Startup Spotlight: Windpact Brings Science to Football Helmets

Windpact began because of a car seat.

Before starting Windpact, CEO Shawn Springs had seen countless injuries during his NFL career, where the players were outfitted in what should have been the best gear available. But when Springs totaled his car in an accident, his children walked away with only scratches because of their car seats. What if he could translate that level of protection into helmet technology?

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a neurodegenerative disease most commonly found in people who have had repeated head trauma — such as those in the NFL or professional boxing. The rise of post-mortem CTE findings has caused the alarm bells to sound in every level of sports. From players to owners, everyone involved knows that we are at a crossroads when it comes to balancing sports with potential dangers.

Windpact CEO Shawn Springs

I recently had the chance to speak with Maurice Kelly, Windpact’s Chief Innovation Officer. As the company ramps up for its syndicate funding round through AngelMD, he had some valuable insight into the genesis of the company, and what it plans to do next.

Windpact is taking a unique approach to solving the problem. Rather than building its own equipment, the company partners with top host brands to integrate its Crash Cloud system in their products. This holds the potential to get lifesaving equipment into more hands, with less red tape and overhead.

First thing’s first – How does Windpact make money?

We take a hybrid approach to the business. We don’t sell helmets, we make the existing ones better. Let’s say that a brand manufacturer comes to us with 500 helmets because they knew that if they could pass the high-velocity test then they could pass the low-velocity ones as well. We’re first going to put them through an extensive series of our own tests. With those results, we can then integrate the Crash Cloud system. Our customers pay us for the system when it’s integrated into the helmet.

There’s a point here that doesn’t get enough credit — You never want to try to change user behavior. We’re not changing the buying behavior of anyone who is in the market for a helmet. They can still buy the same helmet that they have been using, and we’ll make it exponentially more protective.

What were the early days like?

We started to explore the market, and we quickly understood that this was an area that just lacked innovation. We can look at the automobile sector, and cars change every four years. Even tires change every year. For something to go thirty plus years without some big innovation? You know that there’s an opportunity.

As we were researching, the Virginia Tech reports started to come out, and their data showed that all impacts are very different. The majority of impacts in football happen at low or medium velocity. These helmets, that manufacturers and players thought were so great, were not providing the protection that they claimed.

If you look at today’s helmets, they were built to address high-velocity impacts because that’s what is required to pass the standard, but they are not optimized to protect against a range of impacts.

Talk to me about the Windpact approach.

This is a physics problem. We got a team of engineers together, and we started looking at this sort of visco-elastic system — meaning that it would adjust based upon the level of impact. We knew then that we could offer protection at every level, from pee-wee leagues to the NFL, without losing performance.

Then we had to decide what this looked like, in terms of a business. Every data point that we looked at pointed to the idea that government regulation was coming. Football, baseball, lacrosse, and hockey were not under government regulation. Lo and behold, thirty days into our effort, the Senate calls top football helmet manufacturers to The Hill. They want to know what these companies knew about concussions.

Between Shawn and I, we had thirty plus years of experience in wearing helmets. So we could either build a helmet company, and put our time and effort into bringing it to market, or we could do the research and license the technology to the sporting industry.

How surprising was it to take the licensing approach?

What we learned through this process of deciding what the business would look like is that the ecosystem was not at all like what we anticipated that it would be. We didn’t want to go out and raise 50 or 100 million dollars to build a manufacturing infrastructure. We just wanted to solve a problem. We knew that the problem was so critical that it shouldn’t just be our product.

If you look at brands like Intel, Gore-Tex or BASF, that’s the model that we’re using. We found that there are other implications as well. We can apply Crash Cloud to the military, to healthcare, or even the automotive industry. The companies who make football helmets? All they make are football helmets because that’s where they’ve sunk all of their R&D dollars.

We’ve already been able to do some piloting with the automotive community. We’ve been approached by a large automotive manufacturer to put our Crash Cloud system into specific interior areas of their performance automobiles.

Talk about your IP and how it works for the business.

The real difference for us is that we don’t make the materials. Our IP is on the system. The more foam makers that are out there, the deeper our ocean becomes. Contrast that to companies whose core IP is around a certain formulation of a certain material, to build a certain product. That is very limited.

We use off the shelf products, then we can customize the foam to build particular products. That’s where things get interesting.

Give me an example of what that looks like.

Let’s look at headrests in cars. Go inside your car and you can cut open the headrest and give us that material. We can then take that material, tune it in our system without changing its characteristics of its structure. We then encapsulate it into our Crash Cloud, adjust the hole sizes, and we’ve just made that same headrest perform better across a variety of different impact scenarios.

What about the challenges?

The biggest challenge is a space constraint. When you think about a car seat, and how it keeps a child safe, it’s a matter of multiple layers. You have the metal of the car, then the crumple zones. Inside the doors and the body, you have steel. Once you’re through those layers, then there are airbags and the car’s own seat. After that, you finally reach the car seat.

In a football helmet? We have 30 millimeters of space. So that becomes the major challenge. How do we innovate and develop the approach to manage impact energy in only 30 millimeters of space? That was probably the biggest challenge and the biggest lesson that we had to learn, but we didn’t realize how hard the problem was until after we’d already solved it.

The beauty of the Crash Cloud system is that there is simplicity in manufacturing now that we’ve solved the hard problem. It’s just multiple layers of foam in a bag, and then we poke holes in the bag. Now the engineers don’t like to hear the science, the data, and all of the formulas simplified like that. We still know that it’s a complex business problem, but we had to look at the simplicity of it.

And how about milestones?

We won the NFL First and Future Startup Challenge at the Texas Medical Center during the Super Bowl, we won the NFL HeadHealth TECH Challenge II, we already have a product on the market for women’s lacrosse, and we are working to a number of new products with major brands we hope to be announce in the coming weeks and months.

It’s been fun, and it’s been hard. Now we have to scale it.

What about the NFL HeadHealthTECH Challenge?

[Read the story from the NFL here.]

That’s big. It definitely helps when you have a former Pro Bowl athlete because you can get that level of visibility. But the fact that we are being validated in the scientific community is extremely humbling, and not just because of having your CEO be an athlete.

It’s great because the NFL is not just throwing money around; they’re looking for real products and not just research at this point.

You have our CEO who played on Sunday nights, and now he’s doing TED Talks as a thought leader in the space. He said that, given all of that, his greatest achievement in life now is having his name on the Windpact patent.

What’s the future look like for Windpact?

Our focus today is on building a great company with superior products to help protect people. We have a terrific technology and can be nimble and agile in ways that large entities can’t, which will open opportunities for us.

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