Springbok Analytics, which uses AI to convert 2D MRI scans into a 3D digital twin for muscle analysis, has completed an oversubscribed $3 million seed round led by Transition Equity Partners and joined by the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks and prior investor Titletown Tech.
Founded in Charlottesville by University of Virginia engineers, Springbok Analytics has league-wide partnerships with the NBA through its Launchpad program for startups and the NFL through its Scientific Advisory Board grant for research into hamstring injuries.
Also participating in the funding were Cav Angels, a university alumni group, and the FSHD Global Research Foundation, which raises money for genetic muscle disease. The original motivation for Springbok began in 2009 from research in biomedical engineer Silvia Blemker’s lab to explore ways to help surgeons treat patients with cerebral palsy.
The participating investors represent the three key applications for Springbok’s product: human performance, healthy aging and life sciences.
“I wanted it to reflect, as much as possible, our different markets and business lines that we were going to head into with this round of funding,” said CEO Scott Magargee, who joined Springbok in 2019.
“What I really liked about Springbok was that the science was sound, and it had spent so much time being cultivated and curated by Silvia and the other scientific co-founders. It was kind of the reverse of what a lot of us have seen in these early-stage companies, which a lot of times start with the concept and then try to backfill the evidence or the science. This had been developed over 10 years of academic research and rigor.”
When surgeons were operating on children with cerebral palsy, explained Blemker, the chief scientific officer, they didn’t have an accurate way to look inside the muscles to diagnose which ones were impaired, malformed or healthy. That prompted the idea, along with fellow co-founder Craig Meyer, to develop a baseline for healthy musculature.
“We started with healthy controls, developing a database of what would you expect all muscles to look like in healthy people,” she said. “Until then, nobody really knew that. It was all based on cadavers, which aren’t healthy people, obviously.”
The Participatory Culture Foundation, the NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research fund and UVa’s Coulter Center for Translational Research supported early work, and advances in AI helped turn Springbok reports from a manual 50-hour manual undertaking to an hourlong automated process. The dashboard presents color-coded muscles indicating right/left asymmetries, muscle sizes and a Springbok Score that compares the individual to others in their roughly 2,000-person database of similar body size.
Some of the early grant writers were encouraged by the prospect of the work but urged Springbok to explore larger markets to generate the necessary investment and revenue to propel the product forward. The startup intended to work mostly with university athletic programs before “Covid decided to obliterate collegiate budgets,” Magargee said, “so we pivoted to pro sports.”
What does a Springbok user journey look like? Here’s a quick look at the beginning of the process, that in completion, includes getting the patient getting their MRI, getting that scan analyzed, producing their results, and applying those results to their training. pic.twitter.com/UpFb70ixnG
— Springbok Analytics (@SpringbokTech) April 6, 2023
Elite athletics has cachet, of course, but also an existing network of medical partners and the means to afford it — at least for now, Springbok doesn’t have a CPT code for insurance reimbursement of the MRI scans.
“It’s that halo effect,” he added, “and it was also because all of those sports teams are affiliated with really prominent health systems, so it gets you into HSS, or it gets you into the Cleveland Clinic or Rush in Chicago, or other places working with those groups.”
To illustrate possible use cases, Blemker shared her screen with an anonymized report of an NFL player who had recovered from a severe hamstring injury. There are three muscles that comprise the hamstring muscle group. One of them was torn, prompting the others to pick up the slack, which wouldn’t have been evident to anyone conducting standard assessments.
“When we look at the whole — the knee, the knee flexors, all the hamstrings — as a group, they’re really not that asymmetric,” Blemker said. “This athlete has really compensated for that severe injury, which is important, I think, to understand from the athlete management perspective because that can put some of these other compensation muscles at risk.
“This is a good example of, on the outside, if you were to test their knee flexor strength, you would see it looks quite good. It would be pretty symmetric. But it’s just that, on one side, you they’ve totally rearranged which muscle is contributing because of that severe injury.”
That type of underlying understanding can help inform that athlete’s training program and injury risk factors going forward. Magargee noted that among team clients — which span the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL and NCAA — the Chicago Bulls are an example that offered scans to players at the beginning of the season and then again this month before they dispersed for the summer.
“With the team, we’re going to correlate the data that happened over the course of the year — functional testing, the minutes played, things like that — to see what’s changed over the course of the season and also use those reports to be able to send them into the offseason and the team will give them some things to work on,” he said.
Gathering these datapoints and scans will help Springbok “develop a predictive index for hamstrings with an eye towards if somebody could be identified at higher risk and also identifying what they could do to prevent [an injury],” Blemker said. “Because all of these things can be adjusted. It’s not just, intrinsically, this player is not good for running. It’s more like, ‘Oh, it’s something about their muscle profile and maybe leading them to higher injury susceptibility.’ So then, let’s work on this. That’s really what we want to do.”
That’s the crux of what Springbok is doing for the NFL as one of three parties selected for a four-year, $4 million project along with the University of Wisconsin and Australian Catholic University’s SPRINT Centre. The NBA project is shorter-term for now (six months) with a similar emphasis on guiding injury prevention and return-to-play protocols.
Springbok’s specialty is in lower extremity assessments, but its technology can be applied to shoulder scans, particularly for rotator cuff injuries. Whole body evaluations are possible but in R&D for now.