HexNest mat can improve cost, safety for athletes


Miranda Holloway

This is one in a series of features on competitors in the 2018 Cozad New Venture competition, a program sponsored by the University of Illinois' Technology Entrepreneur Center that is designed to encourage students to create new businesses. The competition process offers teams assistance in the form of: mentors to help guide them through the phases of venture creation, workshops to help with idea validation, pitching skills, and customer development, and courses to enhance their skills and knowledge. Teams who make it to the final round of competition will have the opportunity to meet with venture capitalists, early stage investors and successful entrepreneurs who serve as judges. The judges will determine teams that will present their ventures at the finals event. The teams are competing for nearly $200,000 in funding and in-kind prizes.

As a senior on his high school gymnastics team, Mark Van den Avont prepared for his high bar routine. Someone was using the mat he usually used for his dismount, so he grabbed another one. He finished the routine with a flyaway dismount, a back flip off the bar, but missed the landing. 

The fall caused Van den Avont to brake his spine, an injury that can partially be attributed to using a different mat for his landing. This incident, along with a general interest in improving the safety industry, is what gave Van den Avont, now a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering, the idea for HexNest. 

He and his team are creating HexNest, a mat that will cost less than those currently on the market, making the equipment more accessible. It will also have a safer design.  

“The biggest problem I saw with mats was that they were so expensive that gyms couldn’t have as many as they hoped to,” Van den Avont said. 

Currently gymnastics mats are made of an expensive foam called open-cell polyurethane, which can drive mat costs up to around $7,000. By using little to none of the foam, a series of baffles arranged to minimize unevenness, and a thin foam topper, HexNest can make mats both cheaper and safer. 
The team just finished the testing phase for the mat. To measure how safe the mat is, the team dropped a large metal weight with an accelerometer on the mat. This reading goes into an algorithm that gives the team a number. If that number is below one thousand, the mat is safe. Van den Avont has seen numbers on the HexNest design as low as 25. 

The team is now in the optimization phase of development, testing textile types, placement, filler material, size, and shape. 

“That’s really where the technology is able to shine. We’re able to hone in on more specific safety and get a longer acceleration time,” Van den Avont said. “The mats right now might be a foot and a half thick, but they’re only pushing back on you for the last six inches. Our mats are able to go for the whole thickness of the mats, so we have more pushback time, which is much safer.”

In this stage, Van den Avont is working with a PhD student to model the mat mathematically to optimize the design intelligently. 

He hopes that the mats will be used for more than just gymnastics. Mats in other sports, like track and field and rock climbing, are also expensive and could be safer. This means schools and teams can buy more mats and expand programs, as well as possibly bring down insurance costs because of the increased safety. 

“We’re hoping to bring sports to people who can’t have it and make people who do have it a lot safer,” Van den Avont said. 

With the project in this phase, the HexNest team is looking forward to the Cozad New Venture Competition for its developmental resources and opportunities for mentorship.  

“Working on the project has been an enticing experience for me,” team member Ishaan Thakur said. “Not only have I got to work with some of the great minds on the campus, but also the resources which the competition has provided are huge. From the IP clinic services to one-on-one interaction with people who have gone forward to build their start-ups is just mesmerizing.”

Having access to mentorship and getting development experience early in the process is important for any team, but the HexNest team finds it particularly valuable. 

The team is made up of five freshmen. Van den Avont, Thakur, Michael Elzanati, Garvit Narang, and Grayson Will all met as part of the Innovation Living Learning Community. The Innovation LLC, located in Illinois Street Residence Hall, brings together creative students interested in entrepreneurship.
Van den Avont didn’t move into the LLC until second semester, but once he met the group that would become his team, HexNest took off running. 

“We are all really passionate about innovation,” Von den Avont. “I came in with the idea but I saw this great group of guys to work with. It’s really cool to be in an environment like that where everyone is super passionate and wants to team up.”