Former NFL Player Merging Sports and Science with Genetics Startup

Posted By Mike Padgett

Dec. 1, 2009

PHOENIX, Ariz. – The head of a California genetics research company, who also is a former pro football player, is leading a new type of recruitment effort that could involve more than 1,000 professional athletes in a scientific journey.

Jim Kovach, who for seven years was a middle linebacker in the NFL, is a cofounder of Athleticode, an Oakland, Calif., startup formed in recent months to find the ultimate sports gene. He currently is president and chief operating officer of The Buck Institute for Age Research, a genetic research facility in Marin, Calif.

When I first read about Athleticode (in a recent editorial in The Phoenix Business Journal), I thought Athleticode’s program could have Arizona connections. Several sports teams have deep roots here and metro Phoenix is home to a growing biotech community, which includes the Translational Genomics Research Institute.

I found Kovach’s e-mail address and sent him a note, explaining my interest and asking whether he had contacted TGen. He responded, and we set up a telephone interview for the next day.

Anticipating Kovach’s call, I researched his background and learned that his sports, academic and scientific achievements are worth a future sports-and-corporate success story.

His work at The Buck Institute, and now his venture with Athleticode, are the latest in an impressive string of corporate, academic and sports achievements. He also:

• Was executive vice president and COO of Athersys Inc., a Cleveland, Ohio-based biotech company.

• Was director of the Office of Technology Management at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland.

• Played for seven years in the National Football League as a middle linebacker for the New Orleans Saints from 1979-85 and the San Francisco 49ers in 1985. His teammates voted him MVP in 1983.

• Obtained his medical degree in 1984 at the University of Kentucky, studying in off seasons.

• Continued his studies after his medical degree and received his law degree from Stanford University.

‘Superman gene’

While I was thinking that Kovach, 53, could have his own genes studied to help learn what makes him tick, my phone rang. Kovach graciously outlined the Athleticode proposal and said that while he hadn’t done so yet, he planned to contact TGen. He says he knows someone who worked at TGen in its early phase, but who has since moved to another company.

Athleticode, Kovash says, wants to study the DNA of athletes to teach them about strengths – or weaknesses – that could impact their performance.

According to its company overview, Athleticode “is leading a merger between the worlds of science and sport to help identify critical information that can help athletes exceed their potential.”

Typically, research into someone’s genetic code often begins with a sample of their spit. Kovach says the research can help answer many questions about a pro sports player’s endurance, strength, speed, reaction times and many other characteristics, including how they metabolize drugs and retain salt.

For example, only 4 percent of the general population has what’s called the “Superman gene.” That is a gene that cues the human body to make a protein that keeps ligaments and tendons strong.

Kovach says one of his former roommates at the Saints, Hoby Brenner, learned after he retired in 1994 that he has the rare “Superman gene.” Had Brenner known that about his strong genes prior to retirement, he might have added a year or two to his 13-year career, Kovach says.

That kind of information is beneficial to players and coaches because they could add specific exercises to strengthen certain muscles or tendons, Kovach says.

“The kind of tests that we’re putting together, I think, can help athletes make choices about how they train, how they hydrate themselves, that will all come together and kind of help optimize their performance,” Kovach says.

Thousands of volunteers needed

To determine the strengths or weaknesses of an athlete’s genetic code, Kovach says Athleticode would need a database assembled from “somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000” players. That is his goal.

This type of research could be modified to benefit others. For example, predictions about a person’s future as a musician, lawyer, doctor, teacher or myriad other professions probably would require similar massive databases assembled from the donated DNA samples of people in those careers.

As fascinating as it is, this research area has a dark side. Insurance companies, and maybe employers, could be interested in learning which policyholders or employees are more susceptible to diseases. For that reason alone, people may be reluctant to volunteer their DNA.

Kovach is one of those rare executives who, because of his achievements on the gridiron and in the corporate arena, could merge the two worlds of sports and science.

“My goal, my mission, is to connect those two worlds. And so I’m going to kind of do it step by step. And the more people who see the value of connecting those two worlds, the better.”

And in the process, he and his partners at Athleticode could open the door for further studies in genetics. “We’re right at the moment in all of human history that genetics is going to be accessible to everyone,” he says.

Athleticode’s other cofounders are:

• Alex Bernstein, who was a Division III All-American Defensive Tackle while studying at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He entered the NFL in 1997 as an undrafted free agent with the Baltimore Ravens. Bernstein currently is a managing partner at North Venture Partners, an investment and advisory firm focused on the incubation of new ventures. He previously was senior vice president of corporate and business development at Virgin Digital, a new media technology venture of Richard Branson’s global Virgin empire.

• Huntington F. Willard, director of the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy at Duke University. Willard has been in genetic research for nearly 25 years. He serves on review boards for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation. Willard has been the author or co-author of more than 300 scientific publications, including co-author of Genetics in Medicine, a widely-used textbook now in its sixth edition.

• Pete Koch, another NFL veteran and a health and fitness expert who created the FAST (Functional Advanced Sports Training) system. He lives in Los Angeles where he works with many actors whose roles require specific body types. Koch was drafted in the first round of the 1984 NFL draft. He played five seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Raiders.

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Dec 1st, 2009

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