Q&A: Brains Behind Vicis’s Youth Helmet Talks Ratings, Safety & More

Football leagues at every level, from those made up of youth teams to the U.S.’s hugely popular National Football League, are taking steps aimed at making the sport safer for players. These efforts include rule changes outlawing certain types of contact, such as dangerous hits, and programs that instruct players and coaches on proper tackling technique.

Improving protective equipment, particularly helmets, is also seen as a potential way to reduce injuries in football. Leading helmet manufacturers such Ridell and Schutt, as well as emerging competitors such as Seattle-based Vicis, are increasingly touting their equipment’s safety features and its performance in tests simulating on-field collisions.

This week, Vicis announced that researchers at Virginia Tech had rated its youth helmet, known as Zero1 Youth, as offering the best protection of all such helmets after putting it and competitors’s offerings through a series of tests. (This decade, the university has started regularly rating helmets designed for adult players, tests in which Vicis’ products have also performed well; this, however, was Virginia Tech’s first time publishing youth helmet ratings.)

The new ratings released by Virginia Tech are the latest bit of good news for Vicis, which launched in 2013 as a University of Washington spinout. The company, which has about 125 employees, has raised more than $85 million from outside investors, including a recent $30 million funding round.

Xconomy recently spoke by phone with Colette Foreman, a senior product manager at Vicis who helps manage the development of the Zero1 Youth helmet. The conversation, which touched on the Virginia Tech tests, the importance of fitting equipment properly, and  other topics, has been condensed and lightly edited.

Xconomy: What does the Zero1 Youth’s first-place finish in the ratings Virginia Tech released this week mean for Vicis?

Colette Foreman: There’s been quite a lack of product information in this space. The Virginia Tech ratings represent the first time parents, coaches, and leagues can actually compare the performance of popular youth helmets and make an informed purchasing decision.

They designed the test protocols to reflect the actual youth game. The youth game is different [than other levels]. They have fewer impacts and lower velocity at impact.

X: What distinguishes Vicis’s helmets from those sold by competitors, in terms of design?

CF: We started the product using a deformable shell. Most shells used right now use a very traditional product: either hard outer shells made of polycarbonate or, in the youth world, softer plastic shells.

Our system includes a reflex structure that operates much like a car bumper. It can bend and buckle, and absorb kinetic energy. We also have an inner shell and then a really specific fit system that includes some more [energy] absorption. We don’t look at the helmet as being a hard product that prevents injury; we look at it as a system that’s allowing absorption of energy.

X: How important is the fit of a helmet on a player’s head toward keeping him or her safe from injury, and is there any sort of trend in the industry of offering more ways to achieve a customized fit?

CF: The best-fitting helmet is the helmet that’s most inclined to protect the player. Kids are really challenging to fit given the range of head shapes and sizes.

We chose to introduce a modular fit system. This allows coaches and parents to easily change the sizes of the internal helmet for a broad range of head shapes and sizes to get a perfect fit, but without the use of air bladders.

Our system … can be reconfigured for growing kids or repurposed for another player. In the youth world, players don’t always purchase their own equipment. Coaches have inventories of equipment that they need to repurpose from year to year. But it’s also important for them to achieve a custom fit on a player.

X: From your conversations with football coaches, league administrators, and others involved with the sport, does improving helmet safety seem to be part of a larger effort aimed at making the game safer?

CF: Absolutely. I think that there’s a three-pronged approach to protecting kids in youth sports.

The first is coaching and how coaches use their practice time and their game time. There’s a lot of data out there to say what coaches should be doing in practices.

Another area that we’re seeing a lot of work in is the education and research space. This is where we have to applaud Virginia Tech for taking a lead in elevating these helmets. Teams are also aligning themselves with medical research centers and injury protocol programs. That whole space seems to be evolving in the last 10 years at a much greater pace.

The third area is what we do at Vicis. Our goal at Vicis is to create safer games through the reduction of impact forces.

X: In January, the Guardian published a report that found fewer high school students are signing up to play football than in the past, and one factor that’s likely contributing to the trend is fear of suffering head trauma and other injuries. Do you think declining participation rates at some competition levels represent a headwind for Vicis and other businesses that sell helmets?

CF: It’s not a secret that the market is challenged right now.

There’s 2.2 million kids playing youth football. We can do something to help protect them. Virginia Tech and Vicis provide a better understanding of what kids are wearing.

This is a grassroots effort that parents can use to educate themselves, and [that] players can use to educate themselves and demand the best protection when they’re out playing the game.

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