From Hall of Fame quarterbacks to prominent spine surgeons, more than 140 investors are betting on a Seattle startup that has spent two years developing a high-tech football helmet.
Investors include people like Roger Staubach, the 1963 Heisman Trophy winner and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback who led his team to two Super Bowl wins; to folks like Robert Nelsen, a biotech industry veteran and co-founder of Arch Venture Partners.
While they hail from various industries and backgrounds, Marver said that those backing Vicis all share a common trait: They want to make football safer.
“We were able to raise from individuals who have expertise in this space and a passion for what we are doing,” Marver said. “It’s given us a lot of freedom and flexibility.”
The funding will accelerate Vicis’ product roadmap and let the company ship its helmets to a handful of NFL and college teams in time for the 2016-17 season. Vicis, which spun out of the University of Washington last year, actually raised more seed money than anticipated, Marver said.
“As we progressed in these past two years, the need has grown more intense and we feel like we have a real obligation to get this technology out there for the benefit of the athlete,” he noted. “We’ve raised more money to do more and move faster.”
Vicis says its ZERO1 helmet provides more protection against skull fracture, traumatic brain injury, and concussion than the traditional helmet used by athletes today. The helmet differentiates from other available options because of a unique outer shell material that is designed to mitigate the forces thought to cause concussions on the football field and in other contact sports.
“We don’t have that hard polycarbonate shell,” Vicis CEO Dave Marver said on stage at the GeekWire Summit in October while demoing the product. “We have a multi-layered system with a novel outer shell material and a novel engineered structure. We’ve redesigned the helmet from scratch to provide protection against not just skull fracture, but from traumatic brain injury or concussion.”
There are four layers of the shell material, starting with the outer-most “LODE Shell,” which absorbs impact load by local deforming much like a car bumper, and unlike traditional helmets that have hard exterior shells.
Then there’s the “Core Layer,” seen below, which is utilizes bendable vertical struts also designed to absorb impact.
Underneath the “Core Layer” is a thin plastic “ARCH Shell” and a liner which uses advanced memory foam that conforms to a player’s head, as well as a redesigned chinstrap with four straps — two of which are attached to the inner shell, which Vicis says also reduces impact.
Vicis also developed its own custom fitting system that incorporates head length and breadth measurements. Marver said up until this point, players usually pick from three helmet sizes and use air bladders or foam to compensate for lack of fit.
Vicis, meanwhile, will offer 12 different sizes that adjust based on different lengths and widths of a player’s head.
“A better-fitting helmet is a safer helmet,” Marver said.
Vicis will sell each helmet for $1,500, which is considerably higher than what companies like Riddell and Schutt offer today. But Marver explained that helmet pricing isn’t necessarily rational — “we’ve been paying more to protect shoulders than brains,” he noted, while adding that the company put “millions of dollars” into research and development.
He also said Vicis will “work as hard as we can” to bring the price down for high school and youth participants.
“We wanted to both demonstrate and prove this technology in the most intense conditions with the highest velocity impact, but we got into this to help kids,” Marver said. “We will eventually do that, but we’ll start with elite athletes.”
Given the price point and competition from the traditional helmet companies, Vicis surely faces its own challenges with getting more teams and players wearing its helmet. But Marver is confident that the Seattle startup has come up with something game-changing.
“We are coming about this in a very different way than other helmet companies have in the past,” he said. “We are hopeful that we can be part of a multi-faceted solution to make the game safer.”
Added Marver: “We are not a sporting goods company. We are a technology company founded by engineers, neurosurgeons, and medical devices executives. Hopefully our different perspective is going to bring about the kind of change that is required in helmets to really make the game safer.”
Vicis, which also has $750,000 in grant funding from The Head Health Initiative, does indeed have an impressive leadership team. 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; and Chief Technology Officer Per Reinhall is the chairman of the UW Mechanical Engineering Department.
In addition, the company has a “coalition” made up of current and former NFL players like Mark May, Doug Baldwin, and Tony Dorsett — who said last year that he is fighting CTE — that act as an advisory council.
“They all care passionately about the sport,” Marver said. “I think they are driven by the desire to give back and do something good for this sport and for the kids.”