Seattle-based startup Vicis is on a mission to create a safer football helmet. It's already had some success: The company's first product, the Zero1, finished first in the NFL's annual safety test last year.
The NFL just released its results for 2018, and things are looking even better from Vicis's perspective: Its updated 2018 model finished first. The second place finisher? Last year's version. That means the five-year-old startup swept the top two spots on a list made up mostly of helmets from Riddell and Schutt--two legacy companies that as of 2016 owned a combined 90 percent of the U.S. market.
Vicis's helmet is unique in its design: The outer layer is pliable, as opposed to the hard plastic exterior found on traditional helmets. The helmet's second layer consists of a series of vertical columns that can bend on impact. These outer sections act like a vehicle's crumple zone, absorbing some of a collision's impact before its force reaches the player's head. (A Vicis helmet striking another helmet makes a dull thud sound, as opposed to the crack that fans are used to.) Inside the helmet is a hard layer to protect the skull, and pads on the interior can be sized and rearranged to fit a player's head.
Dave Marver, Vicis co-founder and CEO, says he was "thrilled" to hear the results. "We've been working hard to improve the performance," he says. The company began using a more durable yet lighter material for the helmet's outer layer, which also contributed to its shaving about half a pound off its overall weight. The helmet is now just over four pounds, which shifts it from heavier than average to the low end of the spectrum--an important distinction for players trying it out. "I'm very proud of our engineering team," Marver says. "They got all of that done in the span of one off-season."
This season, all 32 NFL teams will have the helmet on hand for players to try during preseason camp. About 80 NFL players on 18 teams wore the Zero1 in games last season, including the Seahawks' Russell Wilson, the Chiefs' Alex Smith, and the Texans' Jadeveon Clowney. "I would expect our NFL numbers to increase significantly year over year because of positive word of mouth," Marver says.
Wilson, in fact, was impressed enough that he decided to invest in the company this off-season. The company also counts former quarterback Roger Staubach among its investors, while fellow Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown are on the startup's advisory board. Lisa Ertz, mother of Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz--who caught the game-winning touchdown in this year's Super Bowl--occasionally acts as a spokeswoman, despite the fact that her son hasn't worn the helmet in any games.
The younger Ertz is indicative of perhaps the biggest hurdle facing Vicis at this point: NFL players are free to choose their own helmet brands and, like a lot of top athletes, are also creatures of habit. Many have worn the same helmet for most of their lives and are thus resistant to switching.
Vicis's approach has been to pursue team equipment managers, who can have influence on their players with those decisions. And while the league doesn't control what helmets its players wear, it does share the results of its annual lab test with all of the teams and encourage them to post the results in their locker rooms.
Vicis's price point could be another hindrance to wide adoption: The Zero1 costs $950, as compared with $400 to $500 for most other high-end helmets. (That's actually a drop from its initial price of $1,500 when it launched last year.) The company does offer team discounts for high school squads, though, and Marver says more than 400 teams around the country have placed orders for the upcoming season. "This is why we founded the company, to help kids," Marver says. "We're pleased to finally be at this point." The startup is still working on a smaller helmet designed for youths.
Vicis co-founder and neurosurgeon Sam Browd first decided to attempt to redesign the football helmet in 2012 after years of having to tell young athletes they needed to retire due to too many concussions. He teamed up with mechanical engineer Per Reinhall to create the prototype that eventually became the Zero1.
Vicis will look to close its final funding round in July, which will bring its total raised to between $70 million and $80 million. After that point, Marver expects the company to become cash positive. The company won't share revenue numbers, though the CEO did say he expects the company to sell out of its entire 12,000-unit stock for 2018. At the full $950 price point, that would be a revenue north of $11 million.
The helmet is also making its way through the college ranks: Marver says about 80 NCAA programs will be using it this year, including the majority of the Notre Dame team. Eventually, the company intends to design headgear for other sports as well as the U.S. military.