Projects to Improve Swimming Training and Regulate Athletes’ Nervous System Receive Funding to Move Innovations Forward

When the Pitt swimming team hits the pool this fall, it could have a new training device to help them monitor and assess the force of their strokes and prevent over-training courtesy of Pitt researchers.

The tether device and software platform, under the team name “Impulse,” won the top award of $80,000 at the inaugural Performance Innovation Tournament, presented by the Innovation Institute and the Department of Athletics, together with the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) and the Office of Research and Office of the Provost.

Developed by a collaborative team from departments of Sports Medicine and Nutrition and Health and Physical Activity, both within the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, together with Pitt’s assistant swimming and diving coach, Marc Christian, the proposed system would allow trainers and athletes to identify how changes in training, or changes in stroke technique affect performance.

“We are excited for Pitt to be the early adopters of this platform,” said Dr. Elizabeth Nagel, Associate Professor in the Department of Health and Physical Activity, the lead researcher for the innovation.

Receiving the second place prize of $70,000 was team Apollo, which has created a bio-metric screening and treatment platform that measures a user’s nervous system and delivers customized frequencies through a watch-like device that can improve performance and focus to individuals in mentally or physically stressful situations.

The primary investigator on the project, Dr. Greg Siegle, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Psychology and Clinical Translation, credited the Pitt innovation commercialization ecosystem for nurturing the project to this point.

The team began in the Innovation Institute’s First Gear program in the 2015-16 academic year. Each First Gear team receives $3,000 from the NSF I-corps program to conduct customer discovery exercises to learn who its technology might appeal to.

Siegle said the team used some of that money to buy existing products on the market to test out and see where they could differentiate.

“You might not think $3,000 is a lot of money but it really helps you with that initial market research,” he said.

The team then won top prize in the Innovation Institute’s Michael G. Wells Healthcare Competition.  These funds were used to conduct their first lab study that demonstrated that the system can reduce stress.

They followed Wells by entering the Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh) competition in both 2016 and 2017 with different applications of their technology. They won a total of $150,000 through PInCh that allowed them to build a prototype.

Siegel said the $70,000 in prize money from the Performance Innovation Tournament will be used to conduct a lab study of the device with athletes. The technology has been optioned by the University and a business development executive, Kathryn Fantauzzi, is beginning to approach potential customers in the athletic and military space. Another veteran of the wearable technology space has been hired to lead product development.

Pitt Athletic Director, Heather Lyke, joined Pitt Senior Vice Chancellor for Research, Rob Rutenbar, among an all-star panel of judges for the competition at the Petersen Events Center.  Lyke said collaborating with Pitt researchers to solve problems that Pitt coaches and trainers encounter as they strive for a competitive edge is an important way Pitt athletics can differentiate itself from other programs.

Rutenbar said that a unique combination of factors align to make Pittsburgh a natural place for human performance innovation, citing the following factors that perhaps no other region can boast:

  1. A top 5 National Institutes of Health funded university
  2. A member of a Power 5 athletic conference
  3. A partnership with a major clinical health system with an active sports medicine program
  4. A city with multiple pro sports teams

“When you consider these competitive advantages, Pittsburgh has the potential to rewrite the playbook for what human performance means to the world,” he said. “The innovative ideas and concepts that were presented for this inaugural Performance Innovation Tournament are just the beginning,” he said.

From a field of over two dozen applicants, eight finalists were selected to pitch to an initial panel of judges that included Rasu Shrestha, Chief Innovation Officer for UPMC, Dr. Vonda Wright, Medical Director of the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, along with Dr. Steven Reis, Associate Vice Chancellor for Clinical Research for Health Sciences and Director of CTSI, and Tyler Carpenter, Pitt’s head strength and conditioning coach.

Once the field was narrowed to two finalists, they were joined by Lyke and Rutenbar, along with Rich Hixson, President of the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex and Joe Pietropola, Vice President of Product Management for Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc.

Shrestha said there have been many profound innovations in the area of human performance that have come out Pitt, but that by formalizing a collaboration between the athletics department and the university’s research apparatus presents a unique opportunity to accelerate new ideas.

“When you have the talent and capabilities in science and technology in medicine together with strong undercurrents for using artificial intelligence and big data as catalysts for pushing innovation forward, you have the opportunity to really move the needle,” he said. “To see the amount of ideas we saw concentrated in a few hours was mind-blowing.”


Below is a listing of each of the eight Performance Innovation Tournament finalists:

The Tether Swimming Test as Measure of Force Production and Anaerobic Performance: Development of a Real-Time, Multi-Swimmer Application Prototype

PI: Elizabeth Nagle, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Practice, Department of Health and Physical Activity

Co-PIs: Matthew Darnell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition, SHRS, Carma Repcheck, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Health and Physical Activity, Katelyn Allison, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition, SHRS, Dr. Marc Christian, University of Pittsburgh, Assistant Swimming & Diving Coach, Department of Athletics.


A miniaturized wearable tissue spectrometer for real-time feedback of aerobic and anaerobic glycolysis in muscle during exercise.

PI: Theodore Huppert, PhD. Dept of Radiology and Dept. of Bioengineering

Co-PIs: April Chambers, Dept. of Bioenginnering; Ervin Sedjic, Dept. of Electrical Engineering


Pitt FUSION: Fusing Ubiquitous Sensor Information for Optimization

An Athletics performance-oriented data-system architecture that permits the use of

measures from unobtrusive commercial off the shelf sensors, training data, and other measures of health, wellbeing and psychological status to understand, manage, and optimize the performance and wellbeingand to mitigate injury risk potential of Pitt athletes.

Co-PIs: Drs Connaboy and Mi, Co-I Dr Nindl


The University of Pittsburgh App-based Exertional Test (iEXiT): A Brief, Objective Assessment of Return to Play Following Concussion

PI: Anthony P. Kontos, Department of Orhopaedic Surgery and Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition

Co-PIs: Chris Connaboy, Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition; Alicia Sufrinko, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery; Victoria Kochick and Anne Mucha,  UPMC Centers for Rehabilitation Services; Tony Salesi, Department of Athletics; Qi Mi, Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition


Apollo, Effortlessly Improving Performance Recovery in Real Time

PI: Greg Siegle, Department of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Translational Sciences

Co-PIs: David Rabin, Department of Psychiatry; Shan Gao, Department of Psychiatry; Kathryn Fantauzzi, Business Development


MOVISU-FIT: Mobilizing Real Time Visual Feedback through Wearable Technology for Runners

PI: Goeran Fiedler, Department of Rehabilitation Science

Co-PIs: Krista Kutina, David Brienza, Alicia Koontz, and Garrett Grindle, Department of Rehabilitation Science; Christopher Connaboy, Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition;  Austin Frownfelter, programmer


A Battery-Less and Non-Obstructive Wearable Devicefor Physiological Load and Knee Angles Measurement

PI: Jingtong Hu, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Co-PIs: Yawen Wu and Zhenge (Kevin) Jia, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering


A Wearable Myoelectric Garment to Monitor Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury Risk

PI: Douglas J. Weber, PhD, Associate Professor, Departments of Bioengineering and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitiation

Co-PI: Michael A. Urbin, Postdoctoral Associate, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation