What do a former Patriot's player and a Harvard Business School student have in common? A startup called Impact Labs, which is developing a helmet device to reduce the forces placed on athletes' heads during contact sports.
Impact Labs was co-founded by Benjamin Rizzo, an MBA candidate at HBS, and Zoltan Mesko, whom you may remember as a punter who played for the Patriots from 2010 to 2013. The startup’s initial product is EXO-1, a patent-pending leaf spring that attaches to the front of a football helmet. Its main goal is to reduce head impact among athletes.
“‘Concussion’ is the buzzword,” Rizzo told me, adding that head impacts may or may not equate to a concussion. “What we’re looking to reduce is the impact felt by the head.” "What if we put something on the helmets to prevent head injuries?"[/pullquote]
The co-founders met when they were both attending undergrad at University of Michigan. They reconnected when both of them were in Pittsburgh - Rizzo working for Shell and Mesko playing for the Steelers. While forging a friendship, the hot-button topic of head impacts in football came up between the two gents.
Having personally been in the NFL, Mesko saw the need for more effective ways to ensure head safety among players. With Rizzo's engineering background, the duo riffed their way to a potential solution.
“Zoltan likes to say that punters have crazy ideas because they have so much time to think,” Rizzo laughed. “He said, ‘What if we put something on the helmets to prevent head injuries?’”
They settled on putting a leaf spring, similar to what’s used in car shocks, on the front of players’ helmets in the hopes of reducing head impact. “The physics of it is actually pretty simple and straightforward,” he said.
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Impact Labs has managed to validate that its initial prototype can decrease linear acceleration. Based on feedback from coaches and players, Impact Labs continues to iterate its design to come up with a more comprehensive product. The startup is looking to test how its innovation could also affect rotational acceleration, neck forces and neck loading.
Within the next couple of months, Impact labs will focus on developing its next generation prototype. So far, the venture has only done testing through computer modeling and impact simulation. It will transition to lab testing with physical products, then moving to live-action testing with players attacking dummies. This way, Impact Labs can determine whether there are issues they didn't catch in a lab environment.
Next fall, Impact Labs plans to launch pilot trials with a limited number of football teams. It wants to do extensive testing to see how its helmet-spring fares over the course a season in a controlled manner.
As testing progresses, Rizzo said the venture wants to ensure the product isn't reducing one force, such as rotational acceleration, while compromising another one that contributes to head impacts. "We don’t want to rush to market with a product that has a downside," Rizzo said. "We will iterate with product development as much as we have to."
Impact Labs is using capital it raised from friends, family and angel investors last summer to fund professional product development. When their product does hit the market, Impact Labs will start selling it to football teams. “High school teams are the sweet spot,” Rizzo said. “They’re well organized, have budgets and players feel the pressures of putting themselves on the field.”
Over time, the venture will broaden its scope of potential users. Rizzo said other, more independent athletes, such as skiers, could see value in the company's helmet innovation. But the primary focus for now will remain football teams.
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