Matt Campagna
Photo by Morgan Shellenberger.

5 questions with… student innovator Matt Campagna

Matt Campagna has always had a knack for working with computers; from a young age, he often took them apart and put them back together. After developing an early interest in programming, he realized that he wanted to apply his skills and directly help people.

Now a sophomore studying computer engineering at Case Western Reserve University, he’s doing just that. In fact, he’s addressing a major concern in sports today: concussions.

As cofounder of Reflexion Interactive Technologies, Campagna is developing and testing a prototype to quickly and cheaply screen athletes for concussions.

“There’s not adequate response right now,” he said of current screening processes. “It’s very subjective.”

He first started investigating the problem with two friends during their senior year of high school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, after a coach spoke to their programming class about the school’s system for concussion screening and monitoring.

Campagna and two friends—all athletes—quickly came to a conclusion: It wasn’t a very good system, and there had to be a better solution. There was, the coach told them—but better alternatives cost upward of $18,000, which wasn’t practical for schools.

So he and his friends developed their own prototype, including software and hardware, for just $600.

Here’s how it works: Using a 2-by-6-foot video touch screen, an athlete completes one combined task that tests depth perception, peripheral awareness, reflexes and memory. The athlete is given a score, which the trainer can see on a laptop, to determine whether he or she needs to see a neurologist.

By creating a faster process, the cofounders hope teams will have more time to regularly screen for concussions—ideally once a week—to determine whether athletes have suffered even mild injuries.

“Right now, we’re relying on a system in which we wait for somebody on the sideline to say, ‘Hey, that was a very bad hit, we need to take you out.’ At that point, it’s usually an obvious concussion,” Campagna said. “These mild concussions are going undiagnosed.”

Beginning in January, the system will undergo clinical trials at Pennsylvania State University, where one of Campagna’s cofounders, Matt Roda, attends school. (His other cofounder, Patrick Walsh, goes to Cornell University.)

By May, they expect to have completed their study, which will give them a chance to make any necessary changes and have a prototype complete by mid-summer—just in time for fall sports. At that point, they hope to have various schools and athletic organizations further test the system.

Meanwhile, here at Case Western Reserve, Campagna is showing the system at competitions, impressing investors and taking home various awards, including second place at PITCH U and third place at the Cleveland Medical Hackathon.

After many events this fall, Campagna has gotten plenty of positive feedback.

“I like working with my team and seeing real results—and we’re actually making an impact. It’s not just that you complete an assignment and that’s it,” he said. “We’re able to take feedback from people and apply it to what we’re working on.”

Read more about Campagna in this week’s five questions.

1. Who has been your most influential mentor?

When I started working on what I would generally define as “electro-mechanical” projects, there was a professor at a university close to home [at Harrisburg Area Community College in Lancaster], Vasantha Kittappa. She was extremely supportive of the project I was working on and really helped connect me to academic resources to help me program. Actually, one of the best experiences she lined up for me was working with another professor and he allowed me to—when I was still not in college—go to his college class and defend my software right there in front of them, right on the spot.

[Kittappa] really gave me a lot of help and assistance. She would give critical feedback. I think a lot of people say, “Yeah, that’s great, keep doing what you’re doing.” But she would give negative feedback that would really help me to move forward.

2. What was your first job?

I don’t even know how old I was, but I started going door to door doing lawn care. Then that evolved into doing lawn care and minor construction jobs for a bunch of people.

3. Who is your favorite author?

Recently, my favorite author has been Atul Gawande. He wrote The Checklist Manifesto. He’s really good at taking his experiences—he’s a surgeon—and from them, giving lessons that are applicable no matter what you’re doing.

The Checklist Manifesto is about how we don’t have any really great builders anymore. One person can’t make something that anyone would consider amazing; now it requires a team. He talks about how checklists and procedures can make sure teams function well together.

4. How do you like to spend your time when you’re away from school and/or work?

Definitely running—I love to do that. But also board games—I’m a big board game fan. I have an entire bookshelf of them here. And movies.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

Talking to people who aren’t here has made this really eye opening. The people here—staff or professors or even other students—have been so helpful working on whatever I want to work on. I can go to pretty much anyone I’ve networked with here for advice and they’ll give it or they know someone who is able to help. It’s so networked here that people are willing to help each other.

And it goes both ways. I’ve only been here for a year and a half now, but I’ve been able to go back and return the favor. People make a difference.