A concussion crisis is impacting American football at all levels. One out of every three retired NFL players is expected to develop long-term cognitive problems; doctors are criticizing the NCAA for how it protects student-athletes from head trauma; and parents — from LeBron James to Brett Favre — are skeptical of allowing their children to play football due to safety concerns.
The future of the NFL, the country’s most popular professional sport, hangs in the balance.
Enter Vicis, a new University of Washington spinout that has developed an innovative helmet designed to mitigate the forces that are thought to cause concussions on the football field and in other contact sports.
“The fundamental issue with today’s helmets is that they were was designed decades ago, mainly to address skull fracture,” Vicis CEO Dave Marver said in an interview. “They do this very effectively, but they don’t address traumatic brain injury or concussion very effectively.”
The helmets aren’t available quite yet, but Vicis has been working with players, coaches, trainers, equipment managers, and other stakeholders at all levels — from the NFL to youth leagues — to ensure that it has come up with the right solution.
Marver wouldn’t divulge many details about the technology and engineering inside the helmet, but noted that its design helps reduce the linear and rotational acceleration during impact, while also protecting against skull fracture.
“I don’t think any helmet can ever eliminate concussion,” Marver said. “But our testing to date suggests we are making excellent progress to address the forces that cause concussions.”
There are other startups in this space, but most deal with monitoring impact. Two rather new Seattle companies — X2 Biosystems and i1 Biometrics — are both building technology and using data to sense and calculate the severity of each blow to the head.
Vicis, however, is taking a slightly different path to help improve safety on the field.
“There just haven’t been that many people trying to build a better helmet, and in my mind, that’s focusing on prevention rather than diagnostics or monitoring,” Marver said.
The founding team behind Vicis is impressive. Marver has over two decades of business experience in the medical device space; Chief Medical Officer Samuel Browd is a director for the Seattle Children’s Hospital Sports Concussion Program; Chief Technology Officer Per Reinhall is the chairman of the UW Mechanical Engineering Department; and Chief Science Officer Jonathan Posner is an associate professor at the UW Mechanical Engineering Department and an expert in fluid dynamics.
“The best part about this company is the fact that we have what I would consider world class people across every facet of the company,” Marver said.
Browd helped get Vicis off the ground last year after seeing too many young athletes affected by concussion at Seattle Children’s Hospital. He reached out to Reinhall at the UW for his engineering expertise and later rounded out the team.
Vicis works out of the UW’s new incubator and has raised grant funding from the university — which has an equity stake in the company — and the Coulter Foundation. The company, which employs 12, also has money from Seattle-based W-Fund and the Alliance of Angels. Total investments and grant commitments exceed $2 million.
The founders originally referred to their startup as Spark Medical when it spun out of the UW last year. They went with Vicis for an official title because the word means “change” in Latin.
“First, we’re trying to bring change to the football helmet industry to address this important problem,” Marver said. “Secondly, we are changing something in the helmet structure that adapts to impact. On both levels, the name kind of fit.”
Vicis will first start with football and plans to create helmets in other contact sports like hockey and lacrosse. The goal is to have its helmet in use as soon as possible at every level of competition, but there’s a big focus on younger athletes.
“We’re highly motivated to solve this problem for kids,” Marver said. “Most players in this country are very young and they are the ones we are particularly keen to help here with this technology.”