Please tell us about yourself

Your flashy neon shoes, the treadmill that you have a love-hate relationship with, and the stadium where you go to watch IPL matches- there’s a Sports Engineer behind each of them.

In today’s article, Pune-based-journalist Vijayta Lalwani talks to Prateek Sharma, a sports engineer and co-founder of a Sports Tech startup Heelium about how he combined his passion for sports with his training in engineering.

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Prateek Sharma has always been an avid sportsperson. In school and in IIT-Roorkee where he did his B.Tech (Metallurgy and Materials ), Prateek excelled in hockey and even played cricket and football. Today, at 30, he is a sports engineer and the co-founder of Heelium, a sports tech startup.

Heelium is a combination of the words ‘Helium’, the lightest element, and ‘heel’, the part of the foot that bears the most pressure. It aims to bring innovation, safety, design, and sustainability to athletic wear. The startup, launched in 2017, is a recipient of a grant by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, under the Nidhi PRAYAS scheme.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

While working on his first job, Prateek stumbled across a Master’s course in Sports Engineering in Sheffield, UK.

“It’s a very new course and one of a kind. I approached the course coordinator to figure out what it was all about and got very interested. After this, I worked for another company where I learnt about Data Analytics and Visual Basic Programming. These skills are relevant in my course,” he says.

Please tell us about your experience at Sheffield

Later, when he joined as a student at Centre for Sports Engineering Research, Sheffield Hallam University, Prateek was introduced to several subjects under the realm of sports physiology, sports technology, sciences, innovation in sports equipment and materials.

“The course was very practical and students were expected to work on projects. I worked on hydration equipment in long-distance swimming,” Prateek explained.

He even worked with Adidas in Germany on a year-long research project.

“The Adidas Innovation Team was about to launch a new football shoe which they wanted to test on an artificial turf. We were trying to figure out the optimum length of the studs on the shoes. If the studs are too long, it affects the running efficiency and if they’re too short then the player can slip. This is how I got introduced to footwear in sports,” Prateek said.

A Bachelor’s degree in Engineering was not a requirement to do the course, Prateek said.

Tell us about your startup

With some experience in designing sports equipment, in January 2018, Prateek and his co-founder Siddharth Jain launched Heelium’s first product–Bamboo Athletic socks. They’re made by processing bamboo into pulp and then further processing to make yarn.

“While researching on running, we realised that a good runner needs a combination of both shoes and socks. Without this, the runner is prone to a lot of injuries and blisters. So we worked on developing running socks to solve this problem using design, innovation and material. We tested bamboo and found that it is the only material that showed resistance against bacteria and odour,” Prateek said.

What’s more, the socks are also sustainable and eco-friendly as the bamboo fibre is created without harmful chemicals!

The team is also working on creating a high-performance running shoe which will be their flagship product.

What makes it different from other shoes?

“Our focus area is injuries. There aren’t enough brands working on injury prevention. The shoe we’re working on is more impact-absorbent, high-performance and well-designed,” Prateek said.

They work directly with potential customers, testing the shoes on people who are physically active. Their shoes will be customised for the wearer, based on their running pattern.

How does your work benefit the community?

“Since I am a materials engineer, I came up with a solution for socks initially. Most sportsmen wear cotton socks that hold in the perspiration and bacteria which cause a foul odour and even infections. So we created a fibre from bamboo. This material is thermodynamically stable and keeps your feet warm in winter and cool in summer. It does not absorb the sweat and keeps your feet odour free and keeps your feet free from blisters. This is especially helpful for long distance runners,” said Sharma.

“Cotton constitutes 3% of the world crop but uses 30% of pesticides, leaving a huge impact on the environment. However, bamboo is eco-friendly and I feel we have yet to discover its uses. Bamboo truly is the green gold as stated by finance minister Arun Jaitley,” he added.

Heelium has also built a proprietary material for the mid sole, which is where Sharma believes most injuries occur. This gives his shoes an edge over the others. “We use a novel Polyurethane based material in the midsole that absorbs most of the impact while running, walking and standing. We customise the insole based on the shape of the runner’s feet and their running style which enhances injury prevention. The energy absorbed by the material reduces the stress and reaction forces on the knee, heel and ball area drastically with tests showing over five times more impact attenuation than most widely used ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) based midsoles.The novel material has negative Poisson’s ratio (Poisson’s ratio is a measure of the Poisson effect, the phenomenon in which a material tends to expand in directions perpendicular to the direction of compression) and low density. When compressed in one direction, the material compresses in the other direction too thereby densifying and absorbing more impact. We’re preparing to file a provisional patent after some further testing,” said Sharma.

Your advice to Sports Engineering aspirants?

In Prateek’s view, the sports industry is a booming space in India but there are very few colleges providing graduate and post-graduate courses in sports.

When it comes to research and development in sports, India is not particularly ahead, he says.

“Not a single sports brand has an R&D centre in India. They mostly place such centres abroad where the industry is more evolved,” Prateek explained.

According to him, data and analytics in sports is an upcoming area.

“Lots of sports people use data to understand their growth. As they train continuously, data is used to show them how they’ve improved or changed their game. Sports infrastructure is also another option. It involves building better facilities and equipment. Another career path is pitch testing. All fields and pitches are tested by authorities before they’re used for matches,” he said.