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Businesses on Board With Enhancing Human Sports Performance

Mike Ferris, vice president of marketing for TaylorMade Golf, says several technologically enhanced club lines the company has rolled out in recent years make a big difference with players.

Long known as a hotbed for golf clubs, San Diego is home to a varied group of sports equipment manufacturers that infuse the latest technology and engineering into older gear, or come up with entirely new products.

The firms range from recent startups like ElliptiGO, a maker of a new outdoor workout machine, to TaylorMade Golf Co. Inc., a longstanding golf club business that has about 1,000 employees at its Carlsbad site.

Here is a look at what four local companies are doing to differentiate themselves from their competitors and how they are innovating.

The two partners that founded ElliptiGO in 2005 didn’t quit their day jobs, taking more than four years to bring their concept of marrying an elliptical training machine with a bicycle to fruition.

The first two prototypes took about a year alone to create, said Bryan Pate, who depended mainly on his engineering partner, Brent Teal.

That first model was longer than it needed to be, and made with chomoly steel, which was too heavy. Later versions were aluminum, Pate said. All along the partners were testing and tinkering with the size and the overall propulsion system to improve things. Even when the bike went through its fourth prototype, they continued to make adjustments to various parts to make it fit their overall goal: Produce something that resembles running without the tough impact on feet and joints, he said.

A Long Road

Through the process, ElliptiGO obtained several patents covering the technology as well as signing a licensing agreement with the inventor of the elliptical machine, Larry Miller.

“It took a lot of time to do it right, but that was critical for us,” Pate said. “It was important to launch a product out of the gate that worked really well.”

The business, which began selling the machines in 2010, seems to be on its way, reporting it should nearly double its revenue this year to $4 million, up from $2.5 million last year.

In the super competitive world of golf clubs, TaylorMade, a division of Germany’s Adidas, has rolled out several club lines in recent years that the company says has altered the entire industry.

In 2004, its R7 drivers were among the first to use what it calls “movable weight technology.” By adjusting four weighted screws in the head of the golf club, players could alter the flight of the ball and customize the golf club for their own optimal performance.

In 2008, the company introduced other changes in its R9 line of clubs that allows players to adjust the face angle as well as the loft, enormous aids to all players, said Mike Ferris, vice president of marketing.

Powerful Tool

And this year with its R11 driver, the company again added new features geared to helping players with their swings, and providing more power to the shots, Ferris said.

“It’s made a big difference with a lot of players, and even with many of the players on the (professional) tours who say it’s improved their games,” he said.

The innovations incorporated into TaylorMade’s newest clubs are a direct result of ongoing work by its research and development team of about 60. Ferris said the team is constantly working on the various types of clubs: metal woods, irons, and wedges and putters, and usually takes three to five years to bring out a new type of club.

He declined to disclose how much TaylorMade invests into R&D, but the results have certainly boosted sales. It’s captured about 40 percent of the new driver sales so far this year, Ferris said.

Sometimes the best innovations hail from combining existing technologies. San Diego-based HumanCentric Performance Inc. is a year-old startup that addresses the problem of heatstroke in athletes. Rob Logan, the company’s chief executive and one of its four employees, said its “smart mouth guards” combine the protection of a well-known mouthpiece with a temperature monitoring device that can determine whether a player is overheating, and in danger of causing a fatal blow to the body. The danger is real; some 700 people in the nation die annually from heat stroke, Logan said.

Military, Workforce Applications

While the initial focus for the product are athletes, particularly younger ones, the device has obvious benefits to those in the military, first responders, and other occupations where folks engage in strenuous activity, Logan said.

HCP, which considers itself a technology company, has been in talks with some of the biggest manufacturers of mouth guards including Shock Doctor, Under Armour and Nike, but doesn’t have a licensing agreement yet.

The device infuses existing wireless technology that allows the transmission of a person’s body temperature to a computer or smartphone.

But there are more rudimentary models. In one version, the monitor within the mouthpiece transmits to three color-coded lights that can be easily viewed on the outside of a player’s helmet: green, yellow and red. When a coach sees a player with a yellow light, he’ll direct them to sit down, rest and drink fluids, Logan said.

Things are still very much in the development stage at HCP, a pre-revenue business. The company has raised $300,000 in angel and early round investments, but is obviously going to need more to take the business to the next level, he said.

Flexibility in the Water

Hydroflex Surfboards in Oceanside is another business using new techniques in the making of surfboards to improve the experience of riding waves.

The business uses a patented lamination process on the shaped foam building block that allows surfers to adjust the board’s flexibility to match conditions and their own preferences, said Ed Santos, Hydroflex’s director of sales.

“It’s similar to cars when you’re adding shocks that give it a better turning ability and stability,” Santos said. “You get a better performance from the board, and it can go quicker through turns … the boards also last three to four times longer.”

In addition to infusing the shaped block with fiberglass and resin, the company’s founder, Bufo Rouven Brauers, developed another key innovation that has provoked considerable buzz among surfers. The board includes a valve to pump air into it that improves flexibility and performance.

The innovations apparently are getting noticed. Last week, the company was named as a recipient of the Connect Most Innovative Product Award in the action and sports technologies category.

The boards aren’t cheap, retailing for about $850, but quantum leap innovation, as this product evidently is, doesn’t come cheap either.

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