By Joe Lemire
September 6, 2018
This four-part series examines the NFL’s $60 million investment in the Engineering Roadmap to develop research and technology to make football safer. Part one discusses the data behind the controversial helmet rule. Part two outlines the engineering work supporting the roadmap. This part discusses the crowdsourcing of innovative solutions. Part four looks at the future of the program and a new data collection device.
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. 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 placein 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. Vicis is the poster child for these contests, a crowdsourced submission that has become a major player on the field.
“It was clear to me that there was an opportunity here because the incumbents—the legacy helmet manufacturers—were not innovating,” said Vicis CEO Dave Marver. “They weren’t investing a lot in R&D. That’s one of the reasons the NFL filled the void and established these grant programs to try to cultivate and foster new innovation.”
Right from the birth of the Play Smart. Play Safe.initiative and the $60 million investment in the Engineering Roadmap, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league’s goal was “to provide the resources and information to stimulate the marketplace to design solutions.” The NFL acknowledges that it can’t conjure all the solutions, but the league wants to enable other smart minds who can.
“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.
Even more unorthodox ideas have followed Vicis. Innovators have moved far past foam and are now experimenting with liquid crystalline elastomers and energy-absorbent textile fibers as helmet liners. And they are doing so with the validation of the NFL.
“It helped us raise capital,” Marver said of the award. “It helped us establish credibility with certain NFL teams and gain entry into their locker rooms and established meetings with their equipment staffs and medical staffs. It also helped, I think, establish a close working relationship with the NFL and the NFL Players Association.”
Medical technology company Quanterix can identify minute protein biomarkers in the blood with unprecedented sensitivity. The levels of a few biomarkers elevate after brain trauma, showing promise that they could be used to make an objective concussion diagnosis. Other tests might be able to identify early stage chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked with repetitive blows to the head. (CTE can currently only be formally diagnosed by autopsy.)
Quanterix was a beneficiary of $800,000 in grant money from each of the first two GE Head Health Challenges. The second award came in early December 2015, a couple of weeks before the movie Concussion debuted in theaters. The timing—and the NFL backing—led to an interview of Quanterix CEO Kevin Hrusovsky on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
That appearance led to a lot of sales of the company’s Simoa biomarker analyzer to researchers. Studies have since identified how important a specific protein is in diagnosing concussions, discerning their severity, and even helping determine a safe return-to-play time. That biomarker could be a major step forward for medical treatment in the NFL, and its name is neurofilament light—that’s right, NfL.
“In many ways, I give the NFL a lot of credit that the publicity they created for us and the timing of it was very helpful to really spur on a lot of development, growth, and R&D spending activity for our technology,” Hrusovsky said.
For any young associate professor, there’s inherent incentive to differentiate one’s research and carve a new niche in academia. After Chris Yakacki was hired as an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado’s Denver campus, a colleague suggested he look into liquid crystalline elastomers. These amorphous polymers can expand and contract, behaving like natural tissues, cushioning impacts and dissipating energy.
Yakacki knew they’d do well in reducing forces, but his original research focused on the use of LCEs inside the body as part of knee replacements or disk repairs in the back. He didn’t gain traction there, but when he caught wind that the HeadHealthTech Challenge was interested in innovative materials, he pivoted toward external equipment. Yakacki envisioned the LCEs working as a dispersive force lining the helmet and protecting the head.
His first submission to the second HeadHealthTech Challenge advanced to the finals but failed to win an award. Myers, the Duke professor, provided a steady stream of feedback and critiques that even he admitted was “very tough” and maybe even “severe.” Yakacki recalled one email read something to the effect of “we like the idea, but quit being so academic.”
The young Colorado professor appreciated the blunt review and revised his pitch. Myers and the Duke CTSI team were impressed, awarding Yakacki $121,949 in the third challenge and helping him further develop his idea.
“I think that they’re a little more proactive in not just giving you some money and hoping you do something great and publish some papers—they actually want to see things commercialized,” Yakacki said.
Myers continues to offer advice, coaching Yakacki on creating a university spinoff (called Impressio) and helping that new company test its material under the protocols set forth in the Engineering Roadmap.
“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.”
These competitions and subsequent mentorship serve the purpose of helping counsel researchers through all the obstacles of building a start-up and producing a viable commercial product.
“That’s the exact intention of the program,” Myers said. “Now, will it prove to be a better helmet or not? We’ll see. But that’s that nature of product development: risk and return.”
In the 1950s, far from any football field, Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicists Wolfgang Pauli and Werner Heisenberg devised a quantum field theory—a physics holy grail describing the fundamental forces of nature in one cogent thesis. Pauli presented this idea in a special 1958 lecture to peer academics at Columbia University. In the first row that day was Neils Bohr, a fellow Nobel Prize winner. At the conclusion of the talk, Bohr stood up and said, “We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question which divides us is, ‘Is it crazy enough?’”
The NFLPA’s medical director, Dr. Thom Mayer, recently told that story to researchers interested in submitting to the latest HeadHealthTech Challenge. He added this tagline, “So what I would encourage all of you to do is get out there and get crazy.”
Myers has described the selection criteria as risk agnostic, balancing a portfolio of projects with varying likeliness and magnitudes of success. Myers admitted that he is “very excited” about the application of non-traditional materials lining helmets.
Sander Reynolds of Corsair Innovations, which has received grant money from both incarnations of the head health contests with GE and Duke, and uses a textile fiber to absorb energy, said early testing of his company’s fibers have shown “dramatic results.” When used as a liner in helmet, Corsair’s FEAM (Fibrous Energy Absorbing Material) has provided a 10-to-15 percent reduction in forces on direct impacts and 20-to-30 percent improvement on rotational forces.
“Bringing those individuals and those companies into the discussion of how do we design a helmet, I think, is going to result in some of those advances that maybe we haven’t realized yet,” said NFLPA consultant Kristy Arbogast, the director of engineering for the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The NFL also runs a pitch competition along with Comcast NBCUniversal and Mayo Clinic called 1st and Future that targets a broader range of athlete safety and performance initiatives. Both crowdsourced programs fall under the purview of the Engineering Roadmap and NFL EVP of health and safety Jeff Miller.
“I do think the league should get credit for trying to identify, foster, nurture new technology,” Vicis’ Marver said. “Jeff Miller and his team have evolved and changed the program over time. They have tried to increase the yield and make sure more of these new technologies reach the field. We hope to be an example to others that come behind us to show them that it is possible.
“You can take an idea from nothing—a drawing board—and bring it all the way to the NFL playing field.”