GrayMatters team developing sensor to detect concussions in bike riders/athletes


Heather Coit

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.


Gina Li, a freshman majoring in electrical and computer engineering (ECE), was in need of inspiration late last fall when she was assigned to find project ideas for her ECE 110 class. Brainstorming ended when two of her friends were involved in bicycle accidents within days of each other.

“His face was all scarred,” Li said of the first friend, who was not wearing a helmet when his bike was struck by a bus. The second friend got a concussion when she was knocked over by another bike.

“This is a serious problem with college students,” Li thought. “I was thinking, how can I create something to detect concussions?”

Li soon began work on a concussion-detecting sensor for the class’s final project from which her company, GrayMatters, later emerged.

GrayMatters, made up of Li and TJ Roberts, a junior in ECE, and, Pierre Vasquez, a sophomore in Department of General Studies, is competing in the Cozad New Venture Competition, which concludes on April 25 with the final round. The small team is improving an affordable sensor, which detects concussions in bike riders and athletes in sports like football and soccer.

Before their collaboration began last January, Li had nixed plans to line a helmet with pricey force sensors and had searched for cheaper alternatives. She sought guidance from classmates like Vasquez, who was in both her ECE 110 and Physics 211 classes at the time.

A combination of her peers’ help and physics lessons on the F=ma equation, which describes the relationship between an object’s mass and the amount of force needed to accelerate it, led her to accelerometers.

“I thought since you can directly translate the acceleration into force maybe I could detect concussions using accelerometer,” Li said.

As Li and a lab partner built a circuit and wrote code for the project, she and Vasquez began working more closely on physics homework. The two laughed during an interview as they recalled clashing over homework answers in their early days, but a game of pool turned them into friends and eventually business partners.

By winter break, the two were on board to take Li’s sensor further after learning about Cozad. Vasquez, who worked with Roberts as a lab partner in ECE 110, knew Roberts was proficient in using Arduino code, calling him an “ECE genius.” Roberts accepted a spot on their team.

Currently the trio is working on getting a patent for their sensor unit, which includes an accelerometer/gyroscope, LED light, Arduino board, resistors, and wires. They continue to improve the kit’s compactness and its sensitivity so a light will signal when a concussion occurs.

The team hopes to use their product in a headband or earpiece, allowing bike riders and athletes to wear the sensor while using the helmet of their choice.

Roberts, who created the GrayMatters name and logo, wants to find the best accelerometer for accuracy. Li would like to see their product mass-produced, and Vasquez continues his focus on entrepreneurism by planning to take both engineering and business-based courses.

The team is surprised how far GrayMatters has come and is pleased with recently getting an Intellectual Property Clinic trademark, officially giving them a brand.

If GrayMatters is a Cozad winner, Li hopes funding will advance their startup company.

“Going into freshman year, I wanted to do something related to entrepreneurship; that’s what I wanted to do with my ECE degree,” Li said.