Duke football walk-ons win $50K NFL prize for 3D printing technology

Former Duke walk-ons Kevin Gehsmann (center), Tim Skapek (third from right) and Clark Bulleit (second from right) were awarded $50,000 for winning the NFL First and Future Innovations competition during Super Bowl week in Miami for their work with Protect3d, a startup that uses 3D printing technology to make athletic braces. (Photo courtesy of Protect3d)

The founders of startup companies face plenty of tough decisions in the early going. The former Duke football players who started Protect3d were no exception.

After winning the NFL First and Future Innovations competition, the group was awarded two tickets to Sunday’s Super Bowl. The problem? Three former Blue Devils — Clark Bulleit, Kevin Gehsmann and Tim Skapek — founded the company. Who would be left out?

Fortunately, the grand prize also came with $50,000 cash.

“It may have come off of the first little bit of the check,” Gehsmann admitted.

The three may have all walked on at Duke — Bulleit was a center, Gehsmann a linebacker and Skapek a kicker — and combined for all of 48 snaps in college, but the trio made a splash on football’s biggest stage.

Two days before the Super Bowl, the Protect3d (pronounced “protected”) team unveiled their revolutionary player safety innovation at a Shark Tank-style competition with three other companies. Protect3d produces a custom-made 3D printed brace for use by injured athletes. The process of 3D scanning the patient, producing the brace and having it ready for game use takes about 24 hours.

“We’ve always been interested in trying to apply our engineering classes and knowledge to the game of football,” Bulleit said. “Early on, we saw the best way to do that was with 3D printing.”

If might sound familiar: It’s the technology that allowed former Duke quarterback Daniel Jones to return to the field in 2018 just three weeks after breaking his collarbone. Jones’ three teammates were the ones that produced his customized brace, which redistributed the force of impact from any defenders tackling him to the noninjured portions of his body.

Prior to the Protect3d brace, Jones, like most athletes, tried using a bulky thermoplastic pad, which restricted his movement and caused scratches and bruising during games. The customized devices are much smaller and less restrictive, and Gehsmann proved during the First and Innovations presentation when he reached inside his suit jacket and revealed that he’d been wearing a brace on his shoulder the entire time he was on stage.

It may be hard to believe that the Blue Devils trainers and coaches were willing to let three student-athletes build a brace for their NFL prospect at quarterback, but it was the culmination of a long process of working with Duke athletic trainer Hap Zarzour.

“We had already gotten Hap really excited about the applications of 3D printing in football,” Bulleit said. “He actually came to us because we’d talked to him about 3D printing in athletics so much. So when they didn’t have a solution to protect (Jones’) swollen collarbone, he asked if we could improve on their current solutions.”

The process took a while, with the Protect3d team printing nine different prototypes.

“We got (Jones and Zarzour’s) feedback with every shape that we made and every material that we 3D printed,” Bulleit said.

The test of the concept was a success. Jones finished the season without reinjuring the collarbone and was successful — and healthy — enough to get chosen in the first round of the NFL Draft the following spring.

“I didn’t even notice it was there,” Jones said of the brace.

After the success with Jones, Protect3d has worked with several other Duke teams, including Duke lacrosse. Gehsmann said during the presentation that they’d custom printed a brace for a member of the Duke basketball team recovering from a broken bone in his hand. While they couldn’t name the player they helped, due to medical privacy reasons, freshman Wendell Moore was wearing a large plastic brace bearing his name while recovering from a broken hand in January.

Protect3d is also doing a pilot program with NC State athletics and is beginning work with several other colleges.

When the company was selected as a First and Future finalist, they headed south for Super Bowl week.

“We spent the beginning of the week down here in Miami Beach,” Gehsmann said. “We got here on Tuesday and presented on Friday. The first half of the week we were indoors most of the time, preparing for what ultimately felt like game day for us.”

Once they won and got their giant check — both in size and amount — from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the pressure was off and the Blue Devils could enjoy the fruits of their victory.

“Afterwards, we were able to enjoy Miami Beach over the weekend, and to cap it off with the Super Bowl was one of the coolest things I think any of the three of us have ever experienced,” Gehsmann said.

So, while San Francisco 49ers Laken Tomlinson and Daniel Helm weren’t able to come away from the Super Bowl with a victory, three other former Blue Devils were big winners.

“We know how intellectually advanced they are individually,” coach David Cutcliffe said, “but it’s especially rewarding to watch from afar as they use principles learned from athletics — teamwork, leadership, work ethic, innovation and selflessness — to achieve success. All three are outstanding representatives of their families, Duke University and our program. We could not be more proud of them while knowing their finest accomplishments are yet to come.”