24-year-old NFL linebacker Joshua Perry announced his retirement in July this year after having suffered his 6th documented concussion. This follows a season marked by a record high number of concussions incidents. Perry’s early retirement is the most recent among a series of early retirements citing mental health concerns. As football’s concussion crisis intensifies, the need for a solution becomes more pressing. One startup is on a mission to ‘protect the athlete/elevate the game’. VICIS, a Seattle based sports technology startup, has developed a football helmet called the ZERO1 that provides superior protection against impact forces.
Football’s Concussion Crisis
Pro Football Hall of Famer Junior Seau had an incredible career spanning 20 years. Seau earned himself a spot on the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team much before he retired in 2010. On 2nd May 2012, Seau took his own life, shooting himself in the chest. There was no suicide note. No clear reason why such a legend, admired and adored by millions, would take his own life. The following month, Seau’s family donated his brain to the National Institute of Health for a thorough examination. After extensive examination, the NIH released a statement in January of 2013 that Seau’s brain showed signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative brain disease resulting from repetitive brain trauma such as concussions.
One couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Seau’s suicide and that of Dave Duerson’s. Duerson had shot himself in the chest a year earlier leaving a note that read “Please, see that my brain is given to the N.F.L.’s brain bank.” After examining his brain, researchers at Boston University concluded that Duerson was suffering from advanced CTE.
The concussion and CTE crisis run deeper. A 2017 study of deceased American football players found that 100 of 111 former NFL players suffered from CTE. While the NFL has been taking serious steps to mitigate risks including changing rules and committing millions in funding research, concerns regarding concussions aren’t just limited to the NFL. Amid health concerns, high school football participation has dropped 6.6% in the past decade from 1.113 million players in 2008 to 1.039 million in 2017.
Helmets, the last line of defense against head injuries, have largely been the same since the 70s. That is until a two professors, a neurosurgeon and a former medical technology executive took it upon themselves to innovate the helmet.
VICIS and The ZERO1
VICIS was founded in 2013 by Dr. Samuel Browd, a pediatric neurosurgeon, Prof. Per Reinhall, Chair of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Washington, Dave Marver, a former medical technology executive and Prof. Jonathan Posner* from the University of Washington Mechanical Engineering Department. (*Prof. Jonathan Posner is no longer associated with VICIS).
The flagship helmet, the ZERO1, was developed over 3 years in collaboration with athletes, coaches, medical professionals, and engineers, with over $25M invested in R&D. While the basic technology in the ZERO1 was developed as part of an interdepartmental research collaboration at the University of Washington, it was launched commercially with the support of UW’s CoMotion incubator as Spark Medical. Keeping in line with their mission, Spark Medical was later renamed VICIS, the Latin word for ‘change’.
The ZERO1 has a design philosophy inspired by the automotive industry. As opposed to conventional helmets with just 2 layers (hard outer shell and padding), the ZERO1 is comprised of 4 layers that help reduce impact forces. The Lode Shell is the outermost layer made of a soft thermoplastic elastomer that softens impact forces by absorbing and deforming on impact, much like a car bumper. The second layer, VICIS RFLX, is filled with columnar structures that move omnidirectionally upon impact and further reduce the force.
The ARCH Shell, the third layer, is a thin layer which helps ensure that the helmet properly fits the player. It consists of multiple snap connection points on to which the next layer, the FORM liner, is attached. The FORM liner consists of special waterproof memory foams to conform to a player’s head topography, ensuring precise fit while also distributing pressure uniformly around the head.
The first two layers work together to slow the force while the third and fourth layer work together to ensure precise fit and uniform load distribution.
Apart from a superior build, the ZERO1 also has superior performance attributes. With 212 degrees field of view, the ZERO1 has the widest peripheral view among helmets, reducing blind spots. The visor, VICIS Edge Shield, was developed by Oakley exclusively for the ZERO1. It leverages Oakley’s Freeform High Definition Optics® (HDO) and PRIZM™ Lens Technology to create an optically correct shield that also tunes the spectrum of light to provide better clarity and contrast.
Gaining Support and Recognition
The ZERO1 has successfully demonstrated its superior impact force reduction capabilities in extensive laboratory and on-field tests. While the NFL banned 10 helmets earlier this year for failing their safety test, the ZERO1 has managed to top the performance test for the second year in a row. Where standard helmets with hard polycarbonate exteriors cause the player’s head to ricochet upon impact, the ZERO1 is able to limit the recoil by absorbing and diffusing impact forces.
VICIS’ superior technology and interdisciplinary approach have attracted current and former football players to invest in the five-year-old startup. Pro Football Hall of Famer Roger Staubach was one of the early investors in VICIS with more recent additions such as Jerry Rice, Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin, Alex Smith, and Aaron Rodgers. Apart from the investors, players such as Carson Wentz, Richard Sherman, Cliff Avril, Marcel Reece, Chris Conley, LaMar Miller, and Golden Tate among others have been sporting the helmet.
Tackling The Helmet Field and Beyond
The global American football helmet market was sized at $140M in 2017 and is forecasted to grow at a CAGR of 1.2% to reach $160M by 2025. With a combined share of 97%, Schutt (60%) and Riddel (37%) dominate the NFL helmet market. However, VICIS has been making inroads with the number of players and teams using the ZERO1 steadily increasing. Last year, the ZERO1 was worn by over 80 NFL players on 18 teams and was used by over 20 NCAA programs. This year, players from 28 of the 32 NFL teams, 120+ professional and college teams and 1200+ high school programs are using the VICIS ZERO1.
Having raised $28.5M in series B funding in November, VICIS is focusing on deepening its market presence while also expanding its product offering. With the ZERO1 Youth helmet, VICIS is focusing on players at the high school level and above that constitutes 81.86% of the helmet market. VICIS also plans to expand into other sports such as hockey and lacrosse.
Leveraging their football experience, VICIS has expanded beyond the sports arena developing military application. Earlier this year, VICIS was awarded a contract by the U.S. Army NSRDEC to improve Army and Marine Corps combat helmets. VICIS’ helmets have outperformed currently deployed gear as per the results of a Department of Defense test. With tested technology and gaining support, VICIS is poised to emerge as a leader in the protection equipment space.
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