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Exero Labs, founded by Zoltan Mesko, is a finalist in Super Bowl startup competition

Northeast Ohio
Exero Labs, founded by Zoltan Mesko, is a finalist in Super Bowl startup competition

 Zoltan Mesko is in Minneapolis for Super Bowl weekend, but not just because he's a former New England Patriots punter who loves the game.

This Chagrin Falls resident has shifted his focus to tackling perhaps the biggest health issue facing football in the 21st century: head trauma.

Exero Labs founder Mesko and co-founder, Ben Rizzo, represent one of nine companies that were picked as finalists in the NFL's third annual Super Bowl startup competition, called 1st and Future, this weekend.

In an effort to make sports safer and help athletes perform better, the companies will present ideas on Saturday - the eve of Super Bowl LII.  And each winner in three categories will be awarded $50,000 and Super Bowl tickets.

Mesko and Rizzo developed a patent-pending "impact reduction device" called the EXO1. It's a leaf spring device that attaches to the front of football helmets and deforms on impact to help absorb and diffuse impact forces.

"We were drawn to the novelty of the concept: 'Why is nobody innovating on the outside of the helmet?'" said Mesko, 31. "It's retrofitted to the outside of any helmet. And it makes any helmet that it's fitted to 45 percent better. It's practice and game-ready, but we're OK with it just being used in practice, because most concussions occur during practice. And the NFL just backed this up with their own data."

The NFL has partnered with Comcast NBC Universal and Mayo Clinic for this year's 1st and Future event, which will include a panel discussion with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus, and Mayo Clinic President and CEO John H. Noseworthy.

Exero Labs, Impressio and VyaTek Sports will each present technologies aimed at making helmets safer in the "Advancements in Protective Equipment" category. Mesko said he's glad the teams got two days to practice in Minneapolis, because they have just 5 minutes to make their pitch, followed by a 5-minute question-and-answer session.
Mesko, who works full-time at IBM in software sales, said he got the idea for the helmet in 2014, and he and Rizzo, launched Exero Labs in 2016. They were confident their model could work after high school and youth football programs signed letters of intent for about $80,000 in future purchases.

So far, they've raised about a half-million in angel capital funding, and they're encouraged by support such as being awarded $25,000 from the Innovation Fund of GLIDE, with an option for $100,000 depending on reaching various measures. The Innovation Fund, based at Lorain County Community College, invests in regional startups.

The duos journey moved from an idea and research, to their first prototype, when Rizzo was enrolled in Harvard Business School's MBA program in the 2015-2016 school year. At the time, Rizzo and four classmates tested their prototype, which was printed in a lab in 3D. That led to the team talking to lots of football players, coaches and parents. With proof of the concept, they went on to win 1st place among 180 teams in Harvard's first year startup competition in May 2016.

"That was a big stamp of approval, followed by getting our seed money raised," Mesko said by phone from Minneapolis, noting that their most advanced prototype is expected in the next couple of months. That prototype will be tested by some semi-pro teams.

Mesko played for the New England Patriots from 2010-2012, and made his mark both on and off the field, becoming the youngest winner of the team's prestigious community service award. The Wall Street Journal once dubbed him the NFL's "most interesting man."

Mesko is optimistic about winning Saturday's competition, but said either way, he and Rizzo are excited about the opportunity and exposure.

"We have a contest between the two of us, to see who can give out the most business cards while we're here," he said.

The competition will be live-streamed by NBC Sports, and Goodell is expected to be in the audience. While judges in fields that range from sports medicine to venture capital funding will be selecting the best pitches, Mesko said his wife, Haley, will be holding a watch party for friends and family at their Chagrin Falls home.

"Regardless of the outcome, you know how you always see Super Bowl winners say 'I'm going to Disney World,' well me and my wife and our 2-year-old daughter are actually going to Disney World right after we leave Minnesota."

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