HeadHealthTECH Challenge II: Applying Smart Science to Protective Football Equipment

HeadHealthTECH Challenge II Winners

The winners of HeadHealthTECH Challenge II have been announced by Football Research, Inc. (FRI) and the National Football League (NFL). Winning concepts were selected out of 85 proposals for improvements in football protective equipment.

The TECH Challenge series is a key component of the Play Smart. Play Safe. Engineering Roadmap—a $60 million comprehensive plan funded by the NFL and managed by FRI to create incentives for sporting goods companies, as well as other manufacturers, small businesses, entrepreneurs, and universities from around the world to develop improved helmets and protective equipment in the next two to four years.

HeadHealthTECH Challenge II winners include:

  • 2ND Skull—Pittsburgh, PA— received a grant of $100,000 to both evaluate the effectiveness of the 2nd Skull® cap in reducing impact forces and develop a second-generation version.
  • Baytech Products—Asheville, NC— received a grant of $178,000 to build and test a prototype of its multi-component helmet system concept, HitGard®.
  • Windpact—Leesburg, VA— received a grant of $148,000 to support prototyping and testing of its Crash Cloud™, an impact liner system using restricted air flow and foam in helmets and protective gear.

The TECH Challenge series is operated and managed on behalf of FRI by Duke University's Clinical and Translational Science Institute (Duke CTSI). In addition to potential access to funding, all applicants receive constructive feedback from Duke CTSI biomechanical experts to help refine innovations and increase chances for success on future submissions.

From Research to Development

Windpact's Crash Cloud™ system is designed to provide head protection from impacts at a variety of speeds and angles.

"It's works like an air bag that disperses energy and a mattress that absorbs energy—at the same time," says Shawn Springs, CEO of Windpact. Springs played cornerback for three teams in the NFL over 13 seasons, pulling in 33 interceptions over 169 games.

"Winning this grant will allow us to accelerate from research and development to the commercialization of Crash Cloud for football," said Maurice Kelly, Chief Innovation Officer at Windpact. "The TECH Challenge was a great fit for us."

"The judges really challenged our assumptions," Springs said. "Their understanding of the technology in this field had a big influence on our work during the competition."

"We want to help these and all innovators who participate in the TECH Challenges to succeed—stimulating the marketplace and raising the bar for sports safety," said Barry Myers, MD, PhD, MBA, Director of Innovation Duke CTSI, Coulter Program Director and Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke University and a consultant to the NFL Players Association.

Feedback from the Experts

"Prior to this TECH Challenge, we were only working with prototypes that came off three-dimensional printers," said Bob Bayer, owner of Baytech Products.

Baytech Products HitGard® multi-component helmet system concept is designed to improve protection by connecting the upper and lower halves of a helmet with flexible struts. This design makes the helmet flexible and pliable in a variety of impacts.

"With feedback from competition judges, we realized that our approach was too tentative," he said. "This new funding means we can go straight to a fixed mold of our prototype—and test it at velocities that are significantly higher than we've previously used."

Bayer played football as a child—and now describes himself as an "old-timer."

"Over the years, I've been awarded 15 patents for medical products that help people," Bayer said. "I've now been working to improve athletic equipment for the last five years."

"One of the most positive things about being a part of this TECH Challenge is that we're helping people, we're trying to develop something that can reduce injury risks," he said.

For the NFL and Beyond

A version of the 2nd Skull® cap is already on the market.

The cap, which is designed to look like the caps worn by many players today, fits inside a helmet and has material designed to reduce and absorb various forms of impact.

With funding from the NFL, "We'll be able to make it better," said Vaughan Blaxter, CEO of 2nd Skull®. "We'll test our skull cap for comfort, breathability and safety under a variety of helmets."

"The NFL is right to be looking out for its own players," said Blaxter, "and it's magnificent that the league is investing in innovations that will trickle down to the youth level—even to other sports."

The Commitment to Improving Safety Equipment

Play Smart. Play Safe. is an NFL initiative to drive progress in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of head injuries, to enhance medical protocols and to further improve the way the game is taught and played.

It was launched in September 2016 when the NFL and its 32 owners pledged $100 million to help spur independent medical research and engineering advancements.

Winners of HeadHealthTECH Challenge I included VyaTek Sports for its highly-efficient energy-absorbing Zorbz technology and Guardian Innovations for its Guardian Cap technology—a soft helmet cover designed to reduce the severity of impacts.

This fall, judges will evaluate proposals submitted for HeadHealthTECH Challenge III, and the next round of winners are expected to be announced early next year.