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As VICIS ventures into youth football, teams and parents are forced to confront the cost

Evan Webeck, The Seattle Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

SEATTLE -- Snuggled near Amazon's shimmering South Lake Union campus is a nondescript, white, single-storied building. Inside, another potential disruptor is at work meticulously designing and relentlessly testing its technology with mechanisms used by the U.S. Army (for which it manufactures helmets) and the NFL (for which it is better known for manufacturing helmets).

As awareness around concussions increases at all levels of football, more programs are trying to find the edge, not just against their competition, but in the health of their players, too. Soon, the VICIS "SmashLab" -- where they test helmets the same way the NFL does -- just might be the place where your football-playing children's helmets are designed and tested, too. If you can afford one.

The company promises a revolutionary technology that bends and buckles similar to a car bumper to reduce impact, as opposed to traditional hard-shell helmets. But its signature Zero1 helmet retails for $950, while the newly released youth model goes for $495 -- both more expensive than their competitors, often by a wide margin.

In three years, the start-up has achieved astronomical growth. The Zero1 helmet has beaten out its legacy competitors in impact tests by the NFL and Virginia Tech for three years running. A recent Harborview Medical Center study -- the first field test at the high-school level -- showed a statistically significant decrease in concussions when teams adopted the VICIS helmet (though it wasn't able to be directly attributed to the helmets). It's expected to be worn by players on all 32 NFL teams and more than 125 collegiate programs next season.

As VICIS (pronounced VY-sis, which means change in Latin) ventures into youth and high-school football, programs that don't have the budgets of NFL or college teams have had to get creative in how to afford the headgear. But the end goal, CEO Dave Marver said, has always been to bring the helmets to the youth and high-school level. The Zero1 Youth is the first helmet specifically designed for the kids who use it, rather than just "adult helmets with lightweight shells."

"Sure, the 2,000 NFL players were important," Marver said. "But there are millions of kids that are playing now. That's our cause. This is what drives us."

 

The Northwest Junior Football League was a natural early adopter. A youth league in VICIS's backyard, the NWJFL has been on the forefront of player safety. Teams limit contact in practice and teach safe tackling techniques. Before every game, players from each side meet and go over safety rules. As part of an ongoing study into concussions in youth football, a certified athletic trainer is on the sideline of every game.

For a year, VICIS worked closely with Eastside Junior Football and the Ballard Knights in developing the youth helmet. Each program had a connection: a former Eastside teacher who went on to help launch the VICIS helmet and a Ballard parent who worked alongside one VICIS co-founder at Seattle Children's Hospital.

"No one has designed from the ground-up just for kids before," Marver said. "This is attuned for lower-impact velocities, it's thicker in the temple, where the skull is not as well developed."

After receiving constant feedback from players -- too heavy, the chin strap was uncomfortable, the forehead too tight -- and implementing the changes, it was showtime.

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