With over 4 million playing hockey across the nation, there is no doubt Canadians have a love affair with the game. To play safely and have a winning edge, you need the right gear, and this is why sports companies need researchers in their constant quest for improved product design.
Scientists in academia seeking corporate funding may need to learn to play a game with rules very different from the ones they are used to. "The corporate world is very different from academia," advises David Pearsall, a leading sports scientist at McGill University in Montreal. "The key to success is to always ask yourself what does the industry need?" Sports scientists need to strike a balance between scholarly interests and standards and building fruitful partnerships with industry.
Combining engineering and biomechanics, Pearsall examines equipment design and tests safety standards used by both amateur and professional hockey players. He works with athletes, trainers, and coaches from his university's team all the way up to the elite hometown professionals, the Montreal Canadiens. Major sports-equipment manufacturers such as Nike-Baur, ITECH, and the Hockey Company have funded Pearsall's research since 1995, so he knows what it takes to play and win the corporate funding game.
Pearsall's lab at the Department of Kinesiology works with a variety of hockey gear, including elbow, shoulder, and shin pads, as well as the all-important protective helmets. Hockey can sometimes result in serious head injuries. Since their introduction to the game in the late 1960s, the Canadian Hockey Association and Canadian Hockey League have made helmets mandatory for minor leaguers, and helmets also must be certified by the Canadian Safety Council. Despite years of development, hockey helmets still have some core safety issues that need to be addressed.
"While there has indeed been only a couple of deaths since their introduction, it has highlighted the underlying problem of concussions," says Pearsall. With state-of-the-art equipment, the McGill lab conducts drop tests of helmets provided by various major manufacturers, revealing how their construction and design hold up to repeated impacts. Pearsall hopes that his research will lead to the development of helmet designs that will one day be used at giant arenas and municipal ice rinks.
Early on in his career, Pearsall realized that there was a void in research on hockey safety and that while sports manufacturers were making ever-better equipment, there were still many unresolved safety issues. "Today, for example, unlike for helmets, there are no official standards for padding for other parts of the body like the elbows and shoulders." What exactly should this equipment be protecting? How do you measure its performance, and how do you apply the results of your analysis?
Research into these questions is performed not only by companies but also at outside laboratories like Pearsall's. Many companies have state-of-the-art in-house laboratories, which Pearsall says, in a partnership, can be a great resource for any university researcher. His corporate partnership with Nike-Baur has given him access to their expertise and equipment, which has allowed him to expand his testing capabilities from prototype design to impact testing. Pearsall believes this has had the end effect of making his research both scientifically more robust and directly valuable to the highly competitive sports market.
About $100,000 goes into testing each product line before they are released into the market. "It's important to remember, however, that the more testing you do, the more expensive the final manufactured product will be," warns Pearsall. As a result, the industry is always trying to keep research costs in check so that their products do not become so expensive that nobody buys them. This means that there will be a limited amount of financial backing available from corporations for outside research on any particular product line.
Hockey is not unique amongst sports when it comes to corporate funding. Most of the major sports integrate the latest advancements in equipment design and materials. "All you have to do is look at the profit margins for any popular, high-tech sports such as golf and tennis," says Pearsall. "They all get good funding."
It's important not to limit your choices for funding, says Pearsall. Pearsall's laboratory has received support from hockey equipment manufacturing giants such as Nike-Bauer, but he also has core funding from government sources such as NSERC. In terms of doing good science, the lesson here is that it's important to have diverse partners.
Bang for the Buck
When it comes to funding university-based research, corporations don't limit themselves geographically. If they have to move beyond their backyard to find the best of the best, they will. Just ask Stephen Murphy, director of R&D at the Hockey Company, one of the world's leading manufacturers of protective hockey equipment. Nearly all players in the National Hockey League use their equipment. "We want to get the most bang for our buck," says Murphy, "and will go wherever the best research is being done, be it in Canada, U.S., or Europe."
His advice for those seeking funds from corporate coffers echoes that of Pearsall: "You have to understand the economics of the industry you want to be in and work on projects that matter to corporations." The process of knocking on the doors of industry is very different from approaching government sources like NSERC and may in fact be less stressful and more direct. "Filling out the forms to get an NSERC grant is a long, drawn-out process, where with us it's usually a proposal and negotiation."
Timelines for project development are a lot shorter, however, when dealing with corporations, which tend to look for turnarounds of 6 months to a year and expect tangible real-life benefits from their sponsored outside research. "You have to try to be very specific about your project outcome and its implication for design," says Murphy, "Otherwise you may end up doing more of an academic exercise instead of leading to a real product, which is what a company is looking for."
If a long-term project is being proposed, then researchers must expect to be able to demonstrate how they can help an organization with development of their product line. According to Murphy, this includes offering clear insight into how a change in product design could increase performance.
A Ph.D. graduate in biomechanics, Murphy understands the challenges facing sports researchers. His study of the slap shot, performed while he was a student at the University of Waterloo, has led to a fruitful collaboration between his present-day employer and his alma mater. Working with the school's department of systems design, engineers are using detailed computer modeling to study the dynamics and performance of hockey sticks. "We are trying to find out how to design a better stick," says Murphy.
Another project with the University of Windsor has resulted in the development of a slap-shot robot capable of delivering repeatable, accurate shots on net. Its purpose is to evaluate the performance of real-life hockey sticks.
Murphy admits that hockey science is a small niche when compared to more popular North American sports such as golf and basketball. You may have to look hard for funding opportunities, as much of the knowledge is built up in-house within the industry. Sometimes the company will approach the researcher to develop a partnership; this was the case in both outside projects the Hockey Company currently oversees. But regardless of the sport, Murphy believes that the motivation for partnering for any company will be to get the best product out on the market while generating the most interest, eventually leading to more product sales.
Finally, both Murphy and Pearsall suggest that corporate sports-science research is a viable alternative to academia, one that is becoming quite popular among early-career scientists struggling within, or to enter, the academic bubble. For those eyeing a switch, Murphy points out that companies look for a blend of skills from many disciplines: engineering, kinesiology, industrial design, and even project and business management. Many of Pearsall's graduate students have gone on to lucrative careers with Nike and other industry leaders. "It's a small market, but if you're entrepreneurial and willing to knock on the door, then there are numerous opportunities," says Pearsall.
Whichever team you end up playing on, whether corporate or academic, funding will always remain a challenge. The key to success, according to both of these insiders, is to always keep the research relevant to the sport and remain creative and passionate about your work.
Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at email@example.com.