Sonam Technologies Wants to Reduce Risk of Playground Brain Injuries

In the past few years, we’ve heard a lot about the dangers of traumatic brain injuries. While we usually hear about these injuries in the context of high-impact sports like football or boxing, traumatic brain injuries are also a risk for kids that fall off playground equipment.

These kinds of accidents are more prevalent and serious than many people realize. According to a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 70 percent of playground injuries severe enough to require a trip to the emergency room are the result of falls onto a playground surface. Roughly 21,000 U.S. children age 14 and younger are treated annually in emergency rooms for moderate to severe traumatic brain injuries that were the direct result of falls onto a playground surface—and that number is considered by many to be low due to the number of injuries that go unreported.

Chris Hanson, co-founder and CEO of Purdue spinout Sonam Technologies, wants to mitigate the damage from playground falls. He spent 17 years in the playground equipment industry before launching his startup three years ago. While he mostly focused on sales, he also learned a lot about product development during the course of his corporate career, and he saw an opportunity to improve safety.

“There seemed to be a huge disconnect, where the existing technology was several decades old,” Hanson recalls.

Playgrounds operate under a set of safety standards, and one of the standards governs something called “impact-attenuating properties,” or the ability of a surface to absorb the energy of a falling object. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the most common types of approved playground surfaces are pea gravel, sand, shredded rubber, wood mulch, and wood chips.

However, exposure to weather and repeated use over time can change surface characteristics and make the materials less able to absorb the impact of falling objects. Sonam’s device can alert playground operators when it’s time to order more or different materials, Hanson says.

Currently, the most common way to measure impact-attenuating properties is by taking a testing device meant to be used in the lab and converting it for use in the field, which Hanson considered to be an inferior method.

“It was really cumbersome and difficult to set-up and use,” Hanson says. “Plus, it was expensive. Most schools and municipalities can’t afford $20,000 or more to measure impact attenuating properties.”

So Hanson consulted with his brother, Michael, a process engineer and Purdue alum. The pair sat down and tried to build a better mousetrap, so to speak.

“We said, how can we take what exists and make it simpler, smaller, more portable, and less expensive?” Hanson says.

The Hanson brothers spent a year and a half building a prototype of a portable electronic tester that can measure and record impact data for the surfaces of playgrounds and other “sports surfaces,” eventually calling it the ST Impact Analyzer CH. Late last month, Sonam received a U.S. patent for its device, which is now in its fifth generation.

The impact analyzer, which consists of a handheld sensor loaded with electronics to mimic the characteristics of a 6-year-old child’s head, can measure the maximum force, velocity, calculated fall heights, and likeliness of head injury when dropped onto a surface, sending the data to a tablet device included with the tester.

Through Hanson’s contacts in the playground industry, they rounded up a group of early adopters to buy the initial units, field test them, and offer feedback on what worked and what didn’t. Hanson says the company has been selling the tester units for about a year to customers across the world.

Sonam, which is housed at the Purdue Research Park in northwest Indiana, has so far bootstrapped its growth, but Hanson says he’s not opposed to finding outside investment. He says the market is sizable, with more than 150,000 public and private playgrounds estimated to be in the U.S. alone, and he envisions an eventual acquisition by a major playground company.

In the future, Hanson would also like to create a master database where all the drops recorded on Sonam’s devices could be stored in a central, anonymous repository. Then, if playground operators wanted to know the best surface for their climate, they could query the database for a fee.

At many playgrounds, safety checks consist of maintenance staff doing an “eyeball test,” and Hanson says the stakes are simply too high for such a nonchalant approach. Once the general public becomes fully aware of the problem, he believes there will be strong demand for his company’s technology.

“Especially when you’re looking at developmental stages, even a minor brain injury can have lifelong repercussions—kids can fall behind in school and never catch up,” he adds. “Looking at a playground doesn’t measure critical safety metrics. Once the safety data is recorded, it allows the park or school to track the surface performance over time.”

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