Take a Swing at Improving Human Performance


Pitt professor of mechanical engineering and materials science William "Buddy" Clark is no stranger to innovation and entrepreneurship. During his illustrious career he has been associated with 33 invention disclosures, has been issued five patents, and has had his discoveries licensed from the University eight times, including four startups. He is affiliated with the Center for Medical Innovation, the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation and the Center for Energy, all at the Swanson School of Engineering, where he also coordinates the Innovation, Product Design and Entrepreneurship certificate program.

One of the startups formed from his research is Diamond Kinetics, which uses sensors placed in a bat to help baseball and softball players improve their swing. Innovations that improve human performance are now being solicited in a new University-wide competition, the Performance Innovation Tournament.  The Innovation Institute, in partnership with the Department of Athletics, the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, and the offices of the Provost and Research, is seeking proposals for innovations that solve specific problems outlined by the Athletics Department. Two of the proposals will be awarded a total of $150,000 to develop the ideas into workable solutions.

In the Q&A below, Prof. Clark discusses how the idea for Diamond Kinetics originated and how having his inventions commercialized has shaped his approach to research.

What is the technology that was licensed to Diamond Kinetics?

The original Pitt technology was a patent that deals with measuring sports motions using wearable and equipment-mounted sensors.   The focus is on using measurements of motions to understand how to optimize performance.  A specific example is optimally fitting a player with equipment.  For example, in the case of baseball or softball, players have a wide variety of bats to choose from, but there hasn’t been a useful process to guide this often expensive decision.  An aspect of the IP describes a method for selecting the proper bat through measurements of the player’s swings so that the choice is data-driven and specific to that player.

Did you intentionally set out to develop a new solution for improving human performance?

Yes.  It’s not always that way, but in this case it was intentional.  At the time I started working on this I had been coaching youth baseball and softball for several years, and the question of proper bat size was the most common question I would get from parents, so I set out to find a way to provide an answer.  What I didn’t anticipate in the early days was how the solution would lead to much broader applications in baseball and softball. 

The first method I used to measure swings was not very portable and was finicky to set up, but got results for the purpose of bat fitting.  I tried other measurement methods and through collaboration with Dr. Noel Perkins at the University of Michigan eventually settled on inertial sensors mounted on the bat.  Once the sensor was on the bat, measurement of the full swing became possible, so not only could the data be used to fit equipment, it opened up much wider uses in performance training and assessment.

Describe the rewards of having the fruits of your research being used every day by thousands of people to improve their performance.

As researchers, of course we want our work to be deemed valuable to others, so having it cited by others is something we shoot for.  But to see the results take the next several steps and be used, in this case, to make a difference in the game, brings a completely different level to the feeling of accomplishment – definitely more rewarding.  Every new team or player that adopts our tools is validation that we’ve done something right…but also a bit of responsibility to look after their interests and keep innovating.

How has seeing your research translated affected your approach to research?

Seeing the impact of the work is motivation for doing even more – whether that means applying what I’ve learned to other problems or helping my students and colleagues hopefully do much bigger things.   I’ve always done applied research, so it’s not like I plan to shift to become even more applied to make it more marketable.  If anything, I’m more conscious of understanding the basics and underlying factors of a technology even more than before.  Whereas before I might have been happy with a single case or a few cases to prove concepts in the lab, in real use cases all the variables that weren’t considered in the lab come into play and wreak havoc.  So the more thorough we are in the lab, the smoother the road will be to actual use.

Proposals for the Performance Innovation Tournament will be accepted through March 14. Click here to learn more.