Just before the Sony Pictures film Concussion hit theaters, stirring up renewed focus on the National Football League’s head-injury crisis, the NFL announced it has given additional funding to three concussion-preventing technologies.
The technologies come from the U.S. Army, the University of Washington, and a Dearborn, Mich. company called Viconic. They are the three grand prize winners of the league’s Head Health Challenge II, which the NFL ran in partnership with General Electric (GE) and Under Armour (UA).
The NFL says the timing of the announcement, which came at the beginning of this month, had nothing to do with the Concussion movie. But the film, in which Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, who is credited with discovering the brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), is making waves and bringing the issue to the forefront once again.
At a recent demonstration of the new technologies at NFL headquarters, Fortune asked Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety policy, whether the movie concerns the league. “I think the movie, and the discussion in the media, if that elevates the conversation around head injuries in our sport and in all sports, the NFL is interested in joining that conversation,” he said. “It’s to the better for all.”
Rather than comment much on the film, the league is using its wallet to show its concern. The three winning innovations are promising, and the creators of each have been given considerable new funding.
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The NFL, GE and Under Armour launched the Head Health Challenge in 2013 as part of the NFL and GE’s broader Head Health Initiative. All three entities invested $20 million in a fund to award grants to promising head-injury solutions. To date, there have been three challenges, with more than 1,000 submissions. 33 of those submissions have been awarded some amount of funding.
Viconic has received $750,000 in funding. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) and UW each received $250,000. All three have the chance to receive up to $1 million in additional funding over the next year, based on how far they get in development of their products.
Army Research Laboratory created a material that stretches at low speeds, but freezes up if pulled quickly—in other words, a “rate-dependent” substance. It applied the substance to a strap that would attach from the lower bar of a helmet to a player’s chest to prevent the head from snapping back quickly after a hard hit. If the head jerks back quickly, the strap hardens and keeps the head up.
ARL originally developed the material for knee braces, to be worn in combat. It was intended to keep soldiers from rolling their ankles. But due to various challenges, the Army never actually made the braces. “We came up with this weird and wacky, stretchy material, and, as often happens in science, we found another application for it,” says Dr. Eric Wetzel of the ARL. He says the technology would be useful in many sports, such as skiing or skateboarding, not just in football. “This isn’t just about helping Tom Brady. This is about preventing head injuries on a broad scale.”
Viconic, a private company that makes automotive materials, took a blast-resistant mat that it already sells to the military and applied it to football fields. When you think of a player getting concussed, you probably imagine it happening from a hit to the head from another player. But football players can often hit their head hardest on the ground after being tackled—especially quarterbacks. Viconic’s mat is an underlay that would go underneath the turf on an NFL field. (One catch: Not all NFL stadiums, or even half of them, use fake turf; the underlay wouldn’t work on fields with real grass.) “We had the tech,” said Joel Cormier, director of development and engineering at Viconic, “but what the money from this contest allowed us to do is expedite this.”
To demonstrate the power of the underlay, Viconic dropped a weight the size of a human head, held from about five feet off the ground, onto a patch of grass without its underlay. The sound was a loud, sickening thud. It dropped the same weight onto a patch of turf that had the Viconic mat beneath it, and the sound was much softer, and the fall appeared to be less brutal. “If you have a turf field,” Cormier said, “You’d be foolish not to at least consider an underlay. Would Tony Romo still have broken this clavicle on our material? I don’t know.”
Finally, the University of Washington developed something that more frequently comes to mind when you think of the concussion issue: a new helmet. Many fans may not know that NFL players select their own helmet. Today, there is no single model that all players are required to use. And Dr. Per Reinhall, chair of the university’s department of mechanical engineering, says that the current helmets “basically come in just standard sizes, small, medium, large, extra-large.” The helmet that the University of Washington has developed, in partnership with a 2014 University of Washington startup called Vicis, adapts to any head size and has a “deformable structure” with multiple layers of different material that absorbs an impact, almost like an airbag.
Too many of the helmets on the market, Reinhall explained, are filled with a single substance that isn’t much better than styrofoam. Their new helmet has multiple layers of different materials—the inside looked like a rock formation. The helmet will make its debut next season on the heads of a few elite athletes in college and the NFL.
Each of these products has a caveat. The Army’s strap needs to be connected to something, so it might require an entire body suit to be worn that connects to the spinal cord and pelvis. That sounds complicated—and the last thing a running back wants is something that would impede motion. Viconic’s underlay isn’t useful to the entire NFL, only to some stadiums; Cormier says that only 10% of turf fields in the country (in all sports) even considered installing an underlay this year. And any high-tech new helmet has the obstacle of being expensive to mass produce.
But the NFL is clearly hoping that these investments, even if they do not bear fruit on a professional field, demonstrate its commitment to addressing concussions. “Our approach is to find these technologies, help fund them, and then let them go,” said the NFL’s Miller. “We’re not interested in buying any of them. They will succeed or fail on their own merits.”
Where did Under Armour come in? The cool factor. It’s hard to make safety sexy, but the hottest underdog sports apparel brand can help. Miller explained, “When we were working with GE on this, we talked a lot about innovative corporate partners that know the sport and have experience in technology. That was Under Armour. This didn’t take too many calls between Roger Goodell and Kevin Plank to materialize.”