Launching a new product with an understaffed team during a pandemic sounds like a recipe for disaster, but that's just what Vicis did.
On Tuesday, Vicis will unveil the Zero2, the first new helmet the Seattle-based company has released in more than two years. The helmet, which has already been rated by one independent body as the safest on the market, was pushed over the finish line by the small handful of employees who remained through mass layoffs.
Vicis made waves across the football world back in 2017 when its first product, the Zero1, was rated as the safest helmet in the NFL. It featured a pliable outer layer that bent upon impact, allowing it to absorb some of a blow's force. That helps protect the head during collisions--critical, given what's now known about the connection between football and the brain condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. A number of NFL stars quickly adopted Vicis helmets, including Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who will wear one during the Super Bowl on Sunday.
Vicis was able to use its momentum to raise more than $85 million, including a grant from the NFL and investments from current and former football stars Jerry Rice, Aaron Rodgers, Roger Staubach and Doug Baldwin. But the football helmet market proved tough to crack. Pro players are reluctant to change, in many cases having used the same helmets for years. (Star wide receiver Antonio Brown once threatened to sit out after the NFL told him his helmet was no longer approved.) Plus, a high price tag--$1,500 for the first Vicis helmet iteration--hindered wide adoption outside of the NFL. Vicis struggled to turn a profit, and by November 2019, the company was pleading with investors for more capital.
The funding didn't come. Co-founder and CEO Dave Marver resigned, and a month later, Vicis' board voted to place the company into receivership in an effort to avoid bankruptcy. Nearly 100 of the company's 110 employees were laid off.
One of the few who remained was Jason Neubauer, the startup's vice president of product development. "It's a lot easier to sell this company if you've got someone who was leading the engineering side," Neubauer says.
Last April, New York-based investment firm Innovatus Capital Partners acquired Vicis for less than $3 million, according to GeekWire. Neubauer, the highest-ranking employee still on staff, was granted permission by the new owners to make a few hires. He brought back several engineers who had been let go and the group of seven picked up where the 30-person engineering team had left off.
The finished product, called the Zero2, uses many of the same design principles as its two predecessors, but with some small yet crucial changes. The engineers reconstructed the thin walls that connect the rubbery columns inside the helmet; they now provide the head with as much protection as before but with less material, making the helmet 15 percent lighter. A lighter helmet is critical to a player's performance--and safety--since it allows them to move their head more nimbly.
The helmet also offers a larger field of vision and a revamped system of pads that helps equipment managers fit it to the unique shape and size of each player's head. Another change will be noticeable to someone watching from the sideline or the couch: perforations along the exterior that help with ventilation.
The new helmet finished first in Virginia Tech's newly released safety ratings. Researchers at the university evaluate helmets used in football, hockey, bicycling and a number of other sports each year.
Neubauer says that finishing the product with such a small team was a challenge, but working with a skeleton crew allowed the engineers to work efficiently. "There was one meeting every Monday morning," he says, "and then it was heads-down all week.
Plus, he adds, having such a small team in a space made for many more people made social distancing a breeze.
The new helmet's price tag is $759--still higher than many competitors, but more affordable than the company's previous versions. Vicis' Zero1 was most recently priced at $950.
Hundreds of NFL players wear Vicis' helmets in games. Including Mahomes, the company says eleven combined players on the Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will wear Vicis helmets on Super Bowl Sunday, a group that also includes Bucs center Ryan Jensen and Chiefs wide receiver Byron Pringle.
Of course, no helmet can make football "safe." But in a sport that sees countless players diagnosed with concussions each season, every little bit of extra protection helps.
"Having the [Virginia Tech] result just reaffirmed that all this hard work was worth it," says Neubauer. "I'm so thankful and impressed with what this small team has done."