When my cofounder Zoltan first approached me with his idea for a leaf spring football helmet attachment, I was immediately intrigued. We were drawn to the novelty of the concept: “Why is nobody innovating on the outside of the helmet?” Zoltan’s years playing football at the University of Michigan and in the NFL had made it clear to him that better head safety solutions were a pressing need for young players. Armed with nothing but a concept, a love for the game, and a basic understanding of introductory physics, we decided to pursue the idea and Impact Labs was founded.
Zoltan and I have a shared vision of protecting future generations of football players. Faced with scary new findings about the long term implications of repeated hits to the head, the sport of football has seen declining participation in recent years, particularly at the youth level. I began playing football my freshman year of high school and immediately fell in love with playing and practicing a sport I had watched intently growing up. More raw than my teammates who had been playing for a few years, I struggled at first figuring out how to tackle playing defense and break tackles when on offense. I was fortunate to have a good group of coaches, and drew my fair share of their “constructive criticism.” Four years of high school football instilled me a mental toughness and work ethic that have helped me in all facets of life.
A desire to protect the sport that gave me so much has been a driving force in pursuing a solution for the next generation. Inspired by the leaf spring system used in car shocks, Zoltan taught himself CAD and we began to iterate on prototypes. The guiding principles for the device was two-fold:
- The device is a stiff piece of material that resists being bent so when it is impacted, some of the force will be redirected away from the impact point.
- The device sits on top of the helmet and increases the stopping distance for a hit to the head, simultaneously reducing the force experienced by the user.
We utilized 3D printing to make prototypes early on, and relied on our own experimentation for feedback on how to improve results. While our first prototype featured a single leaf spring, the prototype eventually developed to include five “fingers” with cylindrical tips to increase structural integrity.
We filed a provisional patent on the device as I was headed off to my first year in the Harvard Business School MBA program. At HBS, I assembled a team of 5 classmates to investigate the commercial viability of the concept. The team, a mix of medical, legal, finance, and business operations professionals, reached two conclusions that became critical in our decision to move forward with the idea. First, we proved in 3rd party drop testing that the device worked – a helmet armed with our prototype experienced a 55% reduction in linear impact forces in lab testing. Second, we discovered that coaches and parents wanted to buy our product. In just a few weeks we secured over $80,000 in letters of intent for purchase from high school and youth football programs across the country. Proof of concept in hand, we went on to win 1st place among 180 teams in HBS’s first year startup competition in May 2016.
In the months to follow, our growing team has reached new milestones at an accelerating pace. We raised a seed round of investment to support product development with a professional engineering firm, who has experience designing snowboarding and military helmets. We are considering the most effective way to reduce impact forces without negative side effects, and how to smoothly integrate use of the device into drills, practices, and games. We are working with world renowned doctors and engineers and are planning state-of-the-art testing to study and improve performance of our devices.
In the two years that I have been working on Impact Labs, the research into the effects of impact on the brains of young athletes has continued to show alarming consequences. The football community is the focal point of head health in sports, and it is clear that a device alone will not solve the issue. With this in mind, we are developing a suite of educational programming to empower players and coaches to play the game smarter with or without our device. I want parents to feel good about signing up their children to play football, a game that had such an immense positive effect on my formative years.
Impact Labs is just getting started on what we hope is a long journey. We are laser focused on building innovative technologies for athlete performance, with a special emphasis on keeping athletes healthy. We are excited for what is to come as we tackle an enormous challenge facing not only football, but many other sports communities.
Please CONTACT US with any questions or if you’d like to receive updates as engineering progresses.
Ben Rizzo is a co-founder of Impact Labs and a second year student at Harvard Business School. He previously spent three years working as an oil and gas production engineer focused on American onshore fields. Ben holds a BSE in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan and a MS in Technology Commercialization from the University of Texas at Austin and is a co-author of Strategies for Creative Problem Solving, 3rd Edition.