Harris Williams, BC ’14, CGSOM ’16, was in his dorm room preparing for Boston College’s next football game. The 6-foot-3 offensive lineman sat at his desk, flipping through two separate decks of cards. In one stack, the blank spaces on the cards were filled with hand-drawn symbols and arrows representing his offensive plays—the blocking schemes, where the receivers and running backs were headed, and so on. In the other stack, Williams had the plays that BC’s defense would run against its offense in practice. He went through each set countless times, analyzing each card to memorize his positions and movements. This tedious process, coupled with watching hours of game film, was Williams’ routine for learning not only his plays, but his opponents’ as well. After playing under five different offensive coordinators during his time at BC—not to mention two head coaches in Frank Spaziani and Steve Addazio—Williams hatched an idea for a better alternative.
As a computer science major, his football woes inspired him to develop a virtual way for players to learn playbooks. Williams began coding his idea during his senior year at BC, and after getting his MBA, realized he could monetize this creation. CompuCog, short for Computational Cognition, was born.
Through CompuCog, which Williams and Ribhi El-Zaru, MCAS ’18, founded with Eric Wilson, a senior and football player at St. Anselm College, and Josh Kershaw, an insurance salesman and former classmate, the innovators hope to revolutionize how athletes train, and eventually to expand to the world beyond the field.
Kershaw, who was two years older than Williams at the Proctor Academy in Andover, N.H., was the reason Williams began playing the sport in the first place. Williams had never played football prior to high school, but when Kershaw saw his large figure walking around campus, he convinced him to go out for the team.
“I was going to do kayaking, but he was the guy who got me into playing football” Williams said.
And it was a good thing he did. Williams received multiple awards and honors during his high school career, and was captain of the team during his senior season. He was originally committed to play at Stanford, but ended up accepting a scholarship offer to play at BC after an injury forced him to change his plans.
El-Zaru, also a computer science major, entered the picture last year, after a professor who knew about Williams’ project brought the two together—he had been familiar with Williams from his experience as a videographer for BC football.
The company’s primary project is called Mental Rep. This digital football training program, which is an evolved version of Williams’ original idea, allows football coaches to input playbooks—both their own and their opponents’—into a cloud accessible to each member of the team. The software then uses artificial intelligence to generate an animated graphic of all 22 positions. The icons, representing players, move and make decisions realistically as plays are carried out in real time.
Players can analyze their assignments and directly interact with the program by controlling their position’s icon using the mouse. Mental Rep includes detailed textual descriptions for each position’s role within a play, and provides feedback for players when they fail to execute a play correctly. There is even a mobile app that allows players to view and work through plays on their phones. It’s a little like Madden, but more useful.
“The idea is to be able to play an entire game while you’re walking in between classes,” Williams said.
Because of Williams and his co-founders’ expertise in playing football, their decision to make software for the sport was an obvious one. In fact, it is this first-hand experience that sets CompuCog apart from its competitors.
“What gives us our competitive edge is we’ve actually been there and blocked against first-round draft picks, played against All-Americans, and we know what to put into our software to make it really help out an athlete,” Williams said. “We’re not just mimicking what we think we see on TV.”
Similarly, the CompuCog team’s experience playing college football has given knowledge of the expectations and practices of top coaches, meaning their software is tailored to be useful to coaches at high school, college, and professional levels.
This past May, Williams developed the back end, or the essential algorithms, of Mental Rep. After El-Zaru became a part of the team, the two worked last summer to develop the front end, or input ability and user interface, of the program, which transformed it into a workable and marketable product.
After this development, CompuCog began the beta-testing phase for the software with a small group of high school teams on Jan. 1. While there are no paying users of Mental Rep thus far, Williams anticipates that they will begin selling the product in the near future.
Along their journey to marketability, the CompuCog team has taken advantage of resources within the BC community to help grow its company. Last summer, the founders participated in the Soaring Startup Circle accelerator program, which gives BC students the opportunity to work with experienced alumni to develop and improve their startups.
After reaching the final round of last year’s Shea Center Venture Competition with an unfinished product, the CompuCog team hopes to blow the judges away with this year with its refined and improved software.
“We’re here to take it,” El-Zaru said.
But having this sort of confidence isn’t always easy. The startup world is fast-paced and always changing, and El-Zaru described the degree of uncertainty that he has experienced during his time with CompuCog.
“One of the things that every startup founder said is that what you think is going to happen in two months, probably won’t. Everything is going to be different and dynamic, and you have to be on your feet and ready to adapt,” El-Zaru said.
In dealing with these challenges, Williams has drawn upon the lessons of perseverance that he learned while playing football at BC.
“Playing football here, the coaches have taught me a lot just in terms of being gritty, because … not a lot goes your way,” Williams said. “We’ve applied to maybe 10 different competitions, and we’ve only gotten accepted by one. It’s very tough, and we’ve just kept at the grindstone and just keep going at it.”
While football, with its play-by-play nature, was the ideal first sport to tackle with CompuCog, the company doesn’t plan on stopping there. The adaptable core of Mental Rep gives the software a range of potential applications. Its founders believe that it can help athletes in other sports, such as soccer, basketball, and lacrosse, improve their training methods as well.
But the world of sport isn’t CompuCog’s final destination either, as the team has even larger plans for the expansion of its software. In what Williams described as the startup’s “utopic vision,” its founders have their sights set on revolutionizing the fields of armed service and general job training, and perhaps even early childhood education.
“If you think about how a 12-year-old learns long division and mathematics, and how there is a set of assignments that they have to perform, we can apply our algorithm to that, to teach them how learn mathematics,” Williams said.
In teaching children to read, for example, Williams described that just as a child must sound out individual syllables to correctly read a word, a football player has to move a certain way to execute a play correctly. Mental Rep is capable of analyzing these requirements and providing guidance and feedback for students and athletes alike, suggesting that it could serve as a valuable tool for educators in the future.
So whether it turns up in your local elementary school, or helps the football team of your alma mater bring home a championship, Mental Rep may soon become a household name. And Williams and the team at CompuCog will continue working to make sure you don’t forget it.
Featured Image Courtesy of CompuCog