More than 100 NFL players and thousands of high schoolers now wear a football helmet created by Vicis, a Seattle startup that wanted to rethink helmet design from the inside out to lessen concussions and other head injuries. With good reason: The company's two helmets earned the top two slots in the NFL's helmet safety test earlier this spring. 

Now the company is expanding its focus from the playing field to the battlefield. Last year, the startup signed a contract with the U.S. Army to redesign part of its helmets, co-founder and CEO Dave Marver revealed. The company has been working in stealth to incorporate some of its football helmet technology into the standard issue helmets worn by Army and Marine Corps troops.

U.S. military helmets are optimized for ballistic protection, meaning defense against bullets and shrapnel. Yet roughly 80 percent of head injuries in the military occur in nondeployed settings where those things generally aren't an issue. Instead, these injuries tend to be of the blunt force variety, incurred from incidents like jumping out of aircraft or striking one's head during drills or combat training.

In 2016, medical staff from Joint Base Lewis-McChord outside Seattle approached Vicis about trying to improve the blunt impact performance of both the Army and Marine combat helmets, which are similar to one another. "At the time," Marver says, "we were still very much an emerging company and we had to stay very focused on developing the Zero1, our initial football product. But we felt so strongly about this being a need that we found the resources to work on this, and we assigned a team to it."

That team operated behind the scenes throughout the past two years. Initially, Vicis funded the work itself, but last year the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center offered the startup a development contract. The company is also starting to raise an approximately $15 million Series B round, which will bring its total funding near $80 million. 

For now, Vicis's work focuses on the pads on the interior of the helmet. The Zero1 football helmet has a layer that consists of hundreds of columns that bend on impact. "The technology inside the pads leverages those same engineering principles," Marver says. 

The improvements have been measurable. Vicis tested its pads in a lab setting using Department of Defense test protocols earlier this year, and the startup says its version performed between 30 and 55 percent better than each model the U.S. military currently uses.

Marver says the updated helmets are probably a year or two away from being issued to troops. The Army is currently performing its own testing on the pads. Vicis designed them to fit into current helmets so the military could retrofit the ones currently deployed. 

Vicis's Zero1 essentially reverses the design of the traditional football helmet: The hard shell is on the inside while the soft part is on the outside. About 80 NFL players wore the helmet in games last season. This year, the company has issued helmets to players on all 32 NFL teams, plus 80 college squads and in more than 400 high schools.

Published on: May 22, 2018