In keeping with its increasing focus on player wellness, the National Football League is taking major steps to reduce brain injuries on and off the field — and it has enlisted the help of the private sector.
Kicking off a four-year “Play Smart, Play Safe,” initiative, the league recently teamed up with Under Armour and GE to roll out a groundbreaking $20 million-dollar open Head Health II competition. The program called on entrepreneurs and scientists near and far to develop technologies that reduce and protect against brain injuries — not only for athletes, but also for military members and everyday citizens.
Born out of the University of Washington’s mechanical engineering department, Vicis, Inc., for example, was one of three winners out of the 500 applicants from 19 countries that entered the competition. The Seattle-based startup has blazed a new trail in the brain injury prevention space with its high-tech helmet, the ZERO1.
Now flush with $27.3 million in funding, including $500,000 from the NFL, the small company borrowed a page from the auto industry to turn the traditional football helmet on its head.
“In the past, cars were stiff and didn’t crumple or yield during collisions,” Vicis co-founder and CEO Dave Marver said in an interview. “Modern cars have highly engineered crumple zones that slow impact forces and protect passengers. Our helmet works the same way: It yields upon impact like a car bumper, reducing the impact forces before they reach the head and brain.”
Unlike a banged-up vehicle that requires mending at a body shop, Vicis’s ZERO1 helmet can be impacted, Marver said, “tens of thousands of times – and it bounces back in milliseconds.”
The flexible helmet features a soft outer shell and is lined inside with an impact-absorbing layer of cushiony columns. The filaments are precision engineered to mitigate collisions, while the internal columns bend omnidirectionally, responding to impacts from any angle. This helps evenly dissipate pressure throughout the head, as opposed to absorbing shock in an isolated area.
“There is a lot of concern about head health in football and other contact sports,” Marver said, noting that participating has started to dip in several high-contact sports. “There hasn’t been enough innovation in helmet technology in the past few decades and there is a need for companies like ours that focus on solutions, bringing forward innovations across the spectrum, such as improved diagnostics, better tackling and coaching techniques and, of course, better equipment.”
Another company bringing proven automotive technology to the gridiron is Dearborn, Mich.-based Viconic Sporting. Also a Head Health II competition winner, the Oakwood Group subsidiary worked closely with GE to develop and test a shock-absorbing synthetic sports turf system that will make fields safer for athletes.
Viconic’s smart turf is comprised of a collapsible layer of thermoplastic cones that can be tucked beneath artificial grass. The foldable cones are designed to soften players’ falls when they collide with the turf, reducing – and ideally altogether preventing – head injuries.
“Viconic is a great story of a company we didn’t expect to find,” said Alan Gilbert, director of global government at GE’s Healthymagination, one of the company’s major health care initiatives. “They had a product in almost every car in America and they were looking for what else they could use it for.”
Indeed, Viconic’s energy-absorbing, collapsible cone technology is the same springy stuff found in approximately two out of every three cars sold in America.
Rounding out a promising trio of Head Health II competition winners is the Army Research Laboratory (ARL). Engineers at the Aberdeen, Mich. military lab created specially designed straps that effectively tether the head to the body. The rate-actuated tethers, which attach to helmets, restrict rapid, snapping head motions that could cause brain injuries, such as concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
“Because there is so much overlap between our concerns with soldier brain injury and the NFL’s interest in maintaining the head health of athletes, this partnership is of mutual benefit,” Eric Wetzel, ARL Materials For Soldier Protection technical area manager, said in a statement.
He added: “By leveraging resources and pooling expertise, we can expand our understanding of brain injury and accelerate the development of new technologies that will hopefully reduce the probability and severity of these injuries for both soldiers and athletes.”