Bill Gates wants to help improve the safety of football players.
The Microsoft co-founder is listed on a recently-filed patent application along with 20 other inventors — including several from Bellevue-based patent holding company Intellectual Ventures — for a sensor-laden helmet that could detect concussion-causing impacts, and an apparatus that could assess damage to the helmet itself.
The patent references a helmet that is “configured to reduce impact forces, torques, and accelerations to the head of a user in cases of impacts or collisions to the user’s head,” like during a football game, for example. The helmet has sensors that can measure impact data and send an alert that notifies someone — like a coach or doctor on the sidelines — when an impact threshold has been exceeded. The patent indicates that this could happen in real-time.
One goal of the sensors in the helmet, it seems, would be to help detect when someone may be at risk for concussion following an impact. The apparatus, which you can see below, could then be used to assess the damage done to a liner “disposed within a shell of a helmet.” The data could provide a rating for the safety level of the helmet, and determine if repairs need to be made.
Here’s an excerpt from the patent application:
“The frequency of testing the compliance of liner 16 may be based on a schedule (e.g., number of days, time-in-use, number of plays, number of impacts, etc.), In the context of a helmet used in sports (e.g., football, etc.), the testing may be done between plays, during timeouts, or other breaks in play on the sideline, in an equipment room between games, or other chosen locations. Helmet 10 (e.g., indicator module 21, etc.) may report when it is due (or overdue) for inspection via communication to a remote device (e.g., via controller 18, etc.) or a visual and/or auditory indication (e.g., via indicators 20 and 22, etc.).”
The patent application, filed on July 8 and made public in November, lists “Elwha LLC” as the applicant name, which is a holding company that Intellectual Ventures uses.
Gates has been a long-time partner of Intellectual Ventures (IV), which was co-founded by former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold — who is also listed on the patent — and participates in brainstorming sessions at IV. He’s also an investor in a handful of IV spinouts, including TerraPower, Kymeta, and Evolv.
Gates hasn’t been involved much in sports technology — nor has Intellectual Ventures — though he is a Seahawks fan and his Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen owns the NFL team. Allen, who launched the Allen Institute for Brain Science in 2003, put up $2.4 million in 2013 for a study that researched short and long-term effects of traumatic brain injury.
There is another group of folks in the Seattle area also trying to develop a better football helmet. Vicis is 4-year-old Seattle-based startup which has created the ZERO1 helmet that features a unique outer shell material designed to mitigate the forces thought to cause concussions on the football field and in other contact sports. Vicis, which has raised nearly $24 million from investors ranging from former NFL players to top biotech veterans, spun out of the University of Washington in 2014 and one of its co-founders, CTO Per Reinhall, is the chairman of the UW Mechanical Engineering Department.
Vicis had its helmet used by college football teams during practice this past fall, but pulled the helmets to assess comfort complaints. It has since addressed those issues and the helmet will be used on the field next season, the company confirmed with GeekWire today. We’ve reached out to Vicis about additional comment on this patent and will update when we hear back.
Update: Here’s a statement from Vicis CEO Dave Marver:
“Seattle has become a global center for head health innovation. We’re encouraged to see great ideas coming out of IV and hope their patent application someday leads to a sensor-enabled helmet that helps kids participate in football more safely. We continuously search for new and better technology to incorporate into the ZERO1 and future VICIS helmets.”
Injuries caused by head trauma are a serious problem in the football world, as well as other sports and industries like the military. The NFL in September committed another $100 million for research and development of new technologies to address this growing problem.