The 17-year-old was a senior in high school, and he'd been playing football for most of his life. His parents came to almost every game. He was hoping to  earn a college scholarship to play the following fall.

Sam Browd, a neurosurgeon at Seattle Children's Hospital, looked at the MRI results on the screen in front of him. Then he looked over the teen's medical records again. This was his fifth concussion; his first had happened when he was still a boy and they'd happened with shorter intervals between them each time.

Browd had seen this before. He knew what came next.

The neurosurgeon walked into the room where the athlete sat next to his parents. "We have to talk about what is the safest and best thing for you going forward," Browd told him. "I don't think you can keep playing." As the words sunk in, the teen started to cry. His father did too. 

Throughout his decade-plus career as a pediatric neurosurgeon, Browd has had to tell dozens of young athletes that they needed to stop playing the sport they loved--and in many cases, the sport that defined who they were. Most of the time, that sport was football.

This was one of the biggest reasons why he co-founded Vicis to design a safer football helmet. The first two models of its Zero1 helmet, which debuted last year, earned the top two spots in this year's safety test commissioned by the NFL. On Monday, the company is announcing the launch of a helmet designed for youths.

"This is our mission fully realized," says Dave Marver, the Seattle-based company's CEO. "We got into this to help as many kids as we could."

The youth helmet, meant for kids aged 6 through 13, is the result of five years of work. Browd and Marver, along with mechanical engineer Per Reinhall, co-founded Vicis in 2013. The company's design turns traditional helmets inside out, putting a pliable shell on the outside and a hard one inside. The two layers are connected by hundreds of bendable rods that can warp on impact, absorbing some of a blow's force.

Browd started thinking about reinventing the helmet one day while sitting in a meeting listening to a colleague talk about new foam pads for helmets' interiors. "It struck me that there was never going be any disruptive innovation in this space if we just kept going sequentially, with little changes to helmet technology," Browd says. "It felt like there was an opportunity to do something bold and dramatic."

The youth helmet's design is much like that of Vicis's adult, or "Varsity," helmet, but with some changes specific to children's heads. While the helmet as a whole is smaller and lighter, there's extra thickness in the temple area, where a child's skull takes longest to develop. The interior fit system will allow for extra customization to match a wide variety of head shapes and sizes.

The company has not yet settled on a price for the helmet, though it says that will be announced soon. The adult version cost $1,500 when it hit the market last year--very pricey for a football helmet, which generally would fall in the $200 to $500 range. The cost was lowered to $950 this year. 

To be sure, helmets are far from an end-all solution. "I've seen some wonderful helmets, but none of them prevent concussions," says Jam Ghajar, a Stanford neurosurgeon and president of the Brain Trauma Foundation. The problem with all helmets, he says, is that they assume the wearer has an iron neck. Even if a helmet absorbs much of the impact of a hit, it still causes the neck to rotate, which is the movement that has been found to cause concussions.

For its part, Vicis makes clear in its marketing materials that helmets cannot prevent concussions. And Ghajar, who knows Browd and has visited Vicis's facilities, thinks the startup is on the right track. "They're really cutting edge," he says. "I think it's as good as you can get."

Incumbents Riddell and Schutt, which combine to own an estimated 90 percent of the U.S. market, have released redesigned helmets in recent years. Riddell's SpeedFlex helmet, which can bend at several locations on its exterior, has gained traction at the NFL and college levels since its 2014 launch. And Schutt's F7, released last year, features a shifting "tectonic plate" system meant to diffuse energy within the helmet.

Vicis expects to begin taking orders for the youth helmet in October or November and says it will ship in time for the 2019 season. The company has previously said that it eventually wants to make helmets for other sports like hockey and lacrosse.

Marver says Vicis chose to target the upper echelons of football first since lower level leagues often follow their lead. All 32 NFL teams currently have Vicis helmets in their equipment rooms, as do more than 80 Division I colleges. Notre Dame and Baylor University outfit the majority of their players with the helmets. NFL players including the Seahawks' Russell Wilson, the Redskins' Alex Smith, and the Patriots' Julian Edelman wear the Zero 1; Wilson and Smith are on the startup's advisory committee, which also includes Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Roger Staubach.

All those big names are nice. For Browd, though, the true reward will be having to tell fewer children their athletic careers have been cut short.

"This is very personal," he says. "As a medical professional, you want to be able to do something that can impact these kids in a positive way instead of just giving them bad news after the fact."

Published on: Sep 10, 2018