September 19, 2022 05:45 AM | By: H. Lee Murphy

In sports at all levels, coaches and trainers and athletes are paying more attention to the dangers of concussion and traumatic brain injury. But beyond blurry vision and a ringing in the ears, diagnosis is rarely precise. It turns out that the best test, devised by a former suburban Chicago optometrist, is practically as easy as reading numbers off a sheet of paper.

It’s called the King-Devick test, originally devised by Steve Devick and Al King in the 1970s as a graduate school thesis proving in a survey of elementary school students in Downers Grove that small, subtle eye movements could predict whether a student would read well in class. Devick remembers that his professor was unimpressed at the time: “We didn’t even get an A for our efforts.”

Recently, the King-Devick test is getting belated recognition as a spate of scholarly studies, authored by researchers at the Mayo Clinic and the Journal of Science & Medicine in Sport, among other places, have shown that the test is close to 90% accurate in diagnosing concussions in athletes. No other test is nearly as good.

As head injuries rise, Devick is pressing hard this year to get the test more widely accepted by leagues and schools around the U.S.

Beyond concussions, researchers lately have been discovering a broader application for King-Devick as a test for a host of diseases, ranging from Alzheimer’s and ALS to Parkinson’s. Even Devick has been surprised by these findings, none of which he sponsored himself. The corporate engine behind the test is his Downers Grove-based King-Devick Technologies, which he heads as CEO. Al King moved away years ago, though he still retains a stake in the business.

If King-Devick seems late in getting started, Devick (pronounced Deevick) got sidetracked along several competing career paths.

A native of downstate Quincy, he received his degree from the Illinois College of Optometry in Chicago in the mid-1970s, but then practiced for just 15 years or so before giving it up for real estate development. He put up a medical building across from Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove and also built a golf course in suburban St. Charles. Before long, he plunged into high-tech investing, sinking money into Andrew (Flip) Filipowski’s Platinum Technology and later producing records with his Platinum Entertainment Group.

“I’ve always been a startup guy,” Devick, 70, says. “I’ve always liked the term ‘serial entrepreneur,’ which describes what I am. I found that work as an optometrist is very labor intensive, and I could make more money doing other things.”

Devick doesn’t even own a patent on his own test, which is otherwise protected by trademarks. How does it work? A sports team essentially pays the company $10 for a seasonlong subscription for each of its players, who undergo baseline tests in reading through a list of 120 numbers spaced unpredictably on an iPad page at the start of a season of competition.

If there is a suspected concussion, a trainer or coach asks the player to read through the same numbers on the sideline of a game. “A typical baseline test takes 25 to 50 seconds to read through,” Devick explains. “If you’ve had a head injury, you are likely to read the numbers more slowly and make errors. If you are departing from your baseline, that’s an indication you must be removed from play.”

The number-reading is actually a test of eye movement. Normal eye movement allows you to read faster. Patients with, say, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s will also read slower as their disease progresses, researchers have found. The process is regarded as so fool-proof that the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., has taken a stake in King-Devick and is co-branding the test—something it practically never does.

The frustration for Devick is that no professional sports league has formally adopted the test as its concussion standard. Select college and pro football teams use it on the sidelines, and so do some pro hockey teams. At $10 per year per athlete, the price seems reasonable.

Devick, who has a staff of 10-plus software researchers in Ireland working to update his test to make it work remotely via online hook-ups, has raised $22 million from investors and taken on 200 shareholders in the past decade.

He’s given up real estate and entertainment to focus solely on King-Devick. He was a high-school football player himself, a guard, and estimates he had 20 concussions in his career. He says he “saw cartoon-like images” after one hit to the head that left him woozy.

David W. Dodick, a professor emeritus at Mayo Clinic who has studied the evolution of Devick’s test, believes that King-Devick is likely to get wider acceptance eventually.

“Cutting edge technology takes a while to be universally adopted,” he says. “Science is a lengthy and rigorous process. This test will eventually percolate into the clinical community.”

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