Helmet Maker Vicis Courts NFL QBs to Invest in Latest Funding Round

Aaron Rodgers has taken some trips to the Pacific Northwest he’d probably rather forget. Rodgers, who since 2008 has been the starting quarterback of the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers, has a career 1-4 record in regular season and playoff road games against the Seattle Seahawks, including an overtime loss in 2015 that sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl.

Those sour memories aside, Rodgers is among the many backers of the Emerald City’s early-stage business community. He was one of the participating investors in a funding round Vicis, a Seattle-based startup that manufactures football helmets designed to protect against head and brain injury, first announced in November and recently said has grown to $30 million. Vicis says the funding will support its effort to ramp up production and sales of the helmet it makes for younger players.

Rodgers and another well-known NFL quarterback, the Washington Redskins’ Alex Smith, had both invested in Vicis previously; the two players have provided the company with capital through Rx3 Ventures, a California-based fund Rodgers co-leads, Vicis says.

“We have a responsibility to protect young players for football to continue to thrive,” Smith says in a prepared statement.

Vicis, a University of Washington spinout founded in 2014, says it has now raised more than $85 million in outside investment.

Traumatic brain injuries, a category that encompasses the concussions athletes can get when their heads hit the ground or another player, have been a hot topic in football and other contact sports over the past decade. Following the publication of scientific research suggesting that some athletes who play these sports could face a higher risk of brain injury and early-onset dementia, longtime helmet manufacturers and newer entrants to the industry, like Vicis, are marketing their helmets’ safety features and performance in tests simulating on-field hits.

In 2005, forensic neuropathologist Bennet Omalu and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh described a link between repetitive brain trauma and a neurodegenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. According to Boston University’s CTE Center, the disease is “found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma (often athletes), including symptomatic concussions.” Leaders at the research center were among the authors of an investigation published in mid-2017 that studied the brains of 202 deceased tackle football players. The researchers diagnosed CTE in 87 percent of them. (Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed after death.)

As the body of scientific research linking CTE with repeated hits to the head has grown, the NFL finds itself fighting to try to extend a decades-long run of growth and strong financial performance, and maintain the popularity of the league with its millions of fans worldwide.

Many of the families of former players afflicted with early-onset dementia have sued the NFL. In some cases, courts have ruled in their favor, most notably in a 2015 ruling by a judge who ordered the NFL to pay up to $1 billion to settle concussion lawsuits. The league has also made changes to several rules, including new restrictions on kickoff plays and penalizing defenders who make helmet-to-helmet contact with ball carriers.

Meanwhile, some view changes to the helmets themselves as another potential path to making football safer.

Vicis does not claim that its helmets reduce the number of concussions, or eliminate them. However, the startup’s website cites research supporting “the role of impact force reduction in mitigating concussion risk and severity.”

The padding inside Vicis’ flagship Zero1 helmet and other models it’s developing houses flexible rods that deform and buckle when the helmet makes contact with another object. The design is aimed at getting these rods to absorb the force of a hit—like a car bumper does—and to distribute more of that force outside the impact area of the head than competing helmet models do.

Vicis trumpets its top safety rating in laboratory tests of various helmets the NFL and the league’s players union have helped fund during each of the past two years. Vicis says these tests showed that its Zero1 helmet was more effective at reducing “head impact severity measures” than models from competitors like Riddell, Schutt, and Xenith that were also tested.

Football teams at 1,200 high schools, plus another 150 professional and college teams, use or plan to begin using Vicis helmets, the startup says.

In November, Vicis announced it had launched sales of a Zero1 helmet that’s smaller than, but otherwise has a similar design to, the adult model. The Zero1 Youth, as Vicis calls its newest helmet, also comes with a lower price: $495, compared to $950 for the full-size model.

Emerging companies like Vicis and Xenith are paying close attention to the pricing of their helmets as they try to gain territory in a competitive arena. (Xenith was founded a decade ago in Lowell, MA, by a physician who played quarterback at Harvard University, but later moved its headquarters to Detroit.) These upstart companies are seeking to accumulate market share from Riddell and Schutt, the industry’s two biggest players. They know that players’ teams and families won’t favor a new product that they don’t see as affordable. (Riddell and Schutt each sell an adult helmet that costs under $350, while Schutt’s most expensive model costs $995.)

Pricing is also important because fewer high school students are going out for football than in the past, as The Guardian recently reported. Coaches told the newspaper they believe one reason is the link between repeated blows to the head and brain diseases like CTE. Additionally, last month HBO’s Real Sports aired an investigation reporting that affluent families are increasingly turning away from signing their kids up to play for youth and high school football teams, while participation among children from low-income households is on the rise.

For its part, Vicis says it has partnered with Fund My Team, a Newark, NJ-based organization that works alongside youth sports teams to raise money, to help put Vicis’ helmets and other protective equipment within closer financial reach of youth football leagues across the country.

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