

“We’re creating an innovative product in an emerging field,” she says. “Every day there’s something new we need to learn how to do.”

Amid increasing concerns about sports-related head injuries—particularly those that affect younger players—the company’s idea is timely. According to a 2016 article published on Sports Illustrated’s website, si.com, the rate of youth concussions rose 500 percent between 2010 and 2014. Although high school-age athletes are most likely to suffer concussions and the highest percentage of injuries occur playing football, Urban says the problem spans a wide range of ages and sports.

“There are complexities at different levels. Younger players have not been hit over and over yet, so having cumulative data can be helpful for parents and physicians,” she says. “And coaches of older players need to be able to see exactly where they’ve been hit and how hard, so they know if someone needs to be pulled out of a game and examined.”

Urban and her partners have developed a tool to help. Called the SmackCap, it resembles the slightly slouchy skullcap that is popular with hipsters and other fashion-minded individuals. But inside, SmackCap is an array of pressure sensors, connected in a spiderweb pattern, that can track every impact to a player’s head in real time and send the data to a wireless device such as a cellphone or iPad. Besides showing if and how badly a player may be injured over time, SmackCap technology also has potential to change the techniques coaches recommend.

“For instance, if a kid is getting hit repeatedly in the same spot, the coach might notice that he’s leading with his head,” Urban says.

Urban grew up in Santa Fe and was homeschooled. Although her first job during high school was as part of the St. John’s campus building and grounds crew, she did not initially consider applying there. But she says she loved the curriculum and skills she learned as a Johnnie—and they were a complement to her graduate studies at the University of New Mexico (UNM).

“In business school I was the one who was always asking questions and analyzing during group projects and discussions,” she says. “I think some people found it annoying, but I was used to thinking deeply and critically.”

It was at UNM that Urban became interested in entrepreneurship. After earning her MBA she did contract work for the New Mexico economic development department, and while creating resources for businesses she realized she had skills she wanted to leverage.

“I was writing website content on advice about how to start a business, and I thought, I know all of that,” Urban says.

She wanted to do something that contributes good to people’s lives, and became aware of the problem of head injuries in sports.

“It’s an issue that for a long time was shoved under a rug,” she says. “It seemed logical that having technology to track even smaller level hits, and provide a history of all hits taken, would be valuable to physicians and researchers as well as parents.”

Urban met her partners in PAC at a networking event. Together she and Lori Upham, who handles business activities, and Scott Sibbett, a UNM research professor who created the SmackCap technology, are engaged in a hands-on, collaborative effort.

“When we built our first prototypes, Lori handled the fabric, Scott the electronics and laptop software, and I assembled the sensor array,” Urban says.

A pilot partnership with the Duke City Gladiators, a professional indoor football team based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had players wearing SmackCaps during their practices and games, and allowed the PAC team to conduct field tests and collect data.

At the 2016 South by Southwest (SXSW) technology conference held in Austin, Texas, Urban participated in a gathering of woman entrepreneurs who were pitching to investors; with fewer than 3 percent of tech companies run by women, she is one of an elite cadre.

“It was a great opportunity—the first time we were able to present about the company outside of New Mexico,” she says.

SmackCap is available for pre-order with the target of making the product available to consumers in 2018; Urban and her partners are excited about the future of the company’s idea.

“Things are moving so fast—we’re marketing, talking to investors, dealing with intellectual property issues, and expanding our team,” she says. “I’m not sure how it’s all going to work, but I’m sure we’ll be able to deal with it.”