Tackling Concussions with Open Innovation

Every September, in towns throughout the country, fans flock to high school, college, and pro stadiums in droves—itching for a taste of America’s New Favorite Pastime, jonesing for the rush they’ve been without since the dreary days of February. For most of my life this has been an unambiguously happy time of year. But over the past decade, as ever more research into the physical and cognitive effects of repeated head trauma has become public, the joy has been increasingly tempered by the fear of football’s long-term impact on those playing.

Just this year (conveniently in the offseason, I might add), the NFL acknowledged publicly for the first time that there is a link between the head injuries suffered by its players and the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). As depressing as this news may be on multiple levels, I choose to mark that acknowledgement and the return of the sport by focusing on other recent news about concussions that is decidedly more optimistic.

Violence begets Vicis
Football is violent. Watch enough games and you’re likely to hear some announcer, coach, or player equate the on-field collisions to car accidents. It’s a terrifyingly accurate analogy. But hopefully, thanks to the principles of Open Innovation, future football collisions will start to more closely resemble real-world auto collisions…crumple zones and all.

This January, Vicis, a Seattle-based startup company, offered the first public look at a brand new type of football helmet. Just like the front and rear panels of current automobiles, the helmet deforms upon impact in order to dissipate the amount of force transferred to the wearer:

For those of us accustomed to current football helmets, watching that video is quite stunning. Provided independent testing can verify the claimed reductions in head acceleration, Vicis might have a very bright future. Of course, their long-term success will require a business model that enables them to break into a small market dominated by two established companies and to fend off competition from equally promising solutions being developed by fellow new entrants Xenith and Q30 Innovations. But even if Vicis fails, I still think their helmet should serve as a lasting example of the power of Open Innovation in action. Where else could one connect the dots from aquatic species conservation all the way to football?

Open Innovation Principles
Before we get into the origin story of the Vicis helmet, let’s do a quick refresh on what we mean by Open Innovation. Here at 4iNNO, one of the expressions we throw around a lot is “make the world your laboratory.” It’s marketing speak, sure, but it also conveys the key principle (and benefit!) of Open Innovation: solutions to one’s current problem of interest can often be found by looking outside of one’s specific domain. Open Innovation, then, is the proactive process of finding and applying knowledge from anywhere in the world and from any discipline into solutions for your specific problem.

One of the keys to success in the Open Innovation process is to frame the problem one is trying to solve in a manner than promotes this divergent, outside-your-domain thinking. We find that the best way to do this is to break big, complex challenges down into their fundamental technical jobs-to-be-done (JTBDs). Technical JTBDs are the functional outcomes that must be met for a solution to be successful. Critically, they can be expressed independent of context or the desired application—making them ideal launching points in the search for external knowledge or solutions.

Let’s illustrate using our example problem: to reduce the potential for concussions and long-term brain injury from playing football. That’s a whale of complex challenge. And when phrased in that manner, also will likely limit potential solution options to those that are “football-centric” (e.g., such recent NFL actions as giving penalties for hits to the head, reducing levels of contact in practice, and attempting to eliminate especially dangerous plays like kickoff returns with rule tweaks). But, if we start to break that complex challenge down into its component parts, then we can start to identify technical JTBDs that will broaden our horizon of potential solutions. Enter Vicis.

Good Vibrations
One critical component of the football head trauma problem is to limit the damage to the brain from any given collision or tackle. To do so, one needs to reduce the net force acting on the brain, which can cause it to “slosh” around in the skull. Remembering that F=m*a from high school physics class, and astutely noting that a player’s brain shouldn’t be changing mass, that means the primary technical JTBD is to reduce the acceleration resulting from the collision of two moving bodies.

So Vicis went in search of solutions to quickly dissipate linear and/or rotational acceleration. And if you start searching for answers to that problem, you’ll quickly find promising approaches from a number of different fields—automobile safety, structural engineering, and, surprisingly enough, marine species conversation. As noted from a previous Bloomberg story on the startup, one of the three Vicis co-founders was the chair of the University of Washington’s mechanical engineering department who was, at the time, developing technology to limit the harmful vibrations caused by the big pile drivers used in bridge and dock construction on nearby marine life. Borrowing from that work, the original helmet concept mimicked tectonic plates that shifted in response to collisions to dissipate the force. Over time, the trio refined their helmet concept into this:

Visis Helmet

The principles behind the helmet are not new—we’ve all seen enough crash test videos to understand the benefit of crumple zones in automobiles and, heck, the original formula for calculating the critical buckling load of an ideal strut was developed by Leonhard Euler in the 1700’s. But applying these principles to helmet design? That is new. And one of the coolest examples of Open Innovation I’ve seen this year.

Keith Thornley, PhD

Senior Associate