A Seattle startup relies on neuroscience and automotive design to build a football helmet that might lower the risk of concussion.
Watching Ryan Smith at work is enough to trigger a migraine.
At a local startup that aims to build a better football helmet, Smith and his colleagues spend their days strapping prototypes onto dummy heads and slamming them into things.
“We want to beat the crap out of it and see how it holds up,” he explained during a recent test that involved smacking the helmet broadside with a weighted pendulum. The dummy’s neck wobbled so violently it seemed as if it might snap.
The goal of all the pounding in the lab is to lower the risk of concussion for players on the field, said neurosurgeon Dr. Samuel Browd, co-founder of Vicis and of the Sports Concussion Program at Seattle Children’s hospital.
Pronounced “VY-siss,” the name is Latin for “change” — something Browd says is overdue in helmet design.
“When we sat down and looked at it, we realized the technology is extremely antiquated,” he said. “There hasn’t been much movement on helmet design since the ’70s.”
After years of denial, a National Football League official on Monday acknowledged a clear link between football and degenerative brain diseases such as CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, diagnosed posthumously in dozens of players. And with concern over head injuries clouding the future of America’s favorite spectator sport, a new rush is already under way to improve headgear.
In a field dominated by a few industry leaders, Vicis is an underdog. Nevertheless, the 25-person operation in South Lake Union won $750,000 in grants through a competition sponsored by the NFL and its commercial partners. The company also raised about $10 million in private funding, mostly from neurosurgeons and current and former professional athletes, including Heisman Trophy winner and Super Bowl MVP Roger Staubach.
Unlike most sporting-goods companies, Vicis’ approach is rooted in neuroscience. It also borrows from automotive design.
Car bumpers are built to crumple and absorb the force of a collision, which helps protect passengers, Browd explained. Vicis’ Zero1 helmet does the same thing, with a flexible outer shell over a layer of flexible polymer columns. Deliver a blow, and those outer layers deform — absorbing energy — then spring back. A stiff inner shell cradles the player’s head.
Because the flexible columns can move in all directions, Browd says, the system is better at buffering off-center blows that cause the brain to rotate inside the skull. Most experts believe those kinds of glancing hits are more likely to cause a concussion than head-on, linear forces.
That’s because the brain is a fragile mass of tissue often compared to a bowl of jello, said exercise physiologist Blaine Hoshizaki, of the University of Ottawa. Even a slight twisting motion can strain and damage nerve fibers.
“If you’re not managing rotation, you’re not having much of an effect,” said Hoshizaki, who helped draw up proposed new standards for helmets that would incorporate rotational forces for the first time.
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Traditionally, helmets were designed to reduce the risk of catastrophic head injuries such as skull fracture and brain hemorrhage, not the more subtle damage caused by concussions.
Existing standards, established by an industry-funded organization called NOCSAE (National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment), require a series of tests that involve raising the helmet, then dropping it straight down onto an anvil. Sensors inside the dummy head measure linear forces.
But no helmets on the market today have been able to demonstrate a reduction in concussion risk, said Dr. Michael O’Brien, director of the Sports Concussion Clinic at Boston Children’s hospital.
“Unfortunately, it’s been disappointing,” he said. “Practically speaking, I haven’t seen a design that I would say looks superior to the equipment out there.”
The number of reported concussions in the NFL jumped by 58 percent during the 2015 regular season. And several leading helmet manufacturers, including Riddell and Schutt, recently agreed to stop making anti-concussion claims as the result of a Federal Trade Commission investigation into deceptive advertising.
But Browd and his colleagues are convinced that a properly engineered helmet will be able to reduce the force on the brain, and thus lower the risk of damage.
“I don’t think we’ll ever eliminate concussions with what we’re doing,” he said. “The idea is to reduce the forces to a degree that’s meaningful.”
In independently confirmed laboratory tests, Vicis’ helmet performed up to 50 percent better than competitors’ in terms of blunting linear force, said CEO Dave Marver. It also did well at reducing rotational forces, he said, but he declined to share the numbers until they’ve been verified.
The big unknown is how — or if — such improvements will actually reduce the risk to players’ brains, Hoshizaki cautioned. “Concussions are incredibly complex,” he said.
Scientists still don’t understand why the same impact can cause problems for one person but not another. Nor do they know exactly what happens inside the tissue during a concussion. There’s not even a reliable diagnostic test.
“We like to say: When you’ve seen one concussion, you’ve seen one concussion,” said Browd, who counsels young athletes and their parents and serves as an independent neurological consultant during Seattle Seahawks games.
Research is under way in Seattle and elsewhere to try to answer some of the questions about concussions. The University of Washington got a $2.5 million grant from the NFL for a research and prevention center, while Seahawks owner Paul Allen is funding a $2.4 million collaboration to study the cellular mechanism of brain injury.
Critics, however, are skeptical of science funded by the NFL and its allies, which long downplayed the risks of head injury.
Trying a $1,500 helmet
Definitive answers on helmet performance can come only from large-scale, controlled field trials, O’Brien said. That’s the kind of study the National Institutes of Health might be expected to fund, but there’s nothing on the horizon.
Until then, the new rotational standards will provide a better yardstick against which to judge helmets, if they are adopted, Hoshizaki said.
Marver expects the Zero1 to win certification under existing standards later this spring. He’s already lined up 20 NFL and 30 college teams to give the helmets a trial run in the offseason.
Then the company will face the daunting task of breaking into the business.
“It’s not a big market, and it’s packed full of litigation,” Hoshizaki cautioned. “It’s not for the faint of heart to enter the football-helmet industry.”
With an estimated price tag of $1,500, the Zero1 is also three to five times as expensive as existing helmets.
Marver said he expects the price to come down, and hopes to eventually market to youth sports as well. But he also predicts that litigation will drive up the overall price of helmets.
“I don’t think helmet companies can continue to charge $300 per helmet and survive,” he said.
Among the players who have tried the new helmet is Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin.
“He put it on and didn’t say anything for about 30 seconds, and we were all thinking: ‘Oh, he doesn’t like it,’ ” Browd recalled. “Then he said: ‘This is the most comfortable helmet I’ve ever worn.’ ”
Baldwin is featured on the Vicis website and in a promotional video, along with several other athletes including NFL Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett. In the video, Dorsett speaks about his love of the game.
But Dorsett has also been open about his memory problems, depression and mood swings. In 2013, he became one of the first living players to be diagnosed with CTE.