MUKILTEO — Two Snohomish County companies are helping three college professors and a veteran of the medical technology industry revolutionize the football helmet.
With concern growing about the extent of concussions, Seattle-based startup VICIS set out in 2013 to create the safest helmet. The company’s Zero1 helmet already is showing results. It finished first among helmets tested in the lab by the National Football League and the players’ association. During NFL training sessions this spring, several players have been spotted wearing the helmet, including Seattle Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin.
It’s no surprise that Baldwin is wearing the helmet, though. He believes in the product so much that he personally invested in VICIS. He isn’t the only NFL standout impressed by the Zero1. Seahawks teammate Richard Sherman and NFL legend Jerry Rice are among the big names who have endorsed the helmet as a safety upgrade for players.
The company has never paid — and never will pay — a player to wear or endorse the helmet, said Dave Marver, VICIS’ chief executive.
Marver has spent more than 20 years in the medical technology industry, where he met VICIS co-founders Per Reinhall and Dr. Sam Browd. Reinhall heads the mechanical engineering department at the University of Washington. He also helped launch two successful startups before VICIS. Not to be outdone, Browd is a pediatric neurosurgeon at Seattle Children’s Hospital and teaches neurological surgery at the UW.
The company’s other co-founder, Jonathan Posner, also is a UW mechanical engineering professor.
“We came at this from engineering and scientific backgrounds,” Marver said.
The group used their decades of expertise to design a safer helmet.
Concussions are caused by rapid movement of the brain in the skull. Researchers still are working to understand what type of impact can produce concussions, Marver said.
The Zero1’s layers work together to absorb and dampen the force of a hit. Unlike traditional football helmets, which have a hard shell, the Zero1 helmet is designed to bend when it is hit. Below the shell, a honeycomb of columns bend and buckle to soften the blow.
The company spent about $20 million developing the Zero1. Earlier this year, it raised nearly $30 million to use for making, promoting and distributing a production model. The fundraising has come from angel investors and private individuals, including current and former NFL players and medical doctors, Marver said.
Along the way, the company has used feedback from the Seahawks organization, as well as college and pro players, to refine the design. Last year, the company provided helmets for a game between UW and the University of Oregon.
As a result of that feedback, RAM Technologies tweaked the padding inside the helmet to provide a more comfortable fit. The Mukilteo-based company makes high-tech foam parts for the aerospace, defense and medical industries, among others.
While “high-tech foam” might sound like an oxymoron to many people, a walk through RAM Technologies reveals the complexity and innovation required to press, push and punch any of the hundred foam materials available into the required shape.
The company works with customers to find the best solution to fit their needs. It has a big engineering team and is always looking for ways to make a good product even better, said Kerston Welch, the company’s business development director.
Thanks to that focus, RAM Technologies has picked up business from at least three customers that had been buying from suppliers in Asia, where labor costs are lower, Welch said.
A design firm in Portland connected the company with VICIS.
“They came to us with an idea,” Welch said.
Designers from the two companies collaborated to make parts that can be mass produced. Satisfying VICIS’ needs required RAM Technologies to create a new way of producing foam padding. The company used heat to shape memory foam, which springs back into place after being compressed. That process has not been done anywhere else, Welch said.
The result is padding that is comfortable, safe and resilient.
“It took us a good year of working together to develop the padding” for the helmet, he said.
Cobalt Enterprises in Lake Stevens created molds used to make the honeycomb of columns below the helmet’s shell. It typically does intricate work for aerospace companies.
VICIS has worked closely with companies across its supply chain to make the Zero1 helmet a reality. They have been a “really key part of our journey,” Marver said.
The company has focused on professional and college players, because they put their helmets through the most abuse. It plans to soon have versions available for players in high school and younger.
If things go well with the Zero1 football helmet, VICIS expects to expand into other sports, as well, he said.
“At this point, we just need to execute and grow effectively,” Marver said.