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    Startup tackling helmet flaws

    With a focus on reducing concussions, a fledging company is rethinking some of the ways that football players’ protective gear is used and assessed

     Scott Simonson of the Oakland Raiders lost his helmet when he was hit by a Detroit Lions opponent.
    Ben Margot/Associated Press
    Scott Simonson of the Oakland Raiders lost his helmet when he was hit by a Detroit Lions opponent.

    During training camp for the 2013 football season at Carnegie Mellon University, Thomas Healy saw something no player wants to see: Several teammates suffered concussions, with one quitting football altogether.

    A native of Easton, the 22-year-old Healy is a graduate student in mechanical engineering at the Pittsburgh school. His on-field experience led Healy to start a company, HeadSmart Labs, that aims to develop new tests for helmets used in contact sports, guidelines on how they should be worn, and benchmarks for when they should be replaced.

    Among his first conclusions: Too few players bother to properly inflate the air liners, or cushions, inside their helmets so that they fit correctly and provide maximum shock absorption.

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    “My idea was if you did inflate them they would give an extra layer of protection,’’ said Healy, who was the school’s starting punter until he broke his leg during practice in early September. “What we wanted to look at was, if you inflate a helmet, how much better will you perform?”

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    Indeed, after he persuaded Carnegie Mellon football coach Rich Lackner to press players to regularly inflate their helmets during a four-week period last year, Healy said, there wasn’t a single concussion on the team.

    HeadSmart Labs will try to turn that experience into a standard for teams across the country to use. The company will try to develop an optimum inflation level in helmet padding to prevent concussions.

    Healy, a graduate of Thayer Academy in Braintree, said he conducted a study this summer at a Massachusetts high school and found that more than 90 percent of the football players had no air pressure in their helmet pads.

    If a helmet loses air in its pads, Healy said, “it’s not going to fit correctly, which is still an issue. If I can’t inflate it, I’m not going to be able to get that proper fit.”

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    The Consumer Product Safety Commission, he added, has said an improperly fitted helmet can be unsafe.

    Another major goal for the company is to develop a new lab test for helmets to more closely mimic the kind of hits that players receive on the field.

    Currently, under standards set by the independent, nonprofit National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), helmets undergo what is called a drop test. The helmet is put on a head form, raised to a specific height, and then slammed into a hard surface in order to test the linear force, or the impact from straight on. The NOCSAE standards seek to have helmets limit the reaction inside the player’s head to levels below those known to cause catastrophic injury.

    But Healy said the current approach “isn’t realistic of what’s happening on the field. We want to see what happens when we actually have a full-body collision,” especially between a bigger and a smaller player.

    His idea is to take a page from the auto industry and use crash-test dummies hitting each other helmet to helmet and body to body to simulate the kind of impacts received on the field.

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    “We would be the first ones to do this: two bodies colliding into each other,’’ with Healy adjusting for variables such as different angles or speed of hits, or different weights for one of the dummies.

    But the second-year graduate student is trying to crack a multimillion dollar industry that’s dominated by a few sporting goods giants. Moreover, there is already a widely followed safety rating system from Virginia Tech, which ranks football helmets based on their concussion risk.

    Not surprisingly, some in the industry have not embraced the young entrepreneur’s assertions, and a few seem to view Healy’s focus on air pressure in the helmet pads as quixotic.

    For example, Healy tested new and used helmets from the major manufacturers for air leaks and found that among helmets made by Riddell Inc., more than 50 percent had “significant air pressure leaks. That was alarming to us.”

    Healy’s emphasis on the inflated pads as a failure point in concussion safety, however, has been widely dismissed, not just by helmet makers, but by NOCSAE and Virginia Tech. The primary purpose of the inflatable pads is to improve the fit of the helmet on the player, they said, not to provide any significant protection against severe hits.

    The Virginia Tech professor behind the school’s helmet ratings said that air pressure leakage is a minor matter. Stefan Duma, head of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics at the school, also said the helmets that get top ratings “are about 90 percent as good as they’re ever going to be.”

    Riddell, meanwhile, was outright dismissive of Healy.

    “We find it curious that a recently founded laboratory would release such broad ‘findings’ that could only be, at best, in their infancy,’’ Riddell said in a statement.

    Given the rising concern about head injuries in sports, especially football, NOCSAE in January proposed a new testing standard that “requires helmets to limit certain concussion-causing forces,” by focusing on replicating some of the rotational forces involved in contact, as opposed to just linear impacts.

    NOCSAE is soliciting feedback from the medical, scientific, and manufacturing communities, and members of the public can submit comments through June 2015.

    But Duma, the Virginia Tech professor, predicted there is only so much protection even the best-designed helmet could provide.

    The best approach, he said, is to limit the kinds of hits allowed in football, such as with the NFL ban on spearing, when a player uses the top of the helmet to make a tackle.

    “Those make a huge difference,” Duma said. “Then coaching. A good-designed helmet is critical. It’s very important, but it’s not the best; it’s one of three ways we can help reduce injury.”

    HeadSmart’s other ambitions include testing the polyurethane outer shell of a football helmet, which begins to crack after it is hit repeatedly.

    “Over time, [the cracks] become bigger and that material no longer performs well,” Healy said. “We want to see how many impacts helmets take before they don’t perform well and aren’t safe.”

    The company is still in the startup phase, but Healy has assembled a team of researchers and doctors from Carnegie Mellon and the Pittsburgh medical community.

    To raise money, HeadSmart is participating in a contest supported by General Electric Co. and the NFL that awards up to $10 million for proposals that advance identification and prevention of brain injuries.

    Healy said that he expects to learn in October whether his company will receive such funding.