Researching the Playing Field



By Tad Vezner
Center for Sports Innovation

Former Illinois Institute of Technology Athletics Director Joe Hakes had a dream.

Hakes led an energetic athletics department, part of a tech-focused university on the cutting edge of numerous emerging fields. And he saw opportunity, in the labs and playing fields around him.

Those immersed in athletic competition are always looking for a competitive edge. Why not rigorously test for one, using all those on-campus labs?

In short, Hakes suggested, why not use the university’s resources to search for “effective and successful systems to achieve the highest potential results, optimal nutritional and strength preparation, and safer protective equipment.”

“From data analytics to sports medicine to sports architecture to ‘smart apparel,’ there is a wide range of opportunity to build upon what has already been done or imagined, as well as what is yet to be imagined,” Hakes wrote in a 2017 vision statement.

“It was a labor of love for Joe, and he just didn’t stop with it. He recognized a sleeping giant, as he referred to it, taking advantage of Chicago and Illinois Tech being a hub of sports innovation and technology,” says Illinois Tech Senior Associate Director of Athletics Marc Colwell, who knew and worked with Hakes.

And yet, Hakes noted in his statement that at Illinois Tech “there is a lack of an independent, centralized center for research and development of technology aspects that drive the industry forward.”

Until now. In February 2023 the university’s research council and interim provost approved the formulation of the Center for Sports Innovation to “serve as a hub for research and development of a wide variety of technologically related subjects, systems, and businesses that impact the world of sports.”

Hakes passed away in January 2023, but his vision is in full swing. Fourteen core faculty members from Illinois Tech have partnered with the Illinois Tech Athletics Department, and some are already partnering on projects with sports industry leaders.

“It’s a double win for us. It allows us to really leverage our unique talents in both sports and research,” says Professor of Practice Bo Rodda, one of the core faculty members.

Rodda, who is also the faculty director of the Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship’s Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Program Labs, has partnered with Wilson Sporting Goods to build better sporting gear through the IPRO program. The partnership started during the COVID-19 pandemic, when his students were tasked with envisioning automated ways for people to get fitted for golf clubs.

Now they’re identifying new product development ideas with Wilson advisers, including “interactive or wearable technologies, health and safety products, virtual reality technology for indoor exercise or how we watch sporting events,” Rodda says.

“We’re creating creative engineers who not only play the sport but give you the equation for the arc of the shot,” he says. “That’s what I see as the secret sauce here.”

How about building better skis?

S. C. Johnson Professor of Chemical Engineering Fouad Teymour, director of the Center for Complex Systems and Dynamics at Illinois Tech, is working on getting a research contract finalized with Mountain Flow, a Colorado company looking to manufacture slicker skis.

“The uniqueness of this experience, working with sports companies is very different,” Teymour says. “I’ve been in research for 35 years, and I’ve never worked on sports applications. There’s a lot of fun involved working on something that will affect the sports world.”

“For me the center is a way to bring together an interdisciplinary group of faculty to address something most people have some connection to, which is sports,” says Coleman Foundation Clinical Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship Nik Rokop, the center’s director. “Rather than talking about research in a technical way, this is an applied way.”

Adds the center’s associate director Tyler McQuality, who also coaches the university’s cross country and track and field teams, “Our slogan as a university is being an engine of opportunity, and that’s what we want to provide our students. Big dreams are good, and we’re going to shoot for the moon.”