As former Duke football players, the co-founders of Protect3d—Kevin Gehsmann, Clark Bulleit and Tim Skapek—started their company after discovering the incredible benefits of 3D-printed custom protective devices for their teammates.
The solution first came as a device for their teammate Daniel Jones, a star quarterback. Jones broke his collarbone early in the 2018 season, his senior year and also the final season for two of the three co-founders. The medical staff at Duke did not originally have a great way to protect his injury.
So the Protect3d trio used 3D technology to make something for a player for the first time. Jones returned after missing only a few weeks, played well and remained healthy the rest of the year, and ended up the sixth overall pick for the 2019 NFL Draft. He is now the starting quarterback of the New York Giants.
The trio founded Durham-based Protect3d—it’s pronounced “Protected”—in 2019 right after Geshmann and Bulleit graduated (Skapek had one more year) upon creating several devices for other athletic teams at Duke. Protect3d is also a current semifinalist for an NC IDEA SEED grant worth $50K.
Part of the startup’s appeal to athletic teams is that each Protect3d device is custom-fit to the individual.
“The user—the athlete or the patient—feels the magic of a custom perfect fit and anatomically precise fit,” Gehsmann said.
Protect3d first conducted pilot runs with NC State and Duke’s football team at the same time they applied for—and received—an earlier MICRO grant ($10K) from NC IDEA. Nearly two years later, Protect3d has a fully launched app that allows medical professionals to take a 3D scan of an athlete or patient’s anatomy and then order a product from Protect3d. Protect3d then designs and manufactures the product using their 3D printer facility in Durham.
While Gehsmann said Protect3d’s initial market entry is primarily college and professional football teams, they also are servicing hockey teams. Altogether, they’ve worked with 15 college football teams, three NFL teams and two hockey teams.
The price of Protect3d’s custom fits depend on the size of the organization along with the range of custom products, from small finger splints to highly complex clavicle pads. Protect3d also offers design consulting in specialized use cases and can expedite their process to deliver their custom-fabricated medical devices in as little as 48 hours.
While Protect3d looks ahead and hopes to move forward with the NC IDEA SEED funding to stimulate its growth, Protect3d has already had its products validated with funding.
Protect3d won the NFL’s 2020 1st and Future competition in the category of innovations to advance athlete health and safety. For their achievement, Protect3d won $50K from the NFL and free Super Bowl tickets.
“That validated our idea that what we were doing was needed at the highest level,” Gehsmann said.
Of course, following the Super Bowl in February 2020, the entire sports world came to an abrupt halt when Covid-19 hit. After winning the NFL grant, Gehsmann said they had awesome opportunities to connect with NFL teams and organizations, but the pandemic stifled some of their growth. Still, Protect3d launched its full-scale technology last summer and increased product usage and growth among the teams.
Planned Expansion To Broader Market
When it comes to the impact Protect3d products make, it’s clear to see. All of their custom products, pads and braces have helped athletes at the highest levels return to action despite their injuries, Gehsmann said. But it’s more than that.
“Each one tells a story and has a positive impact on somebody’s life,” Gehsmann said. “At a larger scale, we hope to make it possible for the everyday person, not just athletes, to get back to a regular daily life or an active lifestyle following a musculoskeletal injury.”
The next stage of growth for Protect3d involves making their technology widely accessible to orthopedic clinics and medical centers so the average person can benefit from Protect3d’s custom medical devices and go back to their own active lifestyles. Gehsmann said the team is in the middle of their first pilot program to serve general patients now.
Gehsmann hopes NC IDEA will continue to be there along the way on their path to growth.
“Since winning the MICRO grant in 2019, it’s been an honor to be a part of such an incredible community that NC IDEA has garnered,” Gehsmann said. “Winning the SEED grant would be a great achievement for our company to continue our growth trajectory.”