By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
We first met John Sorochan in 2014 when he captured first place in the “Tennessee Venture Challenge” hosted by the University of Tennessee Research Foundation (UTRF). The competition was for UT faculty who had started companies, and the then Associate Professor pitched his start-up named QuickSod Inc. that was focused on decreasing the time it took to grow and harvest sod – then anywhere from 12 to 30 months, depending on the type of grass – to 12 to 16 weeks.
More than eight years later, the UT, Knoxville (UTK) Distinguished Professor of Turfgrass Science and Management and Co-Director for the Center for Athletic Field Safety is still as passionate about his work as he was when we first met the native of Calgary. That passion came through in buckets on Wednesday evening as Sorochan kicked-off the first session of this fall’s “Vol Court Speakers Series and Pitch Competition” hosted by UTK’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI).
The Knoxville campus is home to the largest turf research program in the nation, and Sorochan is a world expert who consults with organizations like the National Football League Players Association and FIFA, the international governing body for the sport known in the U.S. as soccer. In fact, Sorochan told us before the “Vol Court” session started that he had five international trips already scheduled before the end of the year.
The work that he does with so many organizations these days also reflects a shift in his entrepreneurial interests. QuickSod did not succeed, something Sorochan (pictured at right) attributed in this teknovation.biz article from February to two factors; (1) a technology ahead of its time; and (2) scaling challenges at a time when sod was cheap. His new enterprise, which was a competitor in last year’s “Startup Day” in Knoxville, is named Summit Performance Testing LLC and has licensed from UTRF technology that Sorochan and Kyley Dickson developed.
That technology is incorporated in a device named fLEX that can quantify the readiness of an athletic field for a competition. The name was carefully chosen – f stands for field, footwear and foot and LEX refers to the lower extremity of an individual. The overall goal is to reduce and hopefully eliminate injuries that athletes – American football, soccer, etc. – sustain because of bad playing surfaces.
Sorochan shared with the UTK students two examples of where the fLEX device could have made a difference. One was a November 2018 decision by the National Football League to move a Monday night game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams from Mexico City to Los Angeles due to the poor condition of the field. Two years earlier, a similar playing field condition caused the Pro Football Hall of Fame game between the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts to be cancelled.
Sorochan and his UTK team asked, “What can we do to avoid that happening” in the future? The answer led to the development of fLEX which now has a Beta version of the device and plans to offer a commercial version available in early 2023. ACEI Executive Director Lynn Youngs, who also serves as a Business Advisor to the start-up, drew an analogy between the fLEX device and a Roomba carpet vacuum in terms of how it navigates a field, testing and collecting massive amounts of data.
The findings and resulting problem areas are shown in a heat map that allows for earlier corrective actions to avoid both cancellations of competitions and, more important, injuries to athletes.
Longer term, Sorochan hopes to have a fully-automated version available in mid- to late 2024 and a fully-automated and smart device by the start of 2026.
“They’ll make money on selling the device, but the bigger dollars will come from monetizing the data that is being collected,” Youngs noted. In that vein, Sorochan is also working with athletic shoe manufacturers that could revolutionize and also personalize the design of athletic footwear.
“Vol Court” continues for the next for Wednesdays with the pitch competition scheduled for September 28.