Sunday night marks the 50th Super Bowl in NFL history. The sport has never been more popular: More than 114 million Americans watched last year's game, and that number has climbed nearly every year since 2002.

But it's impossible to know where the sport will be in another 50 years. The discovery and prevalence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the basis of the 2015 movie Concussion, has exposed just how dangerous the sport really is. Traumatic brain injury through repeated blows to the head and concussions can cause parts of the brain to atrophy. Hall of Famer Junior Seau, who was later learned to have CTE, committed suicide in 2012; more recently, former star receiver Antwaan Randle El revealed that, at age 36, he has trouble going down stairs and suffers from bouts of forgetfulness. Over 5,000 former players have sued the league over the brain injuries suffered during their careers, and a slew of high-profile former NFL players and coaches have said they won't let their children play the game.

One thing is clear: If football safety doesn't change soon, America's most popular sport will be in jeopardy.

Ideas fill a whiteboard in Vicis's Seattle office.
CREDIT: Courtesy Company

Enter Vicis, a Seattle startup whose self-appointed mission is to create a helmet that reduces the risk of concussions. The company's first product, the Zero1, features a pliable outer layer and an impact-absorbing core layer that cushions the wearer's head against violent collisions--all, for the most part, while maintaining the look and shape of a classic helmet. The company has received $10 million in funding, including a $500,000 grant from the NFL. The helmets will be available to NFL and college players this spring.

Sam Browd, a neurosurgeon and the medical director of the Seattle Sports Concussion Program, came up with the idea behind Vicis (pronounced VYE-sis). Browd, who specializes in pediatric concussions, had grown tired of telling athletes they had no choice but to hang up their equipment for good--while still in their teens. In 2013, he founded the company with fellow University of Washington professor Per Reinhall, who chairs the school's mechanical engineering program, and Dave Marver, recruited to be the business brains behind the operation.

"It was clear once we looked at the space that the current helmet companies weren't introducing a lot of innovation--that the industry was ripe for disruption," Marver tells Inc. "And we felt like we could make a difference."

The driving concept behind the Zero1 helmet is a physics formula: force = mass X acceleration. Adding more time to the moment of impact decreases the acceleration, which in turn decreases the force put on the player's brain. To accomplish this, the Vicis team created a helmet with some give. The outer shell bends when pressed--pushing down with a finger can cause an indentation--and then regains its form when released. So while most helmet collisions create a familiar, hair-raising crack, the Zero1 produces an unfamiliar thud.

The Zero1 (internal view).
CREDIT: Courtesy company

Inside the outer shell is an inch-and-a-half layer made up of thin struts that act as shock absorbers, bending upon impact and bouncing back. Beneath that is a hard plastic shell, and the innermost layer, in direct contact with the athlete's head, consists of a waterproof material that feels and behaves like memory foam.

According to Marver, there isn't yet any scientific proof that impact force is related to concussions. So while he's careful not to make any claims about concussion prevention, he says third-party data that reveals the Zero1's ability to reduce impact forces on the head will be released when the helmet launches this spring.

Vicis hired Seattle design firm Artefact to conduct research on and create the aesthetic. Here's what the two companies learned during the design process.

1. Don't assume you know what works. "I thought at the beginning that we would come up with a radically different design," says Marver, "where you're watching a game on television and you could instantly see, 'Wow, that's a Vicis helmet.' " Early ideas included a flat top and a revamped facemask. But players resisted futuristic-looking prototypes--after all, football helmets have looked almost exactly the same since the early '60s. The designers quickly scrapped their progressive aesthetics and reverted to a classic look.

2. Get feedback from everyone who will be using it--seriously, everyone. Artefact and Vicis spoke not only with the players who would be wearing the helmets, but also with coaches, equipment managers, and trainers. "One thing that we learned quickly," says Fernd van Engelen, Artefact's executive director, "is how complex a seemingly simple product is." One unforeseen concern that arose: the ability for team medical staff to remove the helmets quickly in case of an emergency. The designers ensured the Zero1 could be unstrapped and slipped off just as easily as its predecessors. "We want to make sure we're not introducing new challenges or additional hurdles," Van Engelen says.

3. Clearly lay out your design priorities. After the research phase, Artefact created a simple visual that consisted of two concentric circles. The larger outer circle included three equal sections: comfort, safety, style. "When we got into the design," says Van Engelen, "it sort of served as a checklist and helped us ensure we were addressing all the requirements." Style, for example, guided much of the design, since it was a priority for the most important customers--the athletes themselves. "Players want to look sharp on the field," Van Engelen says. "They want to look aggressive and fast and stealthy." The inner circle of the visual included one word: performance. "This is all built around minimizing anything that distracts the players from their jobs," he says.

4. Add those extra touches. Creating a product that fulfills the customers' wishes isn't enough--you need to take that extra step. The inside of each Zero1 helmet has a removable patch that can be customized to include the team logo or the player's number. "What we heard when we were doing our research was a lot of people describing themselves as modern gladiators," says Ben Collette, Artefact's lead designer. "And the last thing you see before going on the field is the inside of your helmet."