Sports firm uses its head in Oz

Mark Ganly with the head gear. Picture: Andrew Downes

Contego Sports aims to revolutionise protective headgear for athletes, writes Trish Dromey

Launching in the Australian market with protective headgear designed to help reduce head trauma in rugby, Galway start-up Contego Sports has unexpectedly found a whole new market selling to Aussie Rules football players.

“Our headwear, N-Pro, has been purchased by professionals in Rugby Union, Rugby League, Aussie Rules and soccer and we are now getting enquiries from participants in boxing, Jiu Jitsu and mixed martial arts,” according to company co-founder and chief executive Mark Ganly.

About to embark on a €300,000 funding round, Contego is working on developing sales in both Australia and New Zealand while also carrying out R&D on a range of protective headgear for other contact sports.

Since setting up in 2014, the company has already raised €1.65m in funding and is now selling in Ireland as well as the UK, which is now its largest market accounting for 70% of sales.

“This year we also moved it to South Africa and are now selling in the southern hemisphere when the rugby season has finished in the UK,” said Mr Ganly, whose Oranmore-based company employs a staff of five.

The development of the N-Pro headwear and the setting up of Contego was prompted by reading an interview with former Irish rugby player John Fogarty who was experiencing major medical problems as a result of sustaining head injuries while playing rugby.

“It caught my attention because he was a married man with a young family, just like me, and it made me think about solving the problem of head injuries in rugby,” said Mr Ganly.

Mr Ganly, who had already developed a range of hurling helmets, asked his wife Sandra, who has a PhD in biomedical engineering and experience in medical device innovation, to help him develop protective headwear.

With support from Enterprise Ireland, the Ganlys set up Contego and spent three years on R&D, carrying out pre-clinical studies before applying for patents on their new head guard.

“The N-Pro is the most researched sports head guard available today and was developed in conjunction with the feedback of 39 neurological key opinion leaders and experts. It has been designed to reduce the injury’s most prolific risk factor — impact,” said Mr Ganly.

Independent studies have shown that N-Pro reduces the G force impact transferred to the players head by up to 75% compared to existing rugby head guards.

“The N-Pro has recently been approved for use in Australian Rules by the AFL and Rugby League in Australia by the National Rugby League,” he said.

At the end of 2016, the Ganlys found a contract manufacturer for the N Pro in the UK, the world’s largest rugby market with two million players which was its primary target.

During 2017, the company raised €1.5m in funding, from private investors and from Enterprise Ireland which identified it as a High Potential Start-Up. Selling directly to players through its website, Contego has used the funding for R&D and to develop sales, focusing on a network of distributors which sell to sports clubs and schools.

“Some 85% of rugby players are under 18 — it’s a hugely popular sport which is growing worldwide,” said Mr Ganly, noting that around 20% of players now wear protective head gear.

Although Contego is a small start-up entering a market dominated by major sports brands with large marketing budgets, Mr Ganly believes the company’s R&D will help the company achieve its aim of becoming a market leader in the protective head gear market.

“The unique selling point for N-Pro is that it has been proven to work in pre-clinical and player studies,” he said.

A key goal for the company is the US market which is the world’s second biggest market, growing by 350% between 2004 and 2010. Contego has applied to the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) for medical device classification in the US and is hoping to get this in 2019.

The company doubled sales last year and is aiming to do so again this year.

“We are happy with our progress to date and are getting excellent feedback from players, parents and medics. Our goal is to use evidence-based product design to expand the uses for our technology into other sports and applications,” said Mr Ganly.

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