Seattle startup Vicis tries to crack a tough market.

By Bryan Gruley and Peter Robison | January 11, 2016

Photograph by Caroline Tompkins/Bloomberg

Dave Marver crouches in his Seattle office, brandishing two black football helmets that look pretty much alike. One is made by Riddell, the nation's best-selling helmet manufacturer. The other is a prototype made by Vicis, the startup company for which Marver is chief executive.

He slams the crown of the Riddell model onto the concrete floor, producing the familiar violent crack of a strong safety blindsiding a wide receiver. Then Marver bangs his own company's helmet down. The sound it makes is a flat, squishy thump—not something likely to thrill the average National Football League fan. Marver grins. "It's up to us," he says, "to make thump cool."

To treat football's concussion plague, Vicis (VYE-sis) has reimagined the traditional helmet. Instead of a rigid outer shell, the company's debut helmet, called Zero1, has a soft, deformable outer skin with a harder plastic core inside. Like a car's bumper, the softer carapace gives a little when struck, slowing the impact before it reaches a tailback's brain.

Additional layers further dampen impacts and cradle the player's head in mattress-like memory foam. Two of the four chin-strap snaps fasten to the inner shell rather than the outer one, which Vicis's engineers think will curb energy flowing through the jaw.

Vicis Zero1 helmet componentsVicis Zero1 helmet componentsVicis Zero1 helmet components

At the same time, Marver knows the essential form can't seem too different. The first thing many players do with a new helmet is try it on in front of a mirror. "They're young males, they're invincible, they want it to look cool," he says.

With the Will Smith movie Concussion in theaters and 25 percent of parents in a Harris Poll last year saying they won't let their kids play football and other contact sports, a cottage industry of scientists and entrepreneurs is trying to invent safer gear. The NFL is supporting some efforts with $60 million in grants in a joint program with General Electric and Under Armour. The recipients include a company making a turf underlayer that cushions falls and UCLA researchers working on a new type of helmet liner.

Vicis's $10 million in funding, mostly from private investors, includes $500,000 from the NFL program. The company says its goal is to reduce the incidence of concussion in football by 50 percent. "There's a lot of optimism around the potential for their product," says Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior vice president of health and safety. "The idea is that it's disruptive technology. How much it revolutionizes the industry, we'll see."

Even with the growing body of evidence about concussions at all levels of the game, the helmet market isn't easy to crack. For years, Riddell and No. 2 Schutt Sports have claimed about 90 percent of the $100 million to $150 million business. A newer company, Detroit's Xenith, sells helmets with an inner bonnet that, somewhat like Vicis's technology, seeks to absorb energy and reduce sudden movements of the head. The company's market share of about 10 percent is concentrated among high school and youth players. Rawlings reentered the business five years ago only to exit again last summer after being sued by Riddell for patent infringement. (Rawlings said at the time that its exit was unrelated to the lawsuit).

Vicis won't be competing on price, charging four to five times as much as its rivals. The company is also bracing for patent lawsuits from Riddell. "That's how they compete," Marver says, alluding to the Rawlings case and past litigation that drove Schutt into bankruptcy. "It's one reason you don't see as much innovation in this space as you'd like."

A Riddell spokeswoman says the company is "disappointed" at Marver's remarks. "If the CEO expects litigation—before the new helmet has even been publicly introduced—we cannot help question how Vicis defines innovation," she says. Should Riddell determine the Zero1 infringes patents, "we will protect our innovation." Schutt CEO Robert Erb says: "We're always interested in new technology and innovation. It's difficult to say that anything we haven't seen is actually new and innovative."

Vicis design studio

Marver and his staff of about 25 work in a low-slung building of cinderblock walls across the street from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Designers sitting at desktop computers amid racks of competitors' helmets wear Vicis prototypes to get an idea of what customers will see and feel. An empty room is being readied for an assembly line scheduled to start churning out the Zero1 this spring.

Marver, 47, played football growing up in Cincinnati but gave it up for golf because he thought he was too small. A fan of both his hometown Bengals and Seattle's Seahawks, he once sold pacemakers and other devices for Medtronic and more recently was CEO of a maker of defibrillators. "I grew up in medical tech, which is why the issue with helmets doesn't scare me," he says. "We are a medical technology company addressing a public health problem."

Sam Browd is a neurosurgeon with the Sports Concussion Program at Children's Hospital in Seattle. Among the thousands of young athletes he has seen are many in their early teens who have already suffered multiple concussions and need to quit playing their sport. "It was striking to me how emotional that conversation [is] for the kid and his parents," Browd says. Some of his patients have college scholarships on the line. "It's not uncommon for me to make moms cry," Browd says, "so it was particularly touching to see dads cry, too."

Two-and-a-half years ago, Browd, who also teaches at the University of Washington, reached out to Per Reinhall, a lanky Swede who prefers hockey to football and chairs UW's mechanical engineering department. Reinhall at the time was working separately on technology to dull the vibrational din of pile drivers used in bridge and dock construction, which can hurt aquatic life.

Over coffee, Browd and Reinhall made sketches and swapped helmet ideas, like fashioning an outer shell of tectonic plates that would disperse the energy of hits by shifting on impact. Eventually, they recruited Marver, with his sales experience, to their effort. "I didn't want this to be a science project," Browd says. "You have to commercialize it to make it real to people."

Dave Marver, Sam Browd, Per Reinhall

The trio formed Vicis, a Latin word meaning change. "It's also a sharp, fierce-sounding name that implies speed," Marver says. Browd's tectonic-plate concept morphed into an "inside-out" helmet with a softer outer shell. The idea echoes the thinking of auto engineers who determined long ago that crushable materials and structures are better at protecting car occupants because they absorb energy as they collapse.

By slowing the impact—even by mere milliseconds—the crumpling eases the acceleration factor in Newton's Second Law of Motion (force = mass x acceleration). Riddell's popular SpeedFlex helmet, with a deformable flap on the forehead, reflects similar thinking. Vicis chose a stiffer plastic for an inner core that guards against skull fractures.

Marver, Reinhall, and Browd appeared before the W Fund, an early-stage venture vehicle affiliated with UW. Reinhall displayed a palm-size square of pink material. Slender vertical struts were sandwiched between thin plastic wafers. The fund invested $1 million, and Reinhall's pink prop became a black, 1.5-inch-thick layer of hundreds of tightly spaced struts fitted within the contours of the Zero1's inner and outer cores.

Vicis helmet structure

Like miniature shock absorbers, the struts buckle and flex on impact, sucking up energy before it reaches a player's brain. The design was inspired by principles articulated by Swiss physicist Leonhard Euler in the 1700s that are now a foundation of structural engineering.

"It was tricky because players don't want to play with a marshmallow on their heads," Marver says. "That's why we were stoked to find an outer shell material that felt traditional—hard, shiny, paintable—but deformed locally upon impact." All he'll say about the material is that it's a polymer plastic used in the auto industry. You can make a shallow dent in it with a thumb; it bounces back when you release.

Using finite element modeling, a method of digitally simulating a product's real-world performance, Vicis engineers kept varying the number, position, and spacing of the buckling struts. They fitted multiple versions inside prototype helmets and tested them against Riddell and Schutt models in a UW lab. They dropped helmets from varying heights onto a hard rubber pad, mimicking the method used to certify NFL helmets, and slammed them from various angles with a weighted pendulum. A 3D print shop on the floor below finally complained about the constant thudding.

Early Zero1 versions have consistently performed 20 percent to 50 percent better than Riddell and Schutt models, Marver says, especially in simulations of the glancing rotational blows that researchers think may play a larger role in concussions. Tests on the most recent prototypes have yet to be verified by an independent lab.

Vicis also hopes to reduce head trauma by offering a better fit. Traditional helmet sizes are small, medium, large, and extra large. Some models contain padding that can be inflated with air to fine-tune fit. Last spring, Vicis staffers used calipers to measure the lengths and breadths of the craniums of 150 Seahawk and UW players. Vicis used the data to create a dozen different sizes and configurations to accommodate varying head shapes.

Vicis hired the Seattle design firm Artefact to help with the Zero1's look. "We had the challenge of introducing new technology into a very old, established, and somewhat conservative market," Executive Director Fernd van Engelen says. They drew heavily on automotive tropes. "A football helmet is built like a sports car," proclaims the headline atop a slide in Artefact's design presentation to Vicis. Like a car body, the outer shell should connote "speed and stance" with "clean lines."

From the outside, the Zero1 shown to Bloomberg Businessweek doesn't look dramatically different from some Riddell and Schutt models. It bears some resemblance to Riddell's SpeedFlex, from its sleek contours to the stylized vents and ear holes angling toward the helmet's rear. Marver says Vicis's helmet will be comparable in weight and dimensions to current models.

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It won't be close on price. While most adult helmets retail for $200 to $400, the Zero1 will sell for $1,500. That may not be a problem for NFL and top college teams, but Marver concedes it's out of reach for budget-constrained high schools and youth leagues, with their 3 million-plus players. Pro and college players have more say than their younger counterparts in which helmets they wear.

That leaves Vicis aiming at a small piece of a market that isn't big to start with. Former Xenith CEO Chuck Huggins guesses high-end customers might buy 50,000 helmets a year. "I just don't know how you're gonna run a company on that size of market," he says. Huggins's successor at Xenith, Joe Esposito, says inertia may pose the biggest challenge: "It's the same guys selling the same helmets to the same people over the last 20 years."

In Riddell and Schutt, Vicis will battle against companies with vast sales and dealer networks. Seattle entrepreneur Gary Rubens passed on investing in Vicis even though he says he admires Marver and his mission. "It's tough to go into a market where you've got these huge companies that sort of control it," Rubens says.

Vicis helmet form liner components

Few people outside Vicis have seen the Zero1. The company plans to show it publicly for the first time this week at a coaches conference in San Antonio. Independent sources such as Virginia Tech will soon be testing and rating it. Dana Marquez, assistant athletic director of equipment operations at Auburn University, says he likes what he's heard about Vicis's internal tests, but wants to see how the helmet performs on the field. Human heads may behave differently than the crash-dummy heads used in the lab, particularly at different temperatures and impact angles, he says.

If Vicis can persuade enough people like Marquez that its helmets are safer than others, the company could expand its technology to lacrosse, hockey, and soccer—a market that could approach $300 million by 2020, according to a recent study by BCC Research of Wellesley, Mass. The study assumes prices will rise as manufacturers seek to curb concussion risk. Marver is betting the market will exceed $500 million.

Vicis's initial sales targets will be the 32 NFL teams and 30 to 40 top colleges. Eventually it hopes to develop lower-priced models for high school and youth ball. The company plans to ship 1,500 helmets this year, ratcheting that up to 15,000 by 2018. "Year one is not about making money," Marver says. "It's about making the helmet as good as we can."