A lot of folks will insist that there’s no better feeling than when you make a big profit on an investment.
But I believe that the best feeling of all is when you can make a hefty windfall on an investment – and actually help society while you’re doing it.
I was thinking about this late last week as the new NFL season got underway.
Over the last couple of years, as you know, the whole concussion issue has been a big one with the league. In the face of a potential multi-billion lawsuit involving 4,500 current and past players, the NFL commissioner’s office has been massaging the rules to better “protect” players (and especially quarterbacks).
Just days before the season opened, the NFL agreed to pay the plaintiffs roughly $765 million.
That ended this particular lawsuit. But it doesn’t solve the concussion problem, which has become an issue of national concern – not just in pro football, but also in the high-school and recreational league sports that many of our kids play.
The answer to this problem going forward won’t come from more lawsuits, or from absurd rules changes by backside-covering leagues.
It’s going to come from the technology sector – and from two trillion tiny devices that can make you rich.
The Ageless Young
Since moving to the San Francisco Bay Area nearly 30 years ago, the start of each NFL season has been like a rebirth for me.
My first year was a particularly special one. The 1984 San Francisco 49ers – led by Joe Montana – were one of the best teams in NFL history … with a 15-1 record that would be unrivaled for 23 years.
Montana was a unique QB. He could trail for four quarters and then win the game in the last two minutes. And he made it look easy.
After Montana came the marvelous Steve Young.
Young is a Hall of Famer, and was the MVP of Super Bowl XXIX. A player known for his brains as well as his ability, Young earned a law degree by going to school in the offseason. And on the gridiron, he was just as brilliant a performer.
He was the NFL MVP in 1992 and 1994. He won a record six NFL passing titles. And he threw a total of 232 touchdown passes – including a career-high 36 when he was 37 years old.
But along came the concussions.
You see, Steve Young wasn’t your typical “pocket passer” who would sit back and throw long.
He also liked to “scramble,” which is why he set an NFL career record with 43 rushing touchdowns.
Needless to say, such a rambling style exposed him to the kinds of big hits that make NFL football such an adrenaline-inducing sport to watch.
Young’s last appearance on the field was during a 1999 Monday Night Football match in Arizona. It was September, meaning the season was only a few weeks old. That marvelous quarterback was clobbered in a blindside blitz, suffering his fourth concussion in three years.
At it may have been more. Young confessed that he’d taken such a vicious beating the week before against New Orleans that he couldn’t recall throwing the game-winning touchdown pass.
That night – in a postgame news conference – Young admitted, for the first time, that he was terrified by the long-term ramifications of all the concussions he’d suffered during his career.
In fact, he never appeared in another game. He spent the rest of the 1999 season awaiting a “medical clearance” that never came. And he announced his retirement the following June.
It’s easy to dismiss stories like this as rich athletes who play knowing the risks.
But what about our kids?
This, after all, is an even-bigger problem. For instance:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) estimates that as many as 3.8 million sports and recreation-related concussions occur in the United States every year.
- The CDCP also estimates that concussions account for nearly one in 10 sports injuries for those between 15-24 years of age, making sports second only to motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of brain injury.
- During a study done from 2001-2005, kids aged 5-18 years accounted for 2.4 million sports-related emergency department visits annually, of which 6% (135,000) involved a concussion. And it’s increasing: The CDC says that 2.7 million children under the age of 19 were treated at emergency rooms from 2001-2009 – and 6.5% (173,285) involved traumatic brain injuries, including concussions.
- Anecdotal evidence from athletic trainers suggests that only about 5% of high school players suffer a concussion each season; but more formal surveys of actual players suggest the number is much higher, with close to 50% saying they’ve experienced at least one concussion in a season; a third say they’ve had two or more.
- And the recovery times from these range from a few days to months or even years.
Brain trauma is a growth business.
And behind this gaggle of statistics, the human toll is very real.
At one time or another, we’ve all seen one of those news specials on concussions – with the sad saga of a onetime scholar athlete (boy or girl) whose life was sidelined by a single vicious hit … and the concussion that followed.
But researchers are working toward solutions – thanks to one of the most-exciting growth areas in tech … a sector that happens to represent one of my very favorite profit ideas.
I’m talking about sensors – and the technology revolution they are right now ushering in …
Sensors and Sensibility
I like to joke that a sensor is a device that is perfectly named, because the term that you refer to it by also states its purpose. It’s usually a small component that detects a force, physical quantity or movement and converts that into a signal that can be read, analyzed and even catalogued by an electronic instrument such as a PC.
And a special category of sensors known as “MEMS” – for MicroElectroMechanical Systems – offers massive growth.
Sensors are everywhere in our lives. Indeed, thanks to the technology revolution that they’ve ignited, we’re rapidly moving toward the day in which at least 2 trillion of these devices will be put to use.
Look at what’s happening with the Internet of Everything (IoE) – a separate revolution that I told you about last week. The IoE itself could spark demand for as many as 500 billion sensors by the end of the decade. We’re talking about items as diverse as forklifts and refrigerators using sensors to send all sorts of data over the Web.
Sensors also will help determine the future of oil-and-gas exploration. Energy companies are right now tapping a technology known as the Central Nervous System For The Earth (CeNSE) in which they will install sensors all over the planet.
These devices are so sensitive they can detect the motion of something much smaller than a single human hair. They’re at the heart of CeNSE, which analysts say could lead to $4.3 trillion in new energy discoveries at half the current exploration cost. This system alone will require at least 1 trillion sensors.
The construction industry is on board, as well. Sensors that can automatically adjust heat and light and that can detect problems in pipes, roads and bridges will become integral parts of new homes, commercial buildings and infrastructure projects. They will pave the way for “Smart Homes” and “Smart Cities” and will be the catalyst for another 500 billion sensors embedded in physical objects all over the world.
So, the IoE, CeNSE and construction segments alone could mean demand for some 2 trillion new sensors.
But as the NFL season kickoff and the concussion-suit settlement reminded me over the past week or so, the breakthroughs involving medical sensors may be the most exciting of all.
It’s a technology that will provide a direct benefit to thousands of folks – including pro football players and those deserving scholar-athletes.
Little wonder this sector is set to explode.
In a brand-new report, research firm MarketsandMarkets predicts that sales of medical sensors will soar from about $8 billion now to $13.1 billion by the end of 2017 – a 65% jump in just four years.
Indeed, these digital devices are being used throughout the entire health-care system for everything from heart monitors, to drug discovery to hearing implants.
For instance, Proteus Digital Health Inc. makes an electronic sensor that’s about the size of a grain of sand. Patients swallow the small component embedded inside a pill. Once it reaches the stomach, the sensor draws its energy from the body’s fluids, making it self-powered.
The Proteus system sends a unique signal that checks the ID and timing of drugs in the patient’s body. And the platform can collect other heath data such as heart rate, body position and level of activity.
Patients can set up the system so that it sends an alert to their doctor or loved ones as a safeguard against skipping the medicine that keeps them alive.
Treating diseases and other injuries is a terrific application.
But what about reducing the risk of injury in the first place – or even preventing it altogether?
As it turns out, the NFL is backing sensor technology to cut down on the number of concussions that have steeped professional football in controversy.
Earlier this year, U.S. President Barack Obama said that if he had a son he’d be reluctant to let him play football because of “violence” in the sport. And new research backs up Obama’s qualms about the huge force exerted by the impact of two helmets smashing into each other at full speed.
Last December, Boston University School of Medicine researchers used autopsies to show that when athletes suffer a series of concussions, they often end up with permanent brain damage. Symptoms can range from headaches to memory loss to depression and explosive anger.
The president’s comments came amid a season that saw concussions suffered by roughly 170 players.
But soon, sensors could greatly reduce that number by leading to improved helmet design. At the very least, they signal when a player should leave the game even if he doesn’t feel that he suffered an injury.
Researchers at Georgia Southern University are using a system known as Helmet Impact Telemetry (HIT) to study how players recover from a head trauma during sports performance.
Made by Riddell Sports Inc., the official helmet provider to the NFL, the HIT system includes sensors embedded inside the player’s helmet. Those sensors are then connected to a microprocessor that collects data on head accelerations and other factors.
The HIT system itself cannot prevent concussions. But researchers believe it can prove vital insights that will enable them to help cut down on the number of repeated head injuries that football players suffer – especially since, as the suit against the NFL alleged, repeat injuries often lead to permanent brain damage.
A related tech platform known as the Sideline Response System sends a signal to medical teams on hand when data show a player has suffered a concussion and should be pulled from the game.
Another company, the Seattle-based X2 Biosystems Inc., has developed a sensor “patch” that players in a number of sports can wear so that coaches, trainers, doctors and researchers can monitor head impacts.
These devices are smaller than the U.S. quarter, and incorporate MEMS motion-sensing chips, ultra-low-power controllers, a radio transmitter and a miniature power supply and battery charger.
Called the “xPatch,” the device can be used as part of a system that monitors impacts experienced by each player, and that also transmits the data to a special software package the sideline staff can use to examine each athlete’s recent impact history and lifetime concussion history.
X2 says that more than 5,000 xPatch sensor systems have been shipped. It also reports that its “Integrated Concussion Exam” (ICE) software has been adopted by such customers as the NFL, which has mandated the use of the X2 ICE in all practices and all games played by the league’s 32 teams this season.
The companies I mentioned to you today are privately held. But don’t worry. The sensor market is moving rapidly and new investment opportunities are opening up all the time. I already have several on my radar that I’m watching for you, so make sure to keep checking in.
After all, this is an area in which we can profit – and know that our investment dollars are leading to tangible benefits.
So going forward, there won’t be any more bittersweet retirement speeches like the one from Steve Young. And that wonderful scholar athlete from your hometown who had that bit of bad luck in a local football or women’s field hockey game can get his or her once-bright future back … without having to suffer for years to do so.
Those will always be my favorite investing tales to share …
[Editor’s Note: Michael wants to hear from you. Take a moment to post your comments below. And be sure to keep checking back. He’s working on a tech-sector forecast that you’ll really want to see.]