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Exclusive: Andrew Luck Signs With Startup That Makes Concussion Warning Device

When it comes to off-field opportunities, the star QB is taking a nerdier approach

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You find most athletes in Andrew Luck’s cohort — star quarterback — in commercials for brands like Subway (Robert Griffin III), McDonald’s (Colin Kaepernick, Joe Flacco), the Madden video game (Kaepernick and Russell Wilson), and Papa John’s (Peyton Manning. Lots and lots of Peyton Manning). Luck does have an endorsement deal with Nike. But when it comes to off-field business opportunities, the second-year QB, and Stanford grad, is taking a nerdier approach.

MC10, a tech start-up based in Cambridge, Mass., is planning to announce on Thursday morning that Luck is joining its “Sports Advisory Board:” Luck gets an equity stake in the company. (Neither MC10, or Luck, would reveal the size of the stake). MC10 makes stretchable, ultra-thin computer chips that can attach unobtrusively to clothing, or even your skin. These sensors can, for example, provide real-time biofeedback to doctors, without a patient having to be attached to wires. MC10 won the Wall Street Journal’s technology innovation award, in the semiconductor category, in 2012; the World Economic Forum named MC10 a technology pioneer for 2013; TIME featured MC10’s bioelectronics technology in our “10 Ideas That Make A Difference” package earlier this year.

MC10’s first commercial product, which was released in July, is particularly relevant to football. The Reebok Checklight — MC10 teamed up with the footwear and apparel company — is a skullcap with sensors, that fits under a football helmet. (Or bike helmet, hockey helmet, etc. A soccer player, for example, can wear it without a helmet). After a certain level of force is applied to a player’s head, a yellow or red light, which is attached to the cap but sticks out from underneath the back of the helmet, flashes: a yellow light indicates moderate impact. The red light, severe impact. The product does not claim to diagnose or prevent concussions. Rather, these lights are designed as an extra set of eyes for teammates, referees, coaches and trainers. If you see red, for example, get a player out of the game. The product retails for $150.

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Both Luck and MC10 see the product as most beneficial to younger players, who don’t have access to the same on-field medical expertise as the pros. “Head trauma is incredibly important,” says Luck, “not only for NFL and college, but you think about Pop Warner and pee-wee kids. I remember my dad coaching me in the fifth grade, and the first thing you learned was how to tackle properly. How to do it in the correct and safe way. And it was great, but there was no way to real-time monitor how much force or trauma your head is feeling on a certain play. The Checklight provides a real-time indicator of things. That’s a great starting point to begin your concussion symptom check.”

Concussions are receiving even more attention than usual this week, with the debut of PBS’ powerful Frontline documentary, League of Denial, which aired on Tuesday night. The movie chronicled the NFL’s failure, for years, to acknowledge the long-term dangers of head trauma. Even with technological advances like MC10’s product, can football ever really be safe? “Probably part of the allure of football, is that sense of, ‘oh my gosh, something violent, and possibly harmful can happen,'” says Luck. “It seems to me that there’s somewhat of a market for it, right? But safety is important.” In one of the most powerful moments in League of Denial, Leigh Steinberg, former agent for Troy Aikman, told the story of how Aikman forgot where he was, several times, after sustaining a concussion in the 1994 NFC championship game. Does Luck worry about his own future? “Personally, no,” says Luck. “I don’t worry. As an athlete, once you start worrying about that, you lose your edge, in a sense. I do try to play safe. And playing safe as a quarterback, you try to slide, and not take as many hits. Get out of bounds, throw the ball away.”

Luck has managed to stay injury-free and is having a stellar second year in the NFL. The Colts are 4-1, coming off a fourth-quarter comeback win on Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, one of the best teams in the league. In his 21 NFL regular-season starts, Luck has led nine fourth-quarter comebacks. This season, he’s fourth in the league, behind Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, and Tony Romo, in ESPN’s total quarterback rating. “I don’t think about the sophomore slump,” says Luck. “I never went into the season saying, ‘oh my God, there’s a sophomore slump.’ Who knows if that’s real, a myth, or just a cool phrase people use.” Luck credits off-field adjustments for helping him avoid any jinx. “I think preparation has been a little better,” says Luck. “Understanding ‘ok, this is the film I need to watch today, this is what I need to do.’ That has definitely been helpful. Then taking care of my body is another thing. ‘OK, I need to get my massages on these days, need to make sure I get in the cold tub here.'”

This off-season, the Colts signed NFL-veteran Matt Hasselbeck to backup Luck. Hasselbeck was already on MC10’s sports advisory board; one of Hasselbeck’s ex-teammtes in Seattle, linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski, is MC10’s head of sports products. (Kacyvenski, who played football for Harvard and also graduated from Harvard Business School, suffered seven diagnosed concussions during his eight-year NFL career).  Hasselbeck got Luck interested in MC10, and made the connection with Kacyvenski. “He’s a great talker,” Luck said of Hasselbeck. “So I think that makes him a great salesman, right?” Luck is a Nike athlete, but stands to profit from the success of a Reebok-branded product. “To Nike’s credit,” says Luck, “they did their process, and said go ahead, full steam ahead. I definitely appreciate that from their end.”

Luck was an architectural design major in college, and says he was attracted to MC10’s focus on practical products. “One of the things I miss most about school is doing an architecture project, and getting with a group and sitting down and having brainstorming sessions,” says Luck. “And drawing on the whiteboard and erasing and drawing more, and wishing you hadn’t erased what you drew because the first one was better.” Luck laughs. “You know, this creative group think tank experience, if you will, I miss in a sense, and I think this is a great way to sort of get in that mode.”

Luck realizes that deals like this are often a PR move — star player lends his face, takes his cash, and is done with it. But he promises that he’ll be involved in company meetings and decisions, come the off-season. “Once I decided to go to the NFL, my thoughts were, let’s try to think outside the box on some of this stuff,” says Luck. “I wouldn’t engage in something in this manner if I didn’t feel like I can help, or if they wouldn’t value my opinion. Maybe a year from now we can have a conversation and see what happened. But I firmly believe it will be everything I hoped for, and more.”

(MORE: New Book, and PBS Documentary, Details NFL Concussion Denial)