Curbing concussions

With a little help from the NFL, UW startup VICIS is bringing together the latest in engineering and medicine to create a football helmet for the modern age.

Passion never rests

One of the realities of attending neurosurgeon Dr. Samuel Browd’s job as the medical director of the Seattle Children’s Sports Concussion Program is telling 14-year-olds that their futures in football are over.

That’s the truth behind sports-related traumatic brain injury, after all, which touches millions of kids and adults each year and is the driving force behind VICIS, the research-propelled University of Washington startup that’s bringing together faculty and students to create a concussion-curbing helmet that aims to revolutionize the game of football.

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The research team

With the help of CoMotion, University of Washington faculty Samuel Browd, Jonathan Posner and Per Reinhall co-founded VICIS along with Dave Marver to commercialize the revolutionary helmet technology and turn UW research and innovation into impact. But none of that would have been possible without the ongoing support of UW faculty and students, whose research in engineering and medicine predates VICIS.

  • Samuel Browd, associate professor of neurological surgery, attending neurosurgeon, medical director of the Seattle Children’s Sports Concussion Program and chief medical officer of VICIS
  • Jonathan Posner, associate professor of mechanical engineering and chief science officer of VICIS
  • Per Reinhall, professor and department chair of mechanical engineering and chief technology officer of VICIS
  • Dave Marver, chief executive officer of VICIS
  • Tim Dardis, Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering and mechanical engineer at VICIS
  • Mike Czerski, mechanical engineer at VICIS
  • Ryan Smith, senior in mechanical engineering
  • Kayla Fukuda, senior in mechanical engineering
  • Andre Stone, senior in mechanical engineering

The UW has become the epicenter for concussion prevention advocacy, and the first law to protect youth sports concussion safety came out of Washington state in 2009 after 13-year-old Zackery Lystedt was put back on the field just 15 minutes after suffering a concussion. It was a devastating decision that ultimately landed Zack on life support and a years-long recovery process to relearn basic skills.

Unfortunately, Zack’s story isn’t all that unique. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says a whopping 1.6 million to 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur annually in the U.S., and those numbers are conservative — as many as 50 percent of concussions go unreported. For the UW helmet research team, stories like Zack’s aren’t just a serious public health issue facing today’s society; they’re the reason VICIS — which means “change” in Latin — was formed: to turn UW research and innovation into impact.

“Helmet technology hasn’t evolved much at all in 40 or 50 years,” says McMinn Endowed Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Jonathan Posner, who works on the project alongside Professor and Department Chair of Mechanical Engineering Per Reinhall. “Engineering and medicine are working together to come up with a practical solution.”

That solution is a much-needed update on the current helmet using the brains of faculty and students right here on campus, and if the support from the NFL, Under Armour and GE in the form of a $500,000 grant as a winner of the second annual Head Health Challenge is any indication, the team is on the right track.

The UW has the opportunity to earn an additional $1 million in research funding from the Head Health Challenge this year, but the bulk of the support continues to come from its own backyard. VICIS’ offices are housed at CoMotion’s New Ventures Facility. Its prototypes and soft goods are built and tested in collaboration with UW mechanical engineering faculty and students.

And that’s the beauty of being at the UW, says Dr. Samuel Browd. “You can have these types of collaborations where people with very deep and specific types of expertise can come together to find a solution that’s going to benefit the kids and adults who play contact sports.”

VICIS’ 12th man

The group has a strong working relationship with the Seahawks — Dr. Samuel Browd covers concussion management on the sidelines as an unaffiliated neurologic consultant, and the rest of the VICIS team has access to the people who work with helmets on a daily basis: the equipment managers.

“Every engineering design project starts with the users or stakeholders,” says professor Jonathan Posner. “What do they need? For football helmets, it’s obvious: They need something to protect their heads. But there are other aspects, too. How you clean the helmet, service it, and take it off of someone’s injured head. What it looks like. All of those aspects feed into how the helmet is designed and developed.”

Helping build a better helmet

Ryan Smith, senior in mechanical engineering

Ryan Smith, senior in mechanical engineering

As far as football’s concerned, Ryan Smith is more of an observer than a player.

“I found out I was one of those people who didn’t quite like getting hit,” the senior in mechanical engineering says with a laugh.

Fitting, considering his role is to conduct the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) drop test, which involves dropping a helmet-wearing humanoid head model onto an anvil from varying heights to rate the severity of the impact. To be eligible for NFL game play, each manufacturer’s helmet must pass the standards for the NOCSAE drop test.

Ryan, who took a fluid mechanics class with professor Jonathan Posner during his junior year, was one of three undergraduates Jonathan deemed “the cream of the crop” and asked to join the team.

“This is something really special to be a part of,” says Ryan, who works an average of 20 hours a week doing research while juggling a full class schedule. “This isn’t your typical opportunity. I have an integral role in developing this product.”