Crowdsourcing to end the concussion crisis: the NFL and Duke CTSI

September 17, 2018

By Joe Lemire. Full report on Sport Techie.

At a pediatric neurosurgery conference in Hawaii five years ago, Dr. Samuel Browd listened to a presentation about a new type of foam liner for football helmets. The majority of the effort spent on improving safety, he realized, was dedicated to incremental improvements upon existing designs. As the lecture continued, he started sketching something truly novel.

Browd, an attending neurosurgeon at Seattle Children’s Hospital and professor at the University of Washington, returned home and reached out to the school’s mechanical engineering chair, Per Reinhall, to share his concept. The idea is a multi-layered helmet that buckles on impact, to mitigate force. Browd’s hand-drawn concoction became the genesis of new helmet manufacturer Vicis.

The Vicis Zero1 has ranked first in laboratory testing each of the past two years. In 2017, 75 NFL players spread across 18 teams wore the helmet, including stars such as Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks. In 2018, upwards of 200 players—one eighth of the entire league—across all 32 teams will wear the helmet, as will football players in more than 120 college programs and more than 1,000 high schools.

Early in its growth phase and before Vicis had ever built a helmet, the company earned first place in the NFL’s Head Health Challenge II and received $750,000 in grant money. That competition was a collaboration between the NFL, GE, and Under Armor to spur innovation. It ran for three rounds, and now a successor program, the HeadHealthTech Challenge has completed five contests with a sixth currently open for submissions. [Note: Submissions closed September 13th.] Vicis is the poster child for these contests, a crowdsourced submission that has become a major player on the field.

“We look for knowledge gaps that exist in the market because, as exciting and interesting as sports are, the markets are relatively small,” said NFLPA consultant Dr. Barry Myers, who as the director of innovation for the Duke Clinical and Translational Science Institute oversees the HeadHealthTech Challenges.

“What we’ve found is that these companies are not big enough to retain all the experts they need,” Myers said. “What this program does uniquely is fill those gaps so that we can deploy a range of experts that no single company could ever afford to help them think through the steps to get to market.”

Myers has described the selection criteria as risk agnostic, balancing a portfolio of projects with varying likeliness and magnitudes of success. He admitted that he is “very excited” about the application of non-traditional materials lining helmets.