Most elite athletes have strong legs — that’s obvious to any sports fan.
But it’s much harder to know the specific muscle patterns that help each athlete excel — or make them vulnerable to injury.
Springbok, a startup founded by three University of Virginia scientists, hopes to give professional athletes and coaches a better understanding of lower-body muscles with detailed renderings and analytics.
“Springbok provides athletic professionals with information they can’t get anywhere else,” said Joe Hart, an assistant professor of kinesiology at UVa’s Curry School of Education. “It tells you exactly which portion of each muscle is bigger or smaller than normal, and how that relates to performance.”
Springbok uses cutting-edge MRI technology to create 3-D renderings of every muscle in an athlete’s legs. Its software compares the size of each muscle with the average for their overall body size. Muscles that are smaller than average appear as red, average-sized muscles show up as yellow and muscles that are larger than normal appear as blue.
“We are learning about muscle volume patterns that are important to running fast, jumping high, being nimble and recovering from injury,” said Craig Meyer, a professor of biomedical engineering and radiology at UVa.
Hart said this information can help athletic trainers identify muscle weakness that persists for years after an injury or surgery. Springbok’s MRI scans have found significant muscle atrophy in the knees of football players who had been cleared to play again after undergoing surgeries.
“These athletes were not mismanaged; this is a common consequence of injuries,” Hart said. “But a trainer would want to do something about that, if they could see it.”
Springbok’s visualizations can reveal if an athlete is putting extra weight on certain muscles to compensate for an injury.
“A lot of the time, elite athletes can adapt their bodies to perform for a special test,” Hart said. “But that can increase their likelihood of reinjury.”
Mike Curtis, strength and conditioning coach for UVa's basketball programs, said about 15 members of the men's team have been analyzed by Springbok over the past four years.
Curtis said he used the data to identify relationships between muscular attributes and players’ vertical jump heights.
“I was really intrigued by it,” Curtis said. “I thought there was information that could advance our training, or at least triangulate it on specific qualities our athletes need for their sport.”
Hart, Meyer and Silvia Blemker — an associate professor of biomedical engineering at UVa — founded Springbok in 2013 after collaborating on research at the university.
Meyer has devoted much of his career to developing and applying new MRI techniques that dramatically speed up the acquisition of image data.
Meyer said Springbok uses these techniques to complete its muscle scans in about 20 minutes. “Our product would be a much harder sell if we made athletes sit in an MRI machine for hours,” he said.
Blemker’s Multiscale Muscle Mechanophysiology Lab creates computer models of skeletal muscles to better understand their form, function, biology and diseases.
Blemker and Meyer used MRI data to characterize the volume of leg muscles for children with cerebral palsy. Along with two of their graduate students, they patented a method to identify muscle abnormalities that used image data to calculate the volume and length of muscles.
Through a serendipitous connection, this technology caught the attention of a former Major League Baseball player who was training for a return to the sport.
Blemker and Meyer said the baseball player, whom they declined to name, flew to Charlottesville
for an MRI scan, and immediately began using information about his muscle volumes to plan his workouts.
“Players can become more invested in physical therapy when they are given a quantifiable, concrete goal,” said Meyer.
The baseball player’s enthusiasm for the technology inspired Blemker, Meyer and Hart to market a service to professional athletes. Blemker said this has allowed Springbok to avoid insurance costs and other barriers to entry faced by hospital technology.
Over the last several years, Springbok has scanned the lower body muscles of UVa athletes in a variety of sports, including baseball, basketball, football, soccer and track and field.
Curtis said it was challenging for UVa basketball players and other student-athletes to fit MRI scanning and muscle analysis into their busy schedules. He said Springbok’s product could be integrated more easily in a professional sports setting, “where [the athlete’s] main job is to practice and play.”
Meyer said Springbok has started a three-year beta testing partnership with an “elite, global sports team.” He said the company hopes to bring its technology to market in about 18 months.
“We have no direct competitors, but we do have to prove that this makes sense for our customers,” he said.
“We are hoping to get a better idea of how this technology will be used,” said Blemker. “That will influence our business model going forward.”
The engineering research that Springbok has commercialized was funded in part by the UVa-Coulter Translational Research Partnership and the National Science Foundation.
Springbok is using a 2017 Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund grant and some private investment to hire several full-time employees this year, including one of Blemker’s former undergraduate assistants. The company’s earlier hires include Chief Technology Officer Xue Feng — one of Meyer’s former doctoral students — and image segmentation engineer Daniel Podlisny.
Blemker said growing the Springbok team has made it possible for the company’s founders to remain focused on their research at UVa.
“That group has taken charge,” she said. “The goal is for Springbok to have a life of its own, separate of UVa.”
Blemker said applying Springbok’s technology to the treatment of neuromuscular diseases remains a long-term objective.
“Everything that we do in the lab is still relevant,” she said. “We could find other things that we can license to Springbok in the future.”